Sermons

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.

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My first Sunday at St. Mark’s was on Sunday, January 16.  It was a truly wonderful day!  Here is the text for my sermon on that day.

 

“Come and See” — John 1:29-42

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John takes place sometime after Jesus has been baptized, and presumably after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  We’re simply told that John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking near the Jordan River one day.  John had previously encountered the religious authorities who wanted to know if he was the Messiah or not.  John tells them that he wasn’t even worthy to untie the Messiah’s sandals.  So when John spots Jesus nearby he proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  John tells any who would hear how the Messiah was coming into the world: not as the “All-Powerful… Deliverer” but as the “sacrificial… lamb.”[1] Jesus comes not in a display of might but with an unassuming nature to bring about transformation in all who would follow him.

We’re told that it takes another day for this to really sink in with those standing nearby, because John has to say it again.  When he does, two of his disciples really hear his words and decide to go and follow Jesus.

Jesus hears these two walking behind him, so he stops and turns to speak with them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks.  “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they say.   Teacher, where do you teach?  Where do you live?  The Gospel writer himself has already tipped us off to this answer in his prologue a couple of verses earlier. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as the Message Bible puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Jesus looks at these two men eager to follow him.  “Come and see,” he replies.  And they do.  They spend the rest of the afternoon with him.  They end up spending their lives with him.

Thirteen years ago this week Melissa and I were sitting almost exactly where you are sitting today, coming to see the new rector.  In our case, we had endured a long and difficult interim period with two different priests, both not-so-gifted preachers, if you catch my drift.  We were somewhat new to the Episcopal Church and had be hired as the part-time youth ministers for our parish during the interim, but we weren’t sure if we would continue.  We came that Sunday morning somewhat tentatively; we decided to take a wait and see approach with the new guy.  We wanted to be sure he could preach, if he was an authentic follower of Christ, if we could be guided by his leadership.  And if not, if he wasn’t, we’d finish our commitment with the youth through the school year and then leave.

In our case it turned out very well.  For you all, well, I for one have been praying that it will be likewise.

The invitation Christ makes is to come and see, yet how often in life—and especially how often in our spiritual lives—do we take a wait and see approach?  How often do we stand back unwilling to commit or engage because we’re uncertain of what lies ahead?  How many times do we waver because we need to think things through more fully or check things out or test our hypotheses about Lord knows what, instead of hearing the proclamation of the Baptizer and following Jesus?

How many times do we hesitate when faced with Jesus’ invitation to come and see?

Best selling author Donald Miller describes this dilemma in what has become one of my favorite books of the past year titled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  Don wrote a deeply personal spiritual memoir a few years ago that did very well, and he begins this new book by recounting a phone call he received from a couple of guys wanting to make a film of his memoir.  He learns pretty quickly, though that while his pensive internal wrestling makes for good writing, it doesn’t make for a good movie, unless, as he states, you have James Earl Jones narrating your inner dialogue.  So he sets out on discovering what makes a good film, how to create a story people really care about.  He attends a three-day story-writing workshop in Los Angeles, and learns that “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”[2]

When he gets back home, Don sees his friend Jason, who has a thirteen-year old daughter.  Jason’s daughter has been dating a guy “who smelled like smoke and only answered questions with single words: “Yeah,” “No,” “Whatever,” and “Why?”[3] And to top it off, Jason and his wife recently found pot in their daughter’s room.  They aren’t sure what to do: grounding hasn’t worked, instead pushing her further away.  They were running out of answers, and it was getting worse.

Then Don said something that surprised even himself.  He told Jason that his daughter was living a terrible story. Jason asked what he meant, and Don went on to describe what he learned in LA.  He told Jason a good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it, although he wasn’t quite sure how this applied to Jason’s daughter.  So Don said, “I don’t know, exactly, but she’s just not living a very good story.  She’s caught up in a bad one.” Jason had a ton of questions, and Don, thinking maybe Jason was interested in movie-making, spent an hour talking about all that he had learned.[4]

A few months later Don saw Jason again, and he asked how things were going with his daughter.  “She’s better,” Jason said, and when Don asked why, he replied that his family was living a better story.[5] He went on to tell Don that as he reflected on what they had spoken about, he realized that he hadn’t invited his daughter in to a better story.  Instead she had latched on to the most exciting story she could find, the one with the rebel teen.  So Jason went online to do some research and found out that there was an organization building orphanages around the world.  He called the organization and found out it took $25,000 to build one of their building.  The family had just taken out a second mortgage and didn’t have that kind of money, but it had the makings of a good story.

So he called a family meeting.  Jason recounts it this way, “I didn’t tell my wife first, which turns out was a mistake.  But I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage.  Then I told them I agreed to build it.”

“You’re kidding me,” Don replied.[6]

He wasn’t.  And it didn’t take long for his wife to forgive him for not talking with her first and to say as well how proud she was of him.  It wasn’t much longer after that that his daughter, Annie, climbed into bed with them one morning—like she used to when she was a kid.  She told them that they all needed to travel to the village in Mexico to take photos of the kids to help them raise the money.  A few weeks later she dumped the monosyllabic boyfriend.  Jason summarized it this way, “No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her.  She knows who she is.  She just forgot for a little while.”[7]

“Teacher, where are you staying?” we ask.   “Come and see.”

Jesus is inviting us into a better story.  He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves.  He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment.   When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.

What kind of life is Christ inviting us into as a parish in the days ahead?  What role will you take?  There will be challenges to be sure—those first followers have no idea of either the great joys or great sorrows in store for them—but it takes those things to make a good story.

I am tremendously hopeful and confident about the future of St. Mark’s and the work and life we will engage in together as we seek to authentically serve Christ.  Jesus has come into this neighborhood too, and invites us to follow him.  The journey before us is about to begin, and I hope you will join with me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, as we come and see where he will lead us.  Amen.


[1] Greg Garrett, “John 1:29-42: Homiletical Perspective.”  Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. 263.

[2] Donald Miller.  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  2009.  Pg. 48.

[3] Miller, 49.

[4] Miller, 50.

[5] Miller, 50.

[6] Miller, 52.

[7] Miller, 54.

 

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