Click photo for photo creditIs it just me or does today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-20) read a bit differently than it did before this week’s weather? I don’t know about you, but a week ago I was taking inventory of my cabinets, making a list of canned goods, candles and batteries. I wanted to make sure that my husband and I had something to eat and a source of light and heat in case we were snowed in and lost electricity. I had a mental checklist of all of the candles and flashlights in the house and tried to calculate what was “enough” – what was required for adequate preparation. I didn’t personally stock up on salt, but I’m certainly glad those responsible for keeping the roads clear did.
And yet, a few days after the storm has passed, it is easy to forget our reliance on such basic things. I never needed my candles. And what good is the salt once the roads are clear? It merely creates a mess when we track it into our homes and places of business. In a world of neon color and low-sodium diets, what is the point of being salt and light?
I think Isaiah and Jesus spoke words about light and salt to worlds that are not much different from our own. At this point in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-9), the prophet is speaking to a people recently returned from exile. The understanding is that Jerusalem had fallen because the Israelites were being punished by God. They may have worshipped God – but they also bowed down at the altars of many other so-called gods. And even now that they’ve been restored, the Temple still lies in ruins, a sign that all was not well with or for these people of God.
And we remember that Jesus was born into Roman occupation. The Israelites were looking for a Messiah who would send the Roman Emperor packing. Even in the story of Jesus’ birth, we are reminded of the occupation – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Ceasar – the Emperor — was in charge and making demands on the Israelites. No longer the promised land, is it?
Here in the United States, we don’t know much about occupation or exile. But I imagine we all know what it feels like when life seems out of control – whether it is the death of a loved one, waiting on a diagnosis, the loss of a job, being stuck at home – or maybe worse, away from home – in the middle of a blizzard. We watch Egypt in a time of political unrest over President Mubarek. If you understand what it is like to be in crisis or to have life spiral out of control, you understand the mindset of the people who first heard these messages. In times of crisis, we begin to struggle with identity – who are we? How do we go on now? What will define us in and through this situation?
The Israelites in Isaiah’s day were apparently pretending that everything was fine. “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” They were fakes. They were the folks acknowledging that they saw the Emperor’s beautiful new garments when they were only gazing upon his royal undies. “We’ll just pretend we never left and that the Temple is still here. If we all smile nicely, no one will ever know that we don’t have it all together.” In case you haven’t yet figured it out, I’ll let you in on a little secret – NO ONE has it all together… not even Pastor Keith. (Sorry, pastor!)
I don’t know about you, but I find hope in knowing that none of us has all of our ducks in a row. (Perhaps the proper phrase here at Holmeswood is “geese in a row?”) And beyond that, it is precisely the sort of people with ducks all over the place that Jesus calls the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The people of Jesus’ day were trying to figure out what it meant to be God’s people and follow the covenant when under occupation. There were differing ideas about how to go about it. The Sadducees decided that cooperation with the Empire was best and embraced their new culture. Zealots were ready to take up weapons and fight the Romans. Many of the Pharisees realized that they were greatly outnumbered by the Romans and didn’t stand a chance in battle. They thought the best method was to separate themselves from the world and practice Torah quietly. I think the Pharisees are often given a bad reputation because Jesus seems to come into conflict with them a lot, but I think the church today often relates better to them than any other group – and for good reason. We often, perhaps mistakenly, label them as legalistic, but the Pharisees were simply interested in following God. They believed the way to be close to God was through the Torah – through the Scriptures. As Baptists, we are often called “People of the Book.” We’re Bible people. The average Pharisee was probably more like one of us than we realize.
And aren’t we trying to figure out who and what we are? What does it mean to be Holmeswood Baptist Church? How do we be a “different kind of Baptist?” What does it look like to be a missional church? Isn’t it easier just to cloister ourselves off and go about studying the Bible and worshipping God?
About 10 years ago, singer/songwriter Justin McRoberts designed a T-shirt that simply stated “And they will know that we are Christians by our T-shirts.” I’m not sure if he had the shirt in mind, but in 2004, Derek Webb wrote a song called “T-shirts” that follows the same lines. In it, he states: “they’ll know us by the t-shirts that we wear; they’ll know us by the way we point and stare at anyone whose sin looks worse than ours, who cannot hide the scars of this curse that we all bare; they’ll know us by our picket lines and signs; they’ll know us by the pride we hide behind; like anyone on earth is living right; and isn’t that why Jesus died — not to make us think we’re right.”
Thinking we have the right answers is not the fast that God chooses. It is so easy to come to church, do a few spiritual things and convince ourselves that we are somehow superior beings. That somehow we are deserving of God’s blessing. If other people would just see how good we are, they’d want in. No! As soon as we draw the lines of in and out, deserving and undeserving, we have missed it. Jesus would tell us that we will never enter the kingdom of heaven; Isaiah would say we are fasting to admire ourselves, as if we were a group that practiced righteousness.
Instead, Isaiah tells us that God chooses the fast that looses the bonds on injustice, undoes the thongs of the yoke, lets the oppressed go free. God chooses sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our houses, clothing the naked…
To be salt and light in our world, we must shine light on the injustices in our world. We must see those that are hidden from the eyes of society. We must ignore labels and erase dividing lines and embrace those who believe themselves to be unembraceable. Then, and only then, will our light break forth like the dawn.
And if we are to be known as the light of the world, we have to risk the light – Our Matthew passage tells us to put the light on the lampstand – not under a bushel. But when we do that, it becomes unprotected from the elements – we can no longer guard the light from the wind and rain – or snow. If we choose to be salt and light, we choose to be the salt and light for all. Not just ourselves and people like us.
One of my favorite images from the news this week is that of Egyptian Christians making themselves a human barricade to protect a group of praying Muslims from the protests that were raging around them. I saw a copy of the picture on a blog in my google reader “staff picks.” I point that out, because the staff picks rarely include anything that stands out as particularly Christian or religious. And yet a picture of Christians protecting Muslims – along with a long line of comments mostly from a Christian point-of-view – made the cut. Might this be a bit of salt and light?
Holmeswood does a great job of engaging the community. I read your monthly newsletter and talk to your ministers. Your list of missional ministries is impressive. I encourage you to let your interactions through those ministries be an opportunity to see the humanity of others – and of yourself. Be the salt of the earth and light of the world to each other. Marcia Riggs, professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary writes “Disciples who do not engage in such practices that humanize life on earth will be like salt that has lost its taste.” Are you salty?
They will know that we are Christians by our T-shirts? As Derek Webb says, “love, love, love is what we should be known for; love, love, love; it’s the how and it’s the why we live and breathe and we die.” Amen.
Preached at Holmeswood Baptist Church (Kansas City) Sunday morning
Isaiah 58:1-9, Matthew 5:13-20
Read more from Jennifer at her blog.