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.

Stations

Over the past several weeks, members of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have been participating in a Lenten program on Wednesday night called “Near the Cross: Exploring the Passion through Many Lenses.”  Every week, we have looked at the death of Jesus from a different perspective, including Scripture, visual art, and music.  Last night, we gathered in the nave of Heavenly Rest and gained a liturgical perspective of the Passion by doing the Stations of the Cross.

the body of jesus is taken down from the crossThe Stations of the Cross is an adaptation of the custom of offering of prayer at a series of places in Jerusalem traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death.  In most cases, the congregation processes around the building to designated places in the church, each of which represents a different event from Jesus’ final hours.  There are, for instance, stations that mark the moment when Jesus is condemned by Pilate, the moment the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, the moment when Jesus’ dies on the cross, and so on.  Interestingly, there are also stations for events that are not attested to in Scripture: the moment that a woman wipes the face of Jesus, the moment when Jesus falls, and the the moment when Jesus meets his afflicted mother.  While the idea of commemorating events in the life of Jesus that do not occur in Scripture may make some uncomfortable, the Stations of the Cross is not about giving a factual presentation of the Passion, it is about allowing participants to experience how the Passion might have felt.  In this regard, the Scriptural allusions selected for the Stations are not quotations from the gospels, but draw from the entire bible.  The station where the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother (one of the non-Scriptural stations) is a good example:

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.  My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people.  “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

In this station, the words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Naomi’s lament from the book of Ruth are put on the lips of a mother who has lost her baby boy.  Though we cannot know what Jesus’ mother was thinking as he was crucified, the Stations of the Cross invites us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in Mary’s place.

I’ll be honest; I have always found the Stations of the Cross to be challenging.  Not only have I been uncomfortable with commemorating non-Scriptural events, Stations of the Cross also has a tendency to make me physically uncomfortable.  By the end of the devotion, the small of my back begins to ache and I start limping on account of my bum knee.  And in some ways, this is the point of the devotion.  The Stations of the Cross connects us to the death of Jesus in a deeply physical way; it invites us to bring the Passion of our Lord into our bodies.  I don’t mean to suggest that our aches mirror the pain that Jesus suffered; rather, our embodiment of the Passion helps us to understand it on another level.  This is part of the reason that we are invited to fast during Lent.  When we make Lent part of our physical nature, we have the opportunity to connect to God’s love for us in a new and different way.  Rather than attempting to understand it, Lent invites us to feel the grace and love of God.

Belonging

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

Donna couldn’t sleep.  Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep.  Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing.  She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00.  As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck.  As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.”  Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow.  Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M.  People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M.  After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone.  Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.

Return-of-the-Prodigal-SonToday we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture.  It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine.  The story goes like this.  There is a man who has two sons.  One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us.  This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.”  Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully.  After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants.  As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”  To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party.  The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received.  He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!”  I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!”  The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses.  He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father.  This is something that we all do.  Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say.  I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home.  He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it.  He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him.  The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  His father, however, takes him by surprise.  Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch.  When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century.  The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.

The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable.  This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace.  There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable.  Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms.  “He was dead and has come back to life.”  While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead.  He never imagined that he would see his son again.  We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home.  But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return.  We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away.  This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him.  This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.  This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.

In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  It is in this reality that the father trusts.  He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession.  Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him.  This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God.  This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial.  In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us.  But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God.  The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession.  Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love.  During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.

Worthy

urlOne of the more frustrating feelings we experience is the occasional sense that we do not belong somewhere.  Sometimes, we feel this way for superficial reasons: we go to a restaurant where we feel underdressed or we attend a party where we feel like we probably should have worn something a little more casual.  Other times, we might feel out of place for more intellectual reasons: perhaps we are participating in a conversation about a topic we know nothing about or attending a seminar about a book we haven’t read.  And every once and a while, we occasionally have a profound feeling that we do not belong, a gnawing sense that we may not be worthy to be in a particular place.

A few days ago, we commemorated the life of George Herbert.  Herbert was an English priest in the 17th century who has become known for his devotional poetry.  All of his poetry, however, was published posthumously.  During his life, Herbert was known as a country parson, a man who did his job: he visited the sick, comforted the dying, and did the sometimes menial chores required of someone who is in charge of a parish church.  The gospel appointed for George Herbert’s commemoration celebrates those people who might think that their lives are menial.  In the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Blessed are those who imagine that they are not holy, who think that the tasks set before them are not godly, for to them belongs the kingdom of God.  I think that all of us fall into the trap of thinking that other people are holy, that other people deserve God’s grace, while we are are miserable sinners unworthy of God’s grace and love.

George Herbert understood this tendency, and wrote an extraordinary poem about our reluctance to accept God’s grace.  The poem is a conversation between Jesus (whom Herbert calls “Love”) and the hesitant believer:

urlLove bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The poem beautifully describes how we accept the grace of God.  We begin by refusing God’s offer of love, claiming our fundamental unworthiness, when God almost teasingly reminds us that it was God who created us and God who redeemed us; God has made us worthy.  Our response to this is not joy, but obligation: we feel that we must pay our debt to God.  God, however, gently corrects us as he invites us to sit down and embrace the grace he has offered.

As you travel through this Lenten journey, try not to think of your Lenten discipline as an obligation, but as an opportunity to open yourself to the grace and love of God.  Use this time of renewal as a way to accept the gracious invitation God has extended to you, to sit down and taste love.

Cameos

urlWhen television shows have been on for a while, the writers begin to run out of material.  After all, there are only so many times that an episode centering around the “on-again, off-again” romance of the two main characters can be compelling.  It is at this stage that the writing staff begin to rely on the celebrity cameo to keep people interested.  The plots of these episodes are predictable at best: someone’s long-lost friend from high school (who has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again) comes for Thanksgiving and (surprise!) the character is played by Brad Pitt.  While celebrity cameos are often contrived, they do occasionally make for interesting television.  And ideally, the inclusion of a previously unknown character will reveal something new about one of the regular characters on the show.

Today, we’re going to pause our regular scheduled program (namely, the final post on reconciliation) as Saint Matthias the Apostle makes a cameo on his transferred feast day (it’s usually on the 24th, but Sundays always take precedence).  In the first chapter of Acts, we are told that the followers of Jesus gathered together after his ascension in order to select a replacement for Judas, the one who had betrayed Jesus and subsequently committed suicide.  The disciples agreed that Judas’ replacement must be someone who had borne witness to all that Jesus did and taught, and they proposed two individuals who met that qualification: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.  Having narrowed the field down to two, the disciples prayed: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.”  They cast lots to determine whom God had chosen, and the lot fell to Matthias, who became one of the twelve.

urlThis is Matthias’ first and only appearance in Scripture.  We never hear where he came from and we never hear where he ends up.  This is a frequent occurrence in the Acts of the Apostles: several apostles make cameo appearances and then disappear completely from the narrative.  While some may think that this is lazy storytelling, the author of Acts is less interested in what happens to the apostles than he is in what they reveal about God’s character.  This leads us to ask what it is that Matthias reveals about the character of God.  There are several interesting details about the selection of Matthias, but I think the most striking is the fact that he was chosen over his competition.  When we’re introduced to the two potential apostles, we don’t know anything about them apart from their names.  Like a popular kid in high school, Joseph is known by three names, which seems to indicate that he is a well-respected guy.  Matthias, on the other hand, is known only by the name his mother gave him.  If the disciples had evaluated the situation objectively, they probably would have selected Joseph, since he would have been able to use his considerable clout in leading the young Church.  Nevertheless, the apostles leave the choice up to God, who selects Matthias, a relative nobody.

This story serves to remind us that God is not interested in popularity or worldly influence; God’s call transcends our human preoccupations.  It’s easy for us to imagine that we are not qualified to serve God or proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  The story of Matthias, however, reminds us of the old aphorism: God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.  As you travel through this journey of Lent, remember that God has called you to proclaim the good news by word and example in whatever way you can.  Lent helps us to remember that we have all been called to be heralds of the gospel, no matter where we have come from or who we are.