Salty and Blinding
Sermon from January 12, 2017
First Presbyterian Church Norman OK
1 Corinthians 2:1-12and Matthew 5:13-20
You are the salt of the earth! Don’t lose your flavor! You are the light of the world! Don’t hide your brightness, instead let it shine for all to see!
...I’m done now right?
Today’s Gospel text is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and I always feel silly preaching about a sermon...especially a sermon Jesus gave. What more is there to say?
But of course, in good Presbyterian and pastor fashion, there is always more to say. Like what does it mean to be salt or light? Jesus says to those hearing him, and has said to the church for two thousand years that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world...but unless we all magically become NaCl or both particles and waves simultaneously, we cannot take these words literally. What did it mean in his time to say we are salt and light? And what might it mean for ours?
First lets look at the conclusion of this section, what does Jesus say it means to be salty and let your light shine? He says “so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” So this salty and blinding thing is about what we do, and how it helps others to praise God. So it's both about our behavior and how we are in community. But what might that mean practically for those of us who believe in and follow him in our lives in our time? We are all, at surface asked to be salty and bright. We are asked also to follow the law of God and do good. But what does that mean about our faith and following Jesus?
Last week (when this was actually the lectionary text) my aunt preached a courageous sermon about her journey right now with depression, and how this language about being salty can be damaging to us as faithful people when we struggle. When our bodies, our brain chemistry or our physical ability, betray us it can feel like we have lost our saltiness. And pairing those things- mental health, physical health, disability, with this text can often lead us to ableism and to the idea that if we are not healthy or able-bodied like we once were (or even if we never were) than we have done something wrong- because our salt is no longer salty and we are then only to be ‘cast out’ in Jesus’ own words. But I don’t think that is what Jesus means here. Jesus is speaking about faith in action. And these bodily struggles of mind and being can cause us to struggle in our faith too, but is that actually a detraction from our faith and its saltiness? -- it certainly can feel like it, but that is perhaps not what Jesus is talking about either. This saltiness is not alone, it is paired with the light- that we are to display to the world. And we display it, as Jesus says by doing good. So this, as so many things when it comes to faith and Jesus, is complicated- it's not only about what we believe and how much faith we have, it's also not only about how correctly we behave with one another in the community of our siblings in faith and in the world...no the answer must be found somewhere in between... Isn't that obnoxious?
I, and I assume often the disciples and others who followed Jesus, sometimes hear his words and want to say
“BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? can’t you just tell me what to do?” and here, perhaps, Jesus goes on to do just that. In verses 17-20 he goes on to talk about following the law, and how we should do it with faithfulness and righteousness. This seems like a complete non-sequitur to the much more flowery words about salt and light, but I think it could be the answer Jesus gave the crowd about how to do this salt and light thing in the hard times. I think, Jesus being a teacher and pastor, foresaw their questions, and ours, about how to struggle with being a beacon or seasoning, and gives us an answer. It's not any easier than those things, but it does give us tools. He says be salt! Be light! But when you feel neither flavorful nor bright...follow the law and the prophets. Even when your light has found a bushel basket instead of a lamp stand, even then, when you are tired or hurting or distracted. Even then, God has given you the law of your people. And it can help you find your way back to saltiness and light.
And then, when we add in Paul’s words for today, we might hear a few echoes of Jesus’ idea about faith and living. In the second chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the manner in which he preaches- without care for being an expert in speech giving, or wisdom. Instead he says he cares about speaking with the spirit and with power.
Now, I think this is a difficult thing for us “frozen-chosen”, often highly educated, and when it comes to church and worship focused on ‘quality preaching’ (by which we mean in-depth exegesis and historical/critical method is applied, and the one preaching as a 3 year masters in all that it means to be a pastor, and that the sermon is preached in a tonally and stylistically engaging way) Presbyterians to understand or relate to. I think here Paul is in one sense saying that those things- the education level, stylistic and theological training of the preacher- do not matter. And I agree with him. He goes on to talk about how the Spirit and God have engaged humanity, how God changes things, and has prepared the world for those who love God. God’s wisdom is in secret, and that the world’s wisdom will not know God’s wisdom.
He also says that God does all of this goodness and newness for those who LOVE God- hear that again- God does all of this for those who Love God. Not those who study God, or who show up at every worship service available, or who bake the most casseroles for potlucks, or attend the most Sunday School classes, or ask the best questions at Confirmation, or attended the most committee meetings...here Paul doesn’t even say those who have fed the most hungry people, clothed the most naked people, helped the most imprisoned people, visited the most lonely people (although Matthew 25 makes a good argument that that might be Jesus’ yardstick for who loves God). No, here Paul’s main distinction is that loving God is all that defines us as faithful people.
He writes these words to the church in Corinth. Who were deeply divided about what teacher or pastor to follow and which one was RIGHT (in all caps). Paul here reminds them that it's not about that, both that Jesus is the only litmus test for a good teacher and a good follower, and that being divided by which teacher to follow is exactly counter to what Jesus and the call of God in their lives would want.
What on earth do you think Paul would think of all our denominations? The fundamental question of faith that the people of Corinth seemed to be fighting about was which teacher to follow, and the answer Paul gives is that that is the wrong question. The inkling of an answer he gives might be- love is the only test- love for God and for one another, and that is (to get back to Jesus) the summation of the Law and the Prophets. And, in Corinth it looks like they are failing that test by being divided by who to follow- ...How are we doing on that count church? How are you doing in your life? I hear lots of talk in church- at meetings, from our youth, at Presbytery, at conferences- in passing comments and ‘jokes’ about other denominations- critical and often snarky and not very nice things.
I hear these things from our youth, which means we are all saying these things or they wouldn’t have them to share- that ‘those churches pastors aren't as educated’, ‘their congregations not as organized’, ‘their service too inward focused’, ‘their theology too restrictive’, or ‘too strange’...but what do those things matter? If I meet someone who also claims Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and who loves God, then they are my brother or sister or sibling in Christ...and if that is true than I should get over thinkinking first “well, they follow that pastor or theology, so we won’t agree” My faith in Christ is not only dependent on the particularities of my theology, it is dependent on the love I feel for God that goes into my bones, that invades all that I am and all that I do. And if you say the same is true for you, then you are my sibling.
But let’s be real, none of us actually act that way, and there are real, deep reasons that are important too that make that so.
If a person’s church denies the humanity of people based on who they love or the particularity of how their bodies were created, or where they were born, then we have a deep difference of theology about who and how God loves people,
if that person’s church wouldn’t let me preach because I am a woman, then we have a big difference in thought about how God’s wisdom works through all people,
if that person’s church insists that my faith in Jesus is not enough for me to join them at the Lord’s table, then we have a difference about who God welcomes,
on and on…
these are vital differences that mean we have many churches in the world...but they are also not enough that our faith should be labeled by them. I am a Christian, a lover and follower of Jesus Christ, and the fact that I am and have always been a Presbyterian only means that maybe we have a common (or different) vernacular for how we talk together about being lovers and followers of Jesus. We have particular issues to discuss and confront- and it is important that we do so, but we are called today by Jesus and by Paul to do that work together as the Body of Christ.
Today Paul talks about what it means to find unity in the church, and to be faithful to the wisdom of God and not of the world, Jesus talks about what it means to show your faith to the world- to know the love of God and to give it to the world. Simple enough, right? Go and love God, do good, and when all else fails follow God’s law and calling. We are done right?
But then we step away from our bibles, we leave worship, and I am paralyzed, I bet many of us are, by what that means in these days to be faithful in our world… for me I walk into the world and my brain goes crazy...
does it mean I should or shouldn’t go to a march? Am I excluding people I love by deciding and acting on my understanding that a particular political reality of our time is too much to stand for and joining others in marching in the streets?
Does following Jesus and showing the love of God mean I should or shouldn’t call my representative’s office every day to let them know how i feel about what is going on in our nation and they way they choose to represent me in voting?
Does it mean I should do nothing and stay out of the way because I can see people on all sides being hurt in my life by what is going on.
Does it mean I should be writing intractable caps locked diatribes on Facebook just like the friends I know on both sides of our nation’s politics do?
Does it mean I should closed down my facebook altogether because it clearly doesn't accomplish anything to yell into that void?
How do I protect the people in my life who I love but who are being called names by our president and whose lives are clearly less important to him and our leaders than some perceived safety for others.
How do I use the privilege I have as a white person, an educated person, a person with wealth, a person with physical vitality or with the privilege of being cis-gender and straight so that those who don’t have those privileges are not harmed or killed for not having them?
Fortunately for us all, whether we call ourselves Presbyterians or Baptists, liberal or conservative, whether we think or nation is headed in the right direction or not, have the same call on our lives we have ever had as ones who claim the name and the love of Jesus...to Love God and one another, and to show forth our faith whenever we can by doing good in God’s world.
So when we are overwhelmed by things- the way our bodies and minds are created or happen to be working right now, or how the politics of our nation seem to invade every part of our lives with difficulty and fear, we know that we have that love and God’s community to fall back on, and have that love and community to challenge us to do better, to work with us when we need to heal, and to work toward unity in the Body of Christ and peace and justice in our world...just like Paul reminded and the church in Corinth, and just like Jesus asks us all in the Sermon on the Mount.
So let’s go and be salty and blinding in our love and goodness, today and all days!