If

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1895, Rudyard Kipling offered some paternal advice in the form of a poem entitled “If.” The poem covers a whole range of topics: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.” This long series of increasingly challenging antecedents ends with Kipling saying, “then you will be a man.” Though this poem has become standard fodder for graduation cards, it has a wistful quality. These four stanzas articulate a nearly impossible standard; it is as though Kipling is saying, “I wish I had been able to do all this; perhaps you can.” This attitude tends to prevail whenever we ask “what if” questions. Invariably, we are asking them because we wish things had turned out differently, because we wonder where we went wrong, or because we know that nothing about our lives can really change.

This morning, we hear Jesus asking some “what if” questions while using one of his most well-worn teaching techniques. While parables were not an uncommon way to get one’s point across in the ancient world, Jesus raises them to an entirely new level in the gospels. Indeed, in the passage we read this morning, Mark tells us that Jesus speaks to certain audiences only in parables, that all of his teaching is packaged in these cryptic stories. The ubiquity of these parables has some interesting consequences for the way we interpret them. For the most part, we tend to read the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who each character in the story is supposed to be. imgresOrigen, the great third century theologian, takes this way of reading parables to its logical extreme. In his allegorical interpretation the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Origen suggests that the man who was going down the road is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are the hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the wounds are disobedience, the pack animal is the Lord’s body, the inn is the Church, you get the idea. While this wooden way of interpreting parables can be interesting, even fun, I think that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. The word parable comes from the Greek words for “toss alongside.” A parable is something we hold up next to a situation in order to see what unexpected truths might be revealed. The parables of Jesus, in other words, are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way.

This is particularly true in the seed parables from the fourth chapter of Mark. Jesus himself indicates that these images are meant to be held up alongside the subject we are considering. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” he asks. “What parable will we use for it?” Jesus’ tone is intriguing. Rather than articulating definitively what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus offers propositions, asking his audience,“What if the kingdom of God is like this?” Now the kingdom of God is one of those biblical images that has become somewhat muddled since the time of Jesus. Most of us assume that it is simply shorthand for “heaven,” which of course, has become shorthand for “the place you go when you die.” The kingdom of God, in other words, is not something that we think about with any regularity. For Jesus and his hearers, however, the kingdom of God was an ever present reality, the hope of every faithful Israelite. It was the promise that God would break the yoke of oppression and rule with justice and equity. More than a few zealots attempted to bring the kingdom of God into being on their own, only to be violently thwarted by the Roman occupiers. “Kingdom of God,” in other words, was a loaded term that connoted rebellion and sweeping social change. So in many ways, the prosaic images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God are unexpected, even shocking. First, he wonders aloud if the way that seeds germinate and grow overnight can help us think about God’s reign. With this parable, urlJesus invites us to consider whether the arrival of God’s kingdom is something that happens without our knowledge or influence, much to the surprise of Israel’s violent rebels. Jesus further ponders whether the kingdom of God can be compared with a mustard seed, which though very small, produces a significant shrub. Most gardeners consider mustard to be a weed; once mustard takes root, it is incredibly difficult to remove. By using this image, Jesus asks us to consider both the tenacity and the ordinariness of God’s kingdom. What’s interesting is that Jesus uses these examples not to make concrete statements about the nature of God’s reign, but to fire our imaginations, to help us envision how God is working in the world.

If this is what these parables are meant to do, we cannot stop there. If Jesus is asking “What if the kingdom of God is like this?” the implicit next question is “what difference would that make?” In other words, if these parables are meant to give us a new way of looking at the world, we have to ask ourselves what it means for us to see the world in this new way. What if the kingdom of God is like the sprouting of a seed? What if the kingdom of God is like an invasive plant species? How would that change the way we think about God? How would that change the way we live our lives? Would we be more attentive to the thousands of tiny ways that God’s glory is revealed to us? Would we look for signs of the kingdom in places we would not normally expect? Would we trust that God is working God’s purpose out? Would we be more confident that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?

Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. We like to find a routine and stick with it. We move through this life assuming that everything will essentially stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, that nothing about our lives can really change. For us, asking “what if” questions is generally an exercise in nostalgia. With these parables, however, Jesus challenges us think about how our “what ifs” can become reality. Jesus invites us to dream of a world that radiates the glory of God. He encourages us to wonder whether the most uninteresting moments of our lives can somehow be signposts for God’s kingdom. Jesus asks us to ponder how the world can change if we just look at it differently, if we see it not as a hopeless place of despair and suffering, but as a beautiful place that is charged with God’s grandeur. Jesus invites us to look for beauty in unlovely places, to claim joy in desperate moments, and to celebrate life even the face of death. Jesus invites all of us to wonder: what if the kingdom of God was like you and me challenging expectations and revealing God’s glory to the world?

Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.