The sermon for week February 09, 2014
Salt and LightSermon on Isaiah 58:1-9 and Matthew 5:13-20
There was a football game on Groundhog Day this past Sunday. Or should I say there was a football game around the Bruno Mars concert. During that game, Coca-Cola aired a commercial where America the Beautiful was sung in 6 languages as images of people many national heritages flashed on screen. It featured all sorts of people: Hispanic, Jewish, African-American, White, Asian. You know the melting pot that American is. Coca-Cola tweeted after the commercial aired: “The only thing more beautiful than this country are the people who live here.”
The majority of those who saw it said, “That was a decent commercial.” But a small group on social media who must have not been taught that American is a melting pot complained that “America the Beautiful” was sung in MULTIPLE LANGUAGES. This backlash was ugly and surprising to me. Most of the comments were “This is America, we speak English!” missing the fact that even our national language was imported. Others were more nasty, stating that “Mexicans, the not-nice-word for Black People, and Jews aren’t Americans.” And worse.
So what does any of this have to do with today’s scripture?
Jesus is giving his sermon on the mount. Last week, we heard him give the Beatitudes; a way of life that is counter to the culture he is living in. Blessed are those who are abandoned in spirit, who mourn, who are humiliated, and blessed are you who seek justice and show mercy and are authentic. And you will be persecuted for living this way just as the prophets were persecuted, and you’ll be blessed!
Then we hear today’s teaching, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt had the social implications of purity, preservation, sacrifice, loyalty, covenant, and eating together (Boring, 181). Jesus is saying that the life of a disciple is to do all the things salt does and if the disciples deny their mission, they will be thrown out. Salt doesn’t exist for itself, nor do the disciples. Salt enhances the flavor of other things. I’m told that salt on a watermelon makes it better, taste more watermellony. I haven’t tried it, but I trust the source. The life of a disciple is one that is turned outward to the world.
Then Jesus follows that up with “You are the light of the world.” The disciples exist to illuminate the world. This light can’t be hidden. Isaiah used this phrase to describe what Israel’s mission to the world was to be. But in Jesus’ time, the nation of Israel was under Roman rule. And the Israelites were concerned with survival and pacifying the occupying forces. Groups tend to want to stay the same, so the religion at the time became insular, as it can do in times of crisis and stress. The Temple, Pharisees and Scribes touted personal piety and purity. Holiness doesn’t really rock the boat, and doesn’t ask for big sweeping change. It’s easy and it’s not controversial. It is a passive-aggressive way of keeping the status quo and stating “We are the CHOSEN people of God, and we’re better than these Gentiles.” And then only those who; look Jewish and are rich and have time to study the law are truly Jewish. The common rabble aren’t really Jewish. I mean, real Jews speak Hebrew, not Greek. Romans, lepers, whores, and impure people aren’t children of God.
Jesus isn’t having any of that. Everyone in the crowd Jesus is speaking to is called Salt and Light. And while Jesus starts with the Jewish people, he makes the shift early in his ministry to include the Romans and the impure. This is a death sentence to all religion that is purely personal and private. The disciples and the crowds are not an abstract community of initiates, but rather a community Jesus is forming to send out into the world. It is not an introverted secret society shielding itself from the world, but a city on the hill, an example to the nations, to be the light of God (Boring, 181). And he states at the end of the sermon on the mount, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who build his house on sand.” (7:26) Well, you know what happens there.
This phrase, city on a hill, is often cited by politicians from every party when they talk about America. A city on the hill was referenced by Governor John Winthrop in 1630 onboard the Arbella before the Puritans were to set sail for the new country. And I tend to believe it. Yet with the Coca-Cola ad, we’re seeing the paradox of our country. The American experiment of self-government was statistically skewed from the beginning, because it wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others. This is because a group’s tendency is to stay the same. It was in Jesus' time, it was in Winthrop’s time, and it is in our time.
We struggle with living with and loving our neighbor. Even if we drink the same soda-pop, it’s still hard. We tend to like those who look and act like us. We like our group as it is. Adding people to it changes things. Jesus calls us to be bigger than that.
Jesus is calling us to be salt and light to all people. We are to live lives of hope, sacrifice, covenant, and we can’t hide God’s light and what God is doing in our lives. And it’s not an individual thing, it is a community thing. A community that doesn’t have soda-pop in the center, but has Christ at its center. Christ who invited all, who called everyone he met to be salt and light. Christ, whose strongest words in all of scripture were for those who sought to limit God and God’s community. Jesus broke that open and stated God’s love was for all. Yet despite this, the early church struggled and the church to this day struggles with this vision, struggles with how we hold Christ at the center, struggles to find unity within our diversity.
A group’s tendency is to stay the same. Change is resisted, and it’s hard. Here at Sylvania UCC, I've encountered this feeling many times. I feel it sometimes myself. I don’t like seeing all of us age, seeing some members die, or move away or leave the church for any reason. And on the flip side, we question the positives, too. We wonder about growth. We want to grow, but we’re worried about what happens when new people show up here because that means things will be different. We want young families but don’t want to focus too much on them.
Two examples of this. We applied for the Scientists in Congregations grant a few years ago—that was the series where various scientists came in and spoke about their work and their faith. When I proposed this, someone stated, “Won’t we anger the creationists?” My answer, “Maybe, but science and religion are compatible.”
I was floored by that question. We love science, we have tons of scientists here! We have solar panels on our roof, we preach it from the pulpit and study it on Sunday evenings with the Science and Theology group. It is who we are, it is what we do, and yet we’re timid about that light that we have. Why wouldn’t we let it shine?
The second example is our Open and Affirming process. It baffles my mind. We state “We already are ONA.” And that’s true. We’re very welcoming and hospitable, and it’s our reputation in the community. When we say all, we mean all. We even are welcoming to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who have been historically wounded by the church. Even those who are against the statement, state that this is who and what we are. And even those who aren’t sure of this whole thing, are still welcoming. You can’t teach that. I’ve been in ONA congregations that seem outright hostile compared to what you intuitively do, church. Yet we don’t want to be too vocal about it. It is our flavor and our light, yet we’re timid about it.
I have great hope for our church. While we do want things to stay the same that might be keeping us from what God has in store for us.
You see, there is a generation out there that wants what you have. I am a part of that generation. I yearn for a deep spirituality. I want a sense of history in a place, rootedness. I want to learn how to love everyone, including those who have been historically marginalized like the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. I want to figure out how to get out of the culture war and how to be community and be able to disagree in love. I want to learn how to merge science with religion, because the assumption of this generation is that these are mutually exclusive. But they’re not--the church pretty much invented science. Newton wrote more about the Letter of Paul to the Romans than he did about the theory of gravity. Y’all taught me that.
A new generation is looking for light that is outside ourselves, that is inviting and guiding. We’re looking for some spiritual salt to flavor our lives. And you have it! You are doing it. And your good works give glory to God in heaven.
Yet we’re seeing that churches like this one seem so few and far between. And it’s super hard to find y’all because you aren’t vocal, you seem to be trying to hide your light. The scary part of this is that if this generation can’t find you, I fear that this generation will invent its own religion. And that to me is scarier than anything else, as it will reflect our own time and place and fall prey to the same mistakes that religion has made over the years: exclusion, division, and an insular worldview, not God’s view. We will craft a counterfeit kingdom (Chellew-Hodge). The church will stand empty. Our wisdom lost to the ages.
Yet I feel… No I know… that if we take the risk of being that light to the nations, to be the salty and flavorful congregation we are, we will attract so many people. Our Scientists in Congregations vision is being carried out by the great work of the Chidester committee and it is doing wonders for our church. Our conversation about ONA, just the conversation, has attracted many young families. Because for this generation, that issue is not up for debate nor is it going away. Just talking about it attracts the very people you are trying to reach, the very people you called me to help you reach.
Sylvania UCC views all people as children of God. We already do this, but we're just making this known to the outside world. So, all in all, I believe nothing would change, we will just keep doing what we're doing only with a clearer sense of what we do and who we are.
We already know why we do it because the Good News of Jesus Christ lifts up the lowly and inspires all people, especially those who have traditionally been sidelined and called unworthy by the religious institutions of the day. This Good News gives meaning and purpose. Jesus was always inviting those who weren't included, who were outcasts. He was always taking flack for those whom he invited and sat with at the table. Who would Jesus bar from the table? No one whom I can see. Thus we aspire to do the same.
We are a congregation that looks at that Coke ad and say, “Yeah. That’s my country. How beautiful it is with all of these different people.” And we have a parish nurse who would also remind us about the effects of too much soda pop in your diet, so that’s also a good thing. And we might be a Pepsi congregation… I don’t know about that. But I do see us as a congregation that is salt and light to our city, our region and world. We are a congregation that is future oriented and is ready to let its light shine. We resist staying the same. We are ready to adapt and to help people learn purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, and joy and follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle. We are a congregation that invites all people to join in something beautiful and diverse. Amen.
Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, commentary and reflections, Volume VII.I Abingdon Press, 1995. Pages 181-182
Chellew-Hodge, Candance. Millennials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment. Religion Dispatches Magazine.
Coca-Cola commercial can be viewed here.