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The sermon for week February 05, 2017

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You are Salt and Light

Is 58:3-10, Mt 5:13-20
The Rev. Mary Meadows preaching.

It was near the end of the summer between 9th and 10th grade – between junior high and senior high. I had finished with my job teaching swimming at the local YMCA, and I wondered what I would do while waiting for school to begin. My next-door neighbor came to the rescue. “I cook for First Baptist Church at Falls Creek, a big Baptist camp. I could really use a helper. I’ll pay you – I just need you for an hour before each meal so you’ll still have time to do things with the other campers.” A paid job and I could be out of the house for a couple of weeks. Sure, why not?!

I didn’t know much about Baptists at that time. I had started out life as Catholic, but my parents left the Catholic church when I was in grade school. They were frustrated with a church that did not seem to respond to the world’s needs. Then we were Unitarian for a while. But by the end of junior high, I didn’t feel I was much of anything.

But this was the year when Baptists (and when I say Baptists here I am talking about Southern Baptists – there wasn’t much else in Oklahoma!) were making popular a bumper sticker exclaiming, “I found it!” a reference to finding Jesus Christ as a personal savior. My family was more likely to tout the response bumper sticker that said, “I never lost it.”

Nonetheless, with not much worry and only a mild admonition from my parents to, “Have fun – but try not to get saved,” I headed off to the borderland between Oklahoma and Texas for a summer camp.

Other than having to get up earlier than most of the other campers to help in the kitchen before breakfast, the camp felt mostly like camp. Well, let me clarify. It wasn’t camp like “camping” - the kind my Girl Scouts did in cabins or tents. No this was “camping” in a huge barrack-like building amid other huge barrack-like buildings owned by other large churches. And there was an awful lot of God talk. Bible studies in the morning where I learned such things as, “If you are lukewarm for God, God is going to spit you out – just like the whale spit out Jonah.” And there were the church services in the evening – a revival type feeling. But there was also lots of singing, with songs like, “Wherever he leads I’ll go” and “It only takes a spark to get the fire burning,” (when Pass It On was a relatively new song). Since I liked to sing, it was enough to carry me through most of the God-talk.

That is, until someone found out I wasn’t saved.

I don’t know if you have ever been witnessed to, but it is a little intimidating. Everyone suddenly wants to share with you about his or her personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how you can have that relationship to if you only give your life up to him. They can pounce on you at any moment. And it sometimes felt like an inquisition. “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Sure, I believe Jesus was a real person,” I responded (we had been Unitarian after all). “Do you believe what Jesus said?” “Probably.” “Did you know Jesus said you had to be saved?” “Show me where Jesus said it.” Well, that would send them scrambling through their Bible – apparently, they weren’t used to having to prove things, and I was safe until the next person decided to try a hand at witnessing. One memorable counselor tried a sympathetic approach. “I know it’s hard for you to understand this since Catholics are not Christian.” Let’s just call that one a complete fail.

But more troubling than being witnessed to was that I just didn’t see that much of a difference in the behavior of those who were “saved” and the usual behavior of teenagers. There was still teasing, catty remarks, and judgments (like rating girls on the way to the pool – yes, boys and girls swam separately). And there didn’t seem to be any focus on changing behavior. Rather, the focus was on confessing your sins and God would forgive you. I had the sense that many assumed that since you could ask forgiveness later, it didn’t matter what you did.

And that made no sense to me.

Even at 15, I was pretty sure that if there was a God, your faith in that God should probably make a difference in how you lived your life. So, I was even more confused when I overheard a couple of camp leaders talking about my 7th grade Social Studies teacher. One of the leaders acknowledged, “She is such a good person.” But the other answered, “Yes, but too bad she’s not a Christian.” I found these words jarring. First, how would they know whether she was Christian, and second, wouldn’t it be better to be a good person then a person claiming to be Christian but having a faith that didn’t matter?

My imponderable questions were left unanswered and I managed to escape the camp unscathed and unsaved.

Yet here I am today, preaching! . . . A few things may have happened since then.

And to my great joy, today we begin with the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is speaking to a people in Exile. The City of Jerusalem is in ruins and the temple has been destroyed. The Israelites have been determined to win back God’s favor and we know from Zechariah that for 70 years following the destruction of Jerusalem the Israelites fasted on the 5th and 7th months of each year. But their ritual fast has been to no avail and so they call out to God, “Why do we fast and you do not see!” The Israelites felt abandoned by God and cannot understand how their pious behavior had not returned them to God’s favor.

Isaiah, however, understands the limits of the ritual. He understands that true fasting is an attempt to align one’s priorities to the will of God. But the Israelites’s fasting aligned priorities to themselves. “We’re the victims, here. God, why have you abandoned us? Save us God. Do right by us, God!” While the people have mastered the ritual aspects of the law they have completely ignored the ethical demands of it.

Isaiah reminds them of God’s true fast:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah reminds the Israelites – reminds us, that worshiping God and being in right relationship with God requires that we give ourselves to the work of God in this world. In other words, unlike what I heard and saw at the Baptist Camp oh so many years ago, faith requires behavior that is aligned with God.

Some commentators view this passage as an “if” “then” type of proposal. IF you fast in this way – THEN God will see you and answer you. But an “if” “then” proposition suggests God “rewards” our good behavior by turning God’s face to us. But I believe God is present – the issue is more about the ability to see God’s presence. An epiphany of sorts. So, I read this passage as more of a “when” “then” proposition. WHEN we are actively engaged in the social and economic reform that God calls us to – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked – THEN our “light shall break forth like the dawn and our healing shall spring quickly. We will call and the LORD will answer. We will cry for help and God will say, `Here I am.’” In other words, it is in doing the work of God in this world that we will know and understand God’s presence.

Matthew reminds us of this light imagery in the passage in this continuation of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount – you remember, the bumper sticker beatitudes Luke led us through last week. In this week’s passage, Jesus tells the people gathered that when they (and we assume also us), live in the way of those beatitudes, we are the salt of earth and light to the world.

Not very glamorous, is it? After all, salt is cheap and readily available to us and enhances most of what we eat. Anyone who has been on a low-sodium diet can attest to the difference a little salt makes. And light – we live in a light-saturated if not light-polluted environment. Light is everywhere.

But light and salt share a couple of characteristics. We perceive each primarily through our senses. We know salt through our sense of taste. We experience light through our sense of sight. But while we know salt and light through our senses, neither is the primary object of our perception. We don’t cook a meal of salt or eat salt on its own (although my daughter has been known to try). Instead, we use a very small amount of salt to enhance the flavor of what we are eating. Likewise, while we can see light, our purpose in turning on the light is to better see what is around us.

Jesus tells us we are salt of the earth – don’t dilute the flavor we bring to the table with impurities. We are light of the world – don’t hide the light. Indeed, Jesus says the light cannot be hidden. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Jesus’s listeners, who lived in the context of Roman domination, would likely have known that Rome saw itself as the “light to the world.” By telling people a city on a hill cannot be hidden, Jesus is effectively saying that it is us, doing God’s work in this world who are the true light, not the rulers of the world who’s actions are contrary to God’s call for justice.

So how are we, in this time and place, to live out this call to be salt of the earth – light of the world? Because we are all more aware of the darkness in this world than ever before. The hateful vitriol that has taken over civil and political discourse in this country has only further fed the violence in this world. In just this past week alone, six Muslims were killed and eight wounded in a Mosque in Quebec City last Sunday night – the accused a self-described ultra nationalist white supremacist. On Tuesday, the JCC/YMCA in Toledo received a bomb threat – one of 17 across the nation to JCCs. According to the Jewish Federation, over 60 bomb threats have been received by JCCs across the country since January 1. Meanwhile, children, like four-month old Fatima from Iran, may not live because they are banned from the country that could provide the life-giving surgery they desparately need.

But in the midst of this hatred and violence, there is light. Last month, the police in Whitefish, Montana nailed a mezuzah on the door of the police station in a sign of solidarity with the Jewish community facing the threat of a neo-Nazi march. The Reverend John Edgerton, a UCC minister service Old South Church in Boston publically voiced his objections to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to his senator – and was arrested. Last weekend, Sylvania UCC turned out 30 strong to work with others at Christ Presbyterian to pack meals for those who are hungry in our community.

More recently, educators responding to the anxiety and concerns of their students held a One Sylvania: Rally for Refugees last Wednesday where the overwhelming message from faith and community leaders was love and welcome. Our own Pastor Luke shared his passion for the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, who calls us to love. Pastor Sam banded with other faith leaders seeking unity in the area in response to the violence. One response of this group has come from the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo who invites all to join them at the Center for “a prayer of peace, love and serenity,” as an expression of gratitude for the outpouring of support they have received. Their invitation sends out the prayer, “May fear be replaced with faith and worries be transmuted into peace.”

And the Canadian government’s response to the violence at the Mosque? Ontario has agreed to open its borders to provide life-saving surgeries for children like Fatima. The Canadian health minister noted, “I felt, particularly in light of the occurrences in the past week … in Quebec, that Canadians and Ontarians would feel comfortable and confident in expressing our openness.”
How will you live out your worship as salt and life in this world? Maybe it is as simple as showing up for the Polar Bash on the 18th to show welcome to our Syrian neighbors. Maybe you participated on the March in Washington and continue to make your voice heard in Washington with phone calls to express opposition to people and laws that will oppress the most vulnerable in this world. Maybe you show up to school every day and shine God’s love through the way you value each of your students. Maybe you operate your business with integrity and respect, valuing each customer. Maybe you see your job, whether as a maintenance engineer, a doctor, a microbiologist, a lawyer, a nurse, a firefighter, a barrista, or security personnel as a way to serve God. And maybe, you who are retired, are finding new ways to engage in the world in a manner that allows you to shine God’s love.

Jesus did not say you are becoming salt and light. Jesus said you ARE salt and light. Indeed, there is an implicit command in his words: BE salt of the earth. BE light of the world As Isaiah tells us, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Be salt. Be light!

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