Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 “What Can We Do? Be Salt & Light” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
What Can We Do? Be Salt & Light
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 13 – 16
February 5, 2017

 lighthouse

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  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.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version

In our changed and charged political context, where something previously unthinkable seems to happen every day, one of the most common questions people are asking these days with new urgency, is: “What can I do?”

Indeed, when decisions are being made at the highest levels of government which will affect everyone, but especially those most vulnerable, it is easy to feel helpless and impotent, not only to affect change, but even to be heard. We may write that email or letter, but what are the chances it will be read, even by a staffer, much less our elected representative?

As an illustration of the magnitude involved, the New York Times Magazine recently featured an article about the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. To keep up with the 10,000 letters and messages that come in every day, many desperate pleas for help, it requires the orchestration of 50 staff members, 36 interns and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers. (Jeanne Marie Laskas, “To Obama with Love, and Hate and Desperation,” The New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2017.)

These days, even phone calls – said to be the best way to get elected official’s attention – don’t fare much better. Most House and Senate offices utilize interns and staffers to answer the phone. These staffers keep notes and let their congressperson know what people are saying. Those phone systems designed to handle thousands of calls a day, but in these wild times are being overwhelmed, with voicemail boxes packed to capacity, and in some critical congressional offices, phones ring without ever being answered.

As we have also seen, people are also taking to the streets to be heard, as we saw recently with the Women’s March here in Chicago and in cities around the country and the world. Last weekend, there were mass protests at airports, including O’Hare, against the new travel ban. Here in Chicago, 150 or more lawyers went to the airport to provide free legal aid to those detained without notice. I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the day when I would be inspired by LAWYERS.

frederick_douglassFrederick Douglass (1818-1895), referred to this week by President Trump during Black History Month as though he might still be alive, was an escaped slave, who became a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman, and abolitionist. Frederick Douglass once said: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Sometimes this is what we must do in order to be heard, we have to pray and protest with our legs, as the recent Women’s March.

While all these are “things we can do,” let’s go one step further and ask what we should do as Christians, as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God. Today we get an answer to that, given by Jesus himself in his Sermon on the Mount. As it turns out, the answer is less what we should DO, than what we should BE, which is, salt and light in the world.”

“Me, you say?” “Salt and light in the world?” “Surely, you jest; I can barely make it through the week.” You’re thinking Jesus was talking about people like Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr., people who undoubtedly functioned as salt and light in the world. But remember, as I pointed out last Sunday, when Jesus was talking that day, he wasn’t talking to the high and mighty, the educated or the accomplished; he was talking to ordinary people like us, except poorer: shepherds, fishermen, widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, people whom he pronounced as blessed by God. If he blessed such people and commissioned them to be salt and light in the world, surely every one of us can be salt and light too.

When Jesus said this, he was not issuing a call to change attitudes or actions, which is usually the way we hear it. He did not say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this” or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this.” He didn’t even say, “BE salt and light; what he said was, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning. (David Lose, “Salt and Light,” http://www.workingpreacher.org, 1/30/2011)

But what does it mean to be salt and light in the world? It is common at this point – I have done it myself in the past – to talk about salt and light as universal religious metaphors. Salt is both a preservative and a spice, enhancing flavor. As for light, and that “city set on a hill,” we know about that too. It has been an ongoing idea since America was founded, that America is to be such a “city set on a hill.”

When we ask what this means, and try to translate “what we should be” into “what we should do,” we are likely to fill in the blanks with our own agendas, which may be quite different depending upon whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, watch MSNBC or Fox News.

But as Lutheran Barbara Lundblad points out (Barbara Lundblad, “Too Much Salt or Not Enough? What Jesus Says About Americans and Their Super Bowl, ON Scripture, February 5, 2017), Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light are not nearly as open-ended as we imagine. Salt and Light already meant something to Jesus’ hearers, they were central images of the people of Israel. So maybe Jesus chose these two images on purpose: to be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God, such as in that powerful reading from the Prophet Isaiah, filling in the blanks about what it means to function as salt and light in the world, to be the people of God:

“What is the fast that I choose?” asks God.
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…

So what are WE to do as Christians, in these charged and changing times? All that we have talked about and more, but the most important thing we can do is to be who Jesus says we are, salt and light in the world.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Recently, he published an article in Sojourners Magazine, entitled, Five Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era.” He said many useful things, but what he said in short, was this: “When they go low, we go deep.”

Using an historical analogy, Granberg-Michaelson compared today’s times to 1930’s Germany. In 1933, the national synod of the German Protestant churches endorsed the rising Nazi party. In response, a group of theologians and church people – among them theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) – formed what they called the Confessing Church. They could see the problems with the Nazi Party and where it was going, but they could also see the problems that result when the church aligns itself with any political party or political ideology.

karl_barth

Carl Barth

BPK 10.016.073

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In response, two things came of this; first, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, rejecting the subordination of the Church to the State and affirming that the Church belonged only to Christ. But secondly, an alternative church structure, including “underground” seminaries to train clergy. Bonhoeffer believed the dominant form of Christianity in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and to resist it as a matter of faith. So Bonhoeffer focused on Christian formation: shaping a Christian community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on Scripture, and to develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time, which became the basis for his book, Life Together.

Today, says Granberg-Michaelson, we find ourselves faced with a challenge like the one faced by Barth and Bonhoeffer. The public witness of many Christians lacks the spiritual depth and clarity necessary to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time. Once again, we find ourselves in need of basic, enduring spiritual formation – habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling – that will equip us with the clarity and strength to follow Jesus, and to answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

Says Granberg-Michaelson:
“The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be, and what we are called to do, before God.” (Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “5 Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era,” Sojourners, 1-30-2017, https://sojo.net/articles/5-spiritual-survival-strategies-trump-era )

When we do this, when we discover who we are and what we are called to do, what we discover is this: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Amen.

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