This Sunday’s lesson was from the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus telling the disciples that they are salt and light. (See Matthew 5:13-20).
Great stuff to be sure, and great things to think about. And it gave me the chance to use those magic relighting candles while singing “This Little Light of Mine” for the family service. (There was a gasp the first time I blew it out during the line “Don’t let Satan [poof] it out” and the candle relit!)
Here it is, the sermon of the day.
Salt and Light — Matthew 5:13-20
One of the things I’ve discovered along the way, both as a Christian and as a priest, is that most of us as followers of Christ want to be seen as normal people. We don’t want to draw out too many distinctions with others who don’t follow Christ, and we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from those “other” Christians out there who are either too outspoken, too fanatical, too liberal, too conservative or whatnot for our tastes. “Oh, I’m not like those Christians over there,” we’ll say, “I’m just like you. I like the same things as you, and do the same things. There really is no difference between you and me except that on Sunday morning you drink your coffee and read the Globe, and I do the same and then head to church.”
To lay it all out there, we don’t want to be seen as weird.
The reasons we do this are varied: some don’t want to lose face in their work environments, others don’t want Christianity to come in between their friendships. Some don’t want to have people judge them based on their actions—be they seen as sanctimonious or hypocritical. More than anything, we don’t want to be perceived as judgmental of others. So we push our label as “Disciple of Jesus Christ” to the background and pull out a host of others. “Red Sox Fan” or “Dedicated Mom” or “Marketing Guru” or “Numbers Guy” or “(fill in the blank here).”
In church leadership circles, we imagine ways to make church more inviting to outsiders. We “talk about the need to create a safe, non-threatening, low threshold of belonging in order to draw people in.” We do this with good intentions, but you know the old saying about good intentions and their ultimate destination. Yet we don’t want to offend anyone, so we go at it this way regardless. We think it will grow the church, and for many it comes down to numbers, even in parishes. If I can get the average Sunday attendance up, then I must be “successful” as a priest. So we water the message down to some magical point where we think it will be palatable to the masses, while also being acceptable to the people we already have in the pews.
We’ve become, as I heard a priest put it once, the bland leading the bland.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, “but if it’s lost its taste it’s not good for anything and should be tossed into the trash.” And there’s the rub.
If we are to be salt and light—and notice Jesus doesn’t say, “You will be” or “You should be” but “You are…”—then we need to be proactive about that calling. We need to be intentional in the way we live, and in what we do with our time.
Living as a Christian is tough in our society. Ask any teenager what happens when a situation arises where acting in accordance with their faith means serious consequences at school with their friends—if, for example, they felt sorry for the person being bullied during lunch, but recognized the cost if they did something about it. Or ask any business professional who has witnessed shady practices by their manager, but sees only immense difficulty in their work life if they speak up to the CEO. Or ask any priest sitting on a plane who is hoping they can make it to cruising altitude and turn oo their iPod and avoid the typical “So what do you do?” question because there is no certainty where the conversation will go.
If I had to hazard a guess as to why we are this way, I’d say that it is because we have lowered expectations to a miniscule level. What does it mean to be a good Christian, these days? For many it means coming to church every so often, and maybe throwing a couple of bucks into the plate. And this isn’t their fault, by the way, nor am I trying to disparage any who might think this way. The unofficial word from many leaders in our denomination is that a person is in good standing as a member if they show up 3 times a year and are known to the treasurer (I don’t even want to begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard this in serious conversations with other clergy). Our official Episcopal Church documents go further, stating that a member is in good standing if they’ve “been faithful in corporate worship…, and faithful in working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” That’s a bit better, but it is still pretty non-committal about specifics.
A good friend of mine, a church consultant, writes, “I believe the low-commitment church is a primary reason why traditional religion has lost its influence and moral authority in America today. We might refer to [this] as the optional church; one that isn’t too inconvenient, doesn’t ask too much of us, doesn’t cost too much, and is certainly subservient to the consumer-driven society and the decidedly secular lives that people live today.”
Interesting thing about salt is that it doesn’t lose its saltiness through some chemical reaction or even over time. It loses its seasoning if it becomes too diluted.
We’ve become too used to a faith that asks relatively little of us, I’m sorry to admit. We aren’t light and salt in our dark and hurting world simply because we don’t know how to do this. It’s much easier to say someone else will do these things—other Christians, the government, NGOs, charities, good-natured people—and go on with our busy lives.
So what does this look like then? First, much to the consternation of many church leaders both lay and ordained, it is not to be found in inventing new programs. Creating new projects or new classes or whatnot will not help us in the long term to develop into salt and light. It’ll keep us busy, and maybe even tickle our fancies for a bit. But like everything else in this life of ours for which we are consumers, we’ll tire of it or burn out.
How we become salt and light is in recognizing that as Christians we are, as it has been put for centuries, “a new people, an alternative community with a new citizenship.” We are shaped as Christians through regular reading of Scripture and prayer, in allowing the Spirit to shape how we respond in the circumstances of our daily life, in building community with one another, in taking part in what have been termed the ancient spiritual practices . While we have a tendency to put spirituality in a neat little area of our lives that we can pull out as needed and is certainly separate from our “practical” lives, the early Christians and many since then recognized that through the life of Jesus we can see that God has come into every arena of life. Things can’t be labeled as spiritual and secular or public and private lives, rather everything is interconnected as shown in the life of Jesus, and this “not only changes everything, but should become the center” of how we live our lives.
To be salt and light means that we live into the reality that we are in fact different from our friends who don’t follow Christ. It means that we are to open ourselves up to being formed in the life of Christ, and recognizing that such formation doesn’t happen in a matter of hours or even a few days. We are salt and light when the center of our lives isn’t focused on us, but on God and others. What if St. Mark’s became a place that strongly encouraged its parishioners to enter in to this type of life? Those would be great expectations, to be sure, but isn’t that the life Jesus wants us to live into? What if this parish—what if we—became people who brought light into a dark world, including allowing the light of Christ into the dark places of our interior lives? What if we brought seasoning to every situation of our lives? If we did, I don’t think we’d recognize this place. We might not even recognize ourselves. But I can assure you that we’d change the world, and that would be worth it no matter the cost.