My sermon from July 24th, 2011 based on Matthew 5:13-20. 4 of 5 in “Calling and Community” series.
This morning we continue our series, “Calling and Community.” I outlined this series wanting us to begin our time together as pastor and congregation by thinking about some big questions, questions that we will continue to revisit over the course of the coming months and years. The questions at their core are, “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?” Ultimately each and every one of us wants to be able to answer these questions for ourselves on an individual level, but as a community of faith it is also important that we be able to answer them collectively.
Over the course of the last three weeks we have begun an exploration of God’s call on each of our lives and the fact that, in our baptism, we are called to be in ministry to the community around us.
Three weeks ago we began be going back to the very basics of our Christian faith, the reality that God loves us unconditionally. We talked a bit about how God’s love is claimed when we are baptized. You’ll remember that in our baptism God claims us as God’s own, God forgives us for all of the ways in which we have fallen short, and that God offers us a new beginning. We talked about the imagery of a drop of water falling into a pool and causing ripples. Our baptism is that event, that drop of water and the world around us, our friends, our families, our co-workers, should experiences the ripples as our baptism is lived out. In response to God’s unconditional love, we are called to share that love with the world, to serve and to be in ministry.
Two weeks ago then, building upon the idea of our call to be in ministry that comes in our baptism we talked about the power that community has to impact our lives. Through two stories from our community we explored the ways in which community can give life and heal and build up as well as the ways in which community can cause harm, and tear down, and alienate, and oppress. You’ll remember that we talked about the choices that we all have to make in terms of how we relate to one another and engage in our community and how these choices ultimately shape whether community brings life or death.
Then last week we began a more practical exploration of the ways in which we’re called to live and the things we’re called to do as we seek to be in ministry to and with the community around us. I pushed you last week, to think about the dynamics and relationships within this congregation. I named that sense that I had that on a number of levels there is a lack of trust in this congregation. And we looked at Jesus’ words calling us to first be reconciled to one another before we present our offerings to God. On the most practical level I challenged you all to be cautious of an “us” vs. “them” mindset and the language that often accompanies that way of thinking. In order for us to fully live into who God is calling us to be as a community, we must be united in our ministry. This doesn’t always mean we’ll think exactly the same, but it means that even in the midst of different opinions we’re called to live with a sense of unity.
Now I heard from several of you last week who felt like I stepped on your toes a bit last Sunday. I was relieved to hear that most of you who felt that way seemed appreciative of the pushing that I did. Interestingly, I didn’t hear any negative feedback, which kind of made me wonder if people were just being too nice and so didn’t want to complain to me, but rather just talked to anyone who would listen… I hope this wasn’t the case, but you never know…
In conversation with several of you who felt like I did hit some nails squarely on the head last week, I shared a management philosophy that I often try to incorporate into my ministry. I have heard it said that a good manager will alternately pat people on the back and kick them in the tail, pat people on the back and kick them in the tail. To couch that in more theological terms, I understand Jesus’ ministry to have been about comforting the afflicted as well as afflicting the comfortable.
We all exist within this complex web of feeling both comfortable and afflicted in different situations in different relationships every day. And so as your pastor there will be times when I’m here to pat you on the back, to encourage you and support you, to remind you of God’s love for you and hope for you. And there will be times when I provide you with a bit of a kick in the tail to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone.
Last week’s sermon was clearly more of a kick in the tail sermon and I hope that you spent some time chewing on the challenges I put before you. Today the message that I hope we might take away from Jesus’ teaching will fall a bit more to the pat on the back side of things. So I invite you to relax and sit back as we dig in.
Again this week we turn to some of what Jesus had to say in his Sermon on the Mount. At the very beginning of his public ministry as it’s recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus sits on a hillside with his disciples gathered close and a large crowd surrounding them and says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” And this morning I want us to explore what it is that these statements mean to us today as those who seek to live our lives following Jesus.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Jesus made this statement to a crowd who would have heard it in a variety of different ways. In this culture salt was used as a sacrifice, it was a symbol of fidelity and loyalty, the act of eating together was referred to as “sharing salt” and signified a binding relationship, it was used for purification, as a preservative, and as a seasoning. When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples and the crowd gathered there that day, they would have heard what he was saying at all of these various levels. They would have understood that as disciples they are to do and be all of these things.
As disciples today, we can hear in this simple statement, “you are the salt of the earth,” as a call to do and to be all of these things as well. But it is the idea of being seasoning that I particularly want to address this morning as we think about the call that this text places upon our lives as disciples today.
Heather’s family loves popcorn – real popcorn. The tradition is to make it with a generous amount of oil in a stir-crazy popper. While the corn is popping the butter is melted and the popped corn is drizzled with butter and finished with lots and lots of salt. It is delicious. Sometimes, I’ll pop a couple of kernels into my mouth before all of the salt is added and it’s really plain. It has a crunch, but the flavor is pretty underwhelming. What really makes the popcorn good is the added salt.
In many ways life can seem like popcorn without salt. It’s ok, but not great. Life is full of stresses and we’re busy and we work hard and we never seem to have all of the time we’d like to do things for ourselves and to connect with our family and friends… And sometimes when we do connect with them it still seems like something is lacking, like the conversation only exists on the surface because we don’t have the time or the energy we’d really like to engage in a deeper level of conversation. As disciples we called to be salt for the earth, we are called to share God’s love that has been given to us as an incredible gift, and we’re called to do this in ways that enhance the flavor of life, our lives and the lives of those around us.
As we think about and dream about the future to which God is calling us (both as individuals and as a community), the other metaphor that Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount can provide us with some helpful imagery to understand our call. Jesus tells his disciples that they (and the Gospel tells us that we) are to be the light of the world. If you have ever attended a candle-lit Christmas Eve service I imagine you have had an opportunity to observe a beautiful representation of what Jesus is talking about when he tells us to be the “light of the world.”
It is traditional that, at the end of a Christmas Eve service, the sanctuary will grow dark. Oftentimes any candles in the altar area are extinguished as well. And in the midst of that darkness, one lone candle enters the worship space, often processing slowly down the center aisle. That light, of course, is symbolic of the light of Christ coming into the midst of darkness, the darkness of the world and the darkness of our lives. Slowly then the light is passed from candle to candle until the entire congregation stands, raising the light of Christ above their heads. As they do, the light of Christ illuminates the room, casting out the darkness. It is a beautiful and powerful representation of the fact that we are to be light for the world.
It is not difficult to think of dark places in the world today. The news of our economy continues to be terrifying for many. Fighting continues around the world and our men and women continue to be engaged in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Disease and hunger and war run rampant in countries all around the globe.
Unfortunately, we need not look as far as the large global scale to find examples of darkness. They exist all around us as well. Families are struggling to survive. Children are hungry. Women are abused and abandoned. Homes are foreclosed. Lives are torn apart. This week our community experienced another tragic death and a memorial to a fallen soldier in our community was vandalized at the VFW park.
The reality, though, is that we need not even look outside of ourselves and our relationships to find examples of darkness; jealousy, hatred, selfishness, greed, these dark realities live in our hearts and our souls causing pain on a number of levels.
There is so much darkness in the world, in our communities, in our relationships, and in our own lives. And Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world.”
One of the beautiful realities illustrated by the Christmas Eve Candle ritual, is that the light is not ours. We don’t have to create it. We don’t have to make it happen. It is a gift, that comes before us, is passed to us, and that we are invited to share with the world around us. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, tells us that we are to be the light of the world, but we also know the good news that Jesus is the light of the world. We need not be Jesus; we need only to receive the light that is given to us and then to shine the light for the rest of the world to see.
Before we moved to Tongie at the end of June I was living in Lawrence and serving the Easton and Southern Heights United Methodist Churches in northern Leavenworth County. 2 or 3 times a week I drove through Tongie as I went up to those churches and I made it a habit of stopping and visiting with people in different businesses here in town. I often began by simply saying that my wife and daughter and I would be moving here over the summer and would ask people to tell me about the community.
After we chatted a bit I would say, “What can you tell me about the churches in town?” Usually they could tell me something about Sacred Heart or West Haven or The Christian Church, but rarely did they mention our church. I would usually then identify myself as the incoming pastor of the United Methodist Church and on several occasions’ people struggled to identify the church I was talking about. I was in businesses up and down 4th St. here and people weren’t sure what church I was talking about when I mentioned the United Methodist Church…
Jesus’ teachings about being salt and light for the world are invitations to a way of life. My hope is that being a part of this community of faith is and will continue to be an important part of your lives that brings you joy. My prayer is that there will come a time in our future that when people ask local business leaders and people in the community about churches, they’ll be quick to tell them about our community of faith. My hope is that people would say, “those United Methodists in Tongie are a really neat group of people. They are active in serving the community and helping other people. They do fun things with one another and invite others to be a part of them. It seems like there is always something going on there and they are some of the nicest people I know who really live out their faith in humble and sincere ways.
We are called to be salt; to be seasoning, to enhance our communities and the world around us, to bring out the richness and nuance of the life that God created us to live.
We are called to be light, to shine the light of Christ that has been given to us into the dark places of our own lives, our community, and our world.
And again, living as salt and light are two of the many ripples that should grow out of God’s love shared in our baptism…