This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.
The Gospel Reading was Matthew 5:13-30
There’s a New Yorker cartoon going around facebook these days. It’s a woman and a man walking down the street with the woman saying, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly how I’m feeling these days. As a citizen I know it is important to keep up with everything that is happening and I feel the need to read all the articles that friends on Facebook are posting. I even subscribed to the New York Times in order to stay informed. But as a result I get overwhelmed with the enormity of it and my incredibly inadequate feelings about doing something.
This is not new. Back in 1984, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, then Senior Pastor at Riverside Church in NYC, preached:
“In a world of fast cars and big bombs, crime and worldwide hunger, we throw up our hands and say: ‘What is the use? What difference can I make?’”
“To feel that way is altogether understandable and just as inexcusable.”
And so we pray: “Lord God … show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them….”
As followers of Jesus, as ones who have said, “Here I am. Send me.” As ones who say, “I will and I ask God to help me.” – we have no choice. Jesus says “Go” and we go. Jesus says “Love” and we love. It’s hard, but we know it’s what brings life – to the world and to us. We sing: “Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleuia.”
When you sing it, it makes it sound easier, but the reference is from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus has been teaching – hard teachings – and as a result, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” So many that Jesus approaches the Twelve and asks, “”You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68)
“Yes, it is hard teaching, but your teaching rings more true than anything else. So there really is no alternative.”
I, too, wish Scripture – and Jesus’ teachings in particular – weren’t so challenging sometimes. But they contain truth and letting that truth shape me and challenge me helps me be more fully who God created me to be. So I stay with Jesus. And in today’s Gospel lesson he says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Shine your light.
In the 21st century, our relationship with salt and light is very different than when Jesus spoke these words. We are cautioned to cut back on our salt use and we live in a well lit – overly lit – society. But the significance of salt and light were not at all lost on Jesus listeners. Salt was not a negative thing – it was life saving….
And a light shining in the dark of night was not something to take for granted – not at all.
Both salt and light were crucial to survival. So by declaring to his listeners and by extension to us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus is saying that our presence and engagement with the world is crucially needed. That the world cannot survive without our saltiness and light.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and leader in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, wrote to his friend, “The church is the church only when it exists for others. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
As followers of Jesus, we are not allowed to lose our saltiness or hide our light under a bushel basket.
There is no, “If you’re feeling up for it” or “If it doesn’t inconvenience you too much” or “If you can find the time” or “If you are interested…” There is no “if” folks. Only “how.”
How can I best be salt – help preserve or season or purify this situation? How can I best shine my light to warn, to guide, to beckon? How do I do this without – one – either being completely overwhelmed and/or – two – just allowing my own opinions and knowledge to shape my view and actions? In others words, how do I make sure I’m acting out of my Christian beliefs and not just my Democratic or Republican or Libertarian or Midwest or American middle-class, well-educated beliefs and opinions? And how can I best be salt and shine my light in a way that others may see the works that I do and praise God in heaven?
How do I engage in a way that God would have me engage?
At the beginning of this service, we installed our new Council. As part of the installation, I read from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 12: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It was read to remind the Council members that we are not asking them to use their opinions and knowledge to lead our church – as good as those may be.
We are asking them to submit all those opinions and knowledge to God’s transforming power so that they may discern God’s will for us during this really important time in our life together. We are reminding them that this is the only way that they can know what is good and acceptable and perfect or us.
And it is not just a really important time in the life of our church. It’s a really important time in the life of our nation and world. So that reading, while directed at the Council members, is just as important for each and everyone one of us to hear.
“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This can only happen if we actively submit our wills to His and earnestly pray that God’s Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them…
Isaiah cries out to us to live in a way that is acceptable to the Lord – which is to loose the bonds of injustice, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house; when we see the naked, to cover them…. We are to remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. So that our light will rise in the darkness.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)
For we are to be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
The stakes are too high to sit this one out – to throw up our hands and walk away. We have got to find ways – Christian and Biblical ways – to engage our world and to engage in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us in the process.
Let me explain what I mean with an analogy. About five years ago I got really into TRX. TRX is a workout routine and it can be pretty intense. It helped me get into pretty good shape. So when we joined the CCBA in January and I saw that they offered TRX classes, I decide to sign up for one. I arrived at the Wednesday evening class and let the instructor know that while I was new to her class I had done TRX before; so not to worry. During the class I was pleased that I could do many of the moves still. But there were some that I just could not do. I would try and maybe get one or two done, but then my poor body would just have to rest or my muscles would cramp up in a “Charlie Horse.” My muscles just weren’t developed enough. The exercises were so difficult for me that I don’t think my form was it all good.
I realized that if I tried to keep up with the others in the class I could risk an injury.
So I decided to sign up for beginners class in order to make sure I was doing it right and to provide a way for me to build back my muscle and endurance – both of which had atrophied. The instructor in the beginners class spends more time showing technique and explaining the moves and we do those moves for 15 seconds instead of 30 or for 30 seconds instead of 60 because the instructor knows we don’t have the ability to do the longer times – not yet, at least. Some moves are still too hard for me to do – even for 15 seconds, but I know that, with the help of this instructor and if I stay at it, eventually I will build my endurance. And my strength. And my technique. So that I can stay in it longer and reap more benefits from it.
If you want to get more in shape as a Christian – as a follower of Jesus – it’s all right to seek help and instruction and to pace yourself.
For while Jesus clearly states that it’s not an option not to engage – it’s not an option not to be his hands and feet in this world, he doesn’t say that everybody has to be engaged in the same way or with the same intensity or focus.
So, how are we – both individually and as a church – being called by God to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world – in this world at this time? That is the question we must continually and humbly grapple with.
May God not only “show us the things we ought to do” but, in his mercy, “give us the grace and power to do them.” And may we faithfully respond to God’s commands, “I will and I ask God to help me.” Amen.