Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Salty and Bright"

Sermon Text – Matthew 5: 13-20

In the seven years I’ve been a pastor, I have discovered that it’s rarely a good thing to let the person next to me on an airplane find out what I do for a living.

Most of us clergy-types are all-too-familiar with the awkwardness that comes after revealing our profession to someone within the first five minutes of meeting them. I know, from talking with many of you, that you, too, have had awkward moments when new friends discover you are a Christian. There are just a whole host of stereotypes out there about what it means to be a church-goer and it can be difficult to have such an intimate and foundational aspect of your life on display to a total stranger.

From the pastor’s end, these conversations usually go one of two directions. First, you have the person who is likely horror-stricken to discover I am not only a Christian but apparently, as a minister, a SUPER CHRISITAN. When these strangers find out I am a pastor they typically stop talking to me, run away, or quickly change the subject.

Second, there is the enthusiastic Christian. These folks are often thrilled to discover another SUPER CHRISTIAN and want to begin talking about Jesus, the Bible, God, church, you-name-it. Unfortunately, I often quickly discover we don’t have a lot in common in terms of the way we talk about God so these conversations often quickly move back into a subset of conversation #1. The person becomes horrified and stops talking to me.

Side note: as a female pastor, I also find myself in a weird space where a person who is obviously Christian finds out I am a pastor and stops talking to me. Typically because they understand that if I am coming from a world where female pastors exist we probably don’t have a lot in common.

So, anyway, when I was on a plane recently I made the mistake of bringing along some “work-reading” in the form of a lovely book called Preaching Without Notes. The guy next to me struck up a conversation about the book and asked me what I did for a living. I told him I’m a pastor (because, duh, why else would I be reading about preaching, right?). And instead of dismissing me he engaged me in conversation.

Turns out he is a consultant who works with entrepreneurs. He is working on a new model to use with his clients and wanted my input. As a part of his model he had an area where he wanted to talk to his clients about their faith and how it affects their professional lives. He said he was coming up with 12 foundational parts of the Christian faith that every person should be working to cultivate. He wanted to know what I would put on my top 12 list.

I was initially taken aback. Boil down all of Christian faith into 12 components while sitting on a plane? That seemed a bit overwhelming. So, I tried to muster up my best technique for theological conversations (learned from that wise Jew Jesus) and turned the question back on him. “What’s on your list already?” I asked.

He had about five or six things. Stuff like, “The ultimate goal of eternal salvation,” “The primacy and infallibility of Scripture,” “The supreme power of God,” “Repentance,” and the “Unique saving power of Christ.”

I knew right away that he and I inhabit different worlds, theologically. But inhabiting different theological worlds has never been grounds for dismissal as far as I’m concerned. So I gave his question some serious thought.

I added a few of my own to his list. I was surprised when he started taking notes on what I was saying. I should have given him my business card just in case he ever makes any money off of this model that we’ve now co-created, but, alas, I didn’t think of that.

I said, “Well, I am remembering that Jesus said the most important things are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. I didn’t hear love in your model yet. I think you need that.” He nodded and wrote some things down.

I added, “I think that, for me, Grace is really essential. Especially for people who are entrepreneurs. They need to remember that they are worth more than the sum of their successes and failures in this world. They are uniquely loved and accepted by God no matter where their lives take them.” More head nodding and scribbling.

And I added that I thought the beautiful cycle of Death and Resurrection needed to be in there somewhere. That newness and hope often comes out of the darkest of places. That death is never an end but a beginning. That we worship a God who is always seeking to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclaim the Jubilee.

He nodded and scribbled. And added, “You know, I think I also just need something in there about taking care of mankind. Something about justice and caring for others. Not just trying to get ahead yourself.”

I nodded. I couldn’t agree more.

We talked for a few more minutes and then I went back to reading. He struck up a conversation with the guy on the other side of him about football.

But his questions stayed with me. Distilling my faith into 12 areas that can fit into a sound-byte type conversation on a plane? My friends, I have been to seminary twice and this is still hard for me to do. My faith is a complicated and ever-evolving thing. I often feel like I have more questions than answers. I engage with our Holy Texts weekly and I often see how much easier it would be if I believed the Bible were a playbook for my life, rather than a series of fascinating, yet fallible writings gathered over the centuries.

One of the more-nuanced and still-developing areas of my own theological ponderings takes center-stage in this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. It would be easy to read this passage as an exhortation to DO ALL THE GOOD THINGS! We need to follow the Law down to the letter because Jesus has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. If we don’t follow it down to the last Iota we are never going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And our salt will lose its saltiness and become useless. And our lights will be hid under a bushel and be snuffed out. So we need to DO ALL THE GOOD THINGS! just like Jesus wants us to do.

Ugh. That just leaves me feeling so overwhelmed. Because I know myself and I know I can DO ALL THE GOOD THINGS! for about five solid minutes and then I am bound to mess up. And if I am constantly worried about disappointing Jesus I can guarantee you that I will probably mess up sooner because I don’t perform well under pressure.

Of course, on the flip side, there will be people who say, “Don’t sweat it. God is love. God loves you just the way you are. There’s nothing you can do to mess that up, so just sit back, don’t worry be happy, and rest assured that everything is well with your soul. Don’t worry about doing good works. Jesus loves you regardless of your actions.”

To which I want to say, “Yes! True!” One of the most assuring things in this passage is that Jesus says “You ARE the salt of the Earth. You ARE the light of the world.” He’s not saying, “Do X, Y, and Z and you will BECOME the salt of the Earth.” He’s saying, “You ARE the salt of the Earth.” We are already salty. We are already bright.

Yes, at a first glance he cautions against salt losing its saltiness and the light being hidden, but if we really examine that more closely I think he’s saying those things precisely because they are preposterous. I mean, salt doesn’t lose its saltiness. If it’s salt, it’s salty. It doesn’t get less salty with time. It can be washed away or blown away, but as long as you keep it dry and in one place it’s going to stay salty.

And the light? No one is going to intentionally hide their light under a bushel unless they want to put the light out. That is the only reason you would put a bowl over your lamp – if you wanted to put it out. If we are already light we will continue to be light, as long as we guard ourselves against the bushels that are out there that might threaten to cover us up.

I think Jesus is trying to tell us that we are already salty and bright. We just are. We are created to be salt and light in the world and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We don’t have to earn it. Jesus isn’t commanding us to be salty and bright. He is commending us for already being salty and bright.

BUT…there are some things that naturally flow from being salt and light. Because salt cannot lose its saltiness, it will always be about the work of creating better flavor in the world. And salt will always be working to preserve and conserve. Because light is not likely to be hid under a bushel, light will always be shining and bright – helping people see things in new ways, meeting the dark places head-on.

So, yes, we salty and bright ones are called to fulfill and teach the Law. Not because we have to fulfill and teach the Law to earn our salvation. But because we are already and always saved – because we are already and always salty and bright – we are called to fulfill and teach the Law. Just like Jesus did.

I believe that we are all more likely to be salty and bright when we remember that we are salt and light. Doing that is easier said than done because if you’re anything like me you have a whole soundtrack happening inside of you that consistently notices when you mess things up. And that little voice is not so good at noticing the things you do well. And even if the voice DOES notice that you’ve done something well, it is probably quickly shushed by that other voice in your head telling you that nobody likes a braggart and it’s not polite to boast.

So let me tell you how I see that you – the people of First United – are salty and bright. I think it’s important to notice the ways you are salt and light to the world around you.

First, let’s remember that salt doesn’t really have a flavor of its own. At least not one that anyone wants to taste. Salt is valuable in cooking because it brings out the flavor in other foods. It complements the other ingredients. I have seen this happen here so many times in this congregation’s commitment to interfaith dialogue. You do not enter into interfaith dialogue with the intention of changing people of another faith. But you bring your whole salty selves to the table and, in doing so, I know that you often help people from other faith systems examine their own lives. Your saltiness helps them become more flavorful Jews or Buddhists or Muslims. And you allow yourselves to be changed, too. That is a way of being salt in the world.

Second, salt has the ability to change things. Back in Jesus’s time, it was used to preserve and conserve food. In our day it is also used as a tool for safety – we all witnessed the power of salt a few weeks ago when Atlanta was stuck for days in an ice storm with no salt trucks. And you, the people of First United, you make changes to the world around you, too. So many of you faithfully work to care for and preserve life on our planet. So many of you conserve, day in and day out, so that others can have enough. And this congregation has been a salty place of refuge for people who have felt unsafe in other churches. You are using your saltiness to plow away the wreckage of discrimination and bigotry. And you are changing the world by doing so.

Third, I would be remiss if I didn’t notice that you are often a salty group of people. I know Jesus didn’t know this use of the term, but I mean salty as in occasionally coarse and earthy. You are down-to-earth and real and fun much of the time. People around you see that authenticity and it speaks volumes about how it is possible to live in Christ without giving up so many of the joys of being human.

Finally, you are salt and you are light. I have seen you, the people of First United, struggle with what it means to be Christian and be visible to others in the world. You take very seriously the reality that the way we act affects what people believe to be true about Christ. If we act like Christ, people will notice. And if we don’t act like Christ, people will notice. And on our best days together, I have seen us shine brightly with the Good News of our stillspeaking God. A God who calls us to practice radical hospitality, extravagant welcome, and relentless compassion.

It’s easy for me to name the ways you are salt and light. I know it’s harder for you to see it in yourselves. So I would like to challenge all of us in the coming weeks and months to name the salt and light we see in the world. When you see it in yourself, name it. Claim it. Maybe even write it down somewhere so you can look on it on a flavorless and dreary day. And when you see it in someone else, name it. Aloud. To that person. Show them how they are being salt and light.

Remembering that we are salt and we are light is one of the things that helps us stay salty and bright. The world needs more flavor. The world needs more protection. And the world needs to be lit brightly – especially when the dark threatens, as it so often does.

We are salty. We are bright. Thanks be to Christ who is making all things new.