New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 9, 2014
From when my girls were about 5 or 6 years old to even now, every so often, when we’re eating out at a restaurant, they like to sprinkle a little salt from the shaker into their hands and lick it off. How many of us did that when we were young? Most of us like the taste of salt on our food, but we all know the warnings about too much. We tell ourselves and our children to ‘go easy on the salt’.
Another basic element that Jesus uses in his lengthy sermon in Matthew is light. Our parents would tell us not to look at the sun too long or it would damage our eyes. We have to be careful when we’re out in the sun, making sure we use sunscreen and a hat, perhaps limiting our time outside. And yet we love light: how it causes living things to grow, the way it creates long shadows and colors and warmth. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder because of the decreased amount of daylight during the winter months.
Both salt and light are necessary for a good life. Too much or too little of either one can be harmful. Sometimes we wonder how much salt or light is enough. However, in this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus isn’t talking about balance. Jesus is telling the crowd that they can never be too salty or too much light.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, puts it this way:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. “Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father/Mother in heaven.”
‘Be generous with your lives.’ That can sound daunting on some days. How often do we feel less than equal to our lives, let alone have what it takes to be generous with them? Time and again we feel we’re not enough, that our days are more apt to take the stuff out of us, leaving our lives bland and gray. Salt and light? We wish.
And yet wouldn’t it make sense that God created us with what is not only necessary for our lives but fill us to overflowing? God is extravagant with grace; it’s we who can be cautious with it sometimes. God’s love is unconditional; it’s we who set limits on how far our love and compassion can go.
In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist speaks to the myth of scarcity that we repeat to ourselves every day. When we wake up in the morning, what are the first thoughts we have? For many of us it goes something like this: “I didn’t get enough sleep. I don’t have enough energy or time to do everything that has to be done today.” She writes that the thought ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically, without little or no critical thought as to whether it’s true. We tell ourselves things like “I don’t get enough exercise, I don’t have enough work, my company is not making enough profits, I’m not organized enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time off”.
Then it gets personal: “I’m not thin enough, pretty, handsome, successful, smart, educated”—add your own to that ever-growing list. Before the day even begins we’re found wanting, unable to rise to whatever challenge that has been set before us. We’re living always behind the 8-ball, like Sisyphus pushing that mighty boulder to nowhere. All this does is lead directly and quickly to burnout.
For quite some time we’ve been telling ourselves the same message in our churches: we’re not big enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough time to do everything. Hence we can’t be generous with the life of the church, the Body of Christ, because we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have enough to give, let alone have enough for ourselves.
What would happen if the church operated from a place of sufficiency, that is to say, what if instead of a mindset of scarcity, we came from a place of faith that declares we are enough? Do we really believe that God could be so cruel as to give us purpose and mission and yet not give us power equal to our tasks? Of course not! Yet there are times we focus on what we lack rather than on the abundant life God has given us.
Author Marianne Williamson says that “[joy] is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” Some might think of that as a Pollyanna way to live, but I think Pollyanna has gotten an undeserved bad rap. Joy and gratitude are what make it possible for us to live through the tough times, to have faith that God does have our best interests at heart, and yes, that things are actually going to be okay.
|"Now you are the light of the world and salt of the earth."|
You are a salty church, full of flavor and zest. You are generous with your lives and your money and your talents. You don’t hide your light under a bucket. But like a combination of salt and sunlight on snow, there are times you come close to burning up dry.
What adds flavor to your life? What lights your lights, especially in the life of this church? What has been your best experience at this church, when you felt most alive, most involved, spiritually inspired, excited about what was going on? What do you enjoy the most about the New Ark? Churches have been known to take Sabbath rest from committee meetings and other church work, pare down to only the essentials, and then for a time do only those things which make people come alive.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that God isn’t interested in our wasted spirits, our drawn faces, our souls empty from always being busy. God desires to see our lights come on from within and stay on.
Yes, we are called to be salt and light, and the world is in desperate need of salty, zesty people and nimble, light-filled, light-hearted community. But we can only do so much, we say. Indeed. God works through human efforts but the saving of the world is not solely dependent on us. We do what we can and then we let God do the rest.
I think that is the hardest part of the journey of faith, to let go and let God do what God will do. We can be such rational creatures, aware of the processes of science, realistic about what is possible, our eyes wide open to the perils of this world. And through these means we think we have a grasp on the way the world works. Yet there is a mystery in which we live and move and have our being. There is a Source of this salt and light, beyond reason, something beyond our best work and imperfect attempts.
Again, Eugene Peterson, from the prophet Isaiah:
“If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people's sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones. You'll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”
Earlier this week the Internet was rife with opinions about the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman due to an overdose of heroin. It was open season on the victim. Gossip was high on other people’s sins. Not many could understand that addiction is a disease that only has a day-at-a-time cure; that addiction is a prison with a warden who only lets you out with a one-day pass. And perhaps our communal sense of compassion and tolerance is low because our society, our culture runs on its own addictive substances and behaviors, legal and acceptable to most of us. We can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees.
We live in a plugged-in world that does not regularly plug into the Source of All Being. I’m not necessarily talking about church or worship or prayer, though by our presence here we acknowledge their vital importance. I’m talking about investing ourselves, our lives in that which gives us joy: deep connection to other human beings, to animals, to the environment, music, creativity, play, the pursuit of knowledge and justice and applying them to better living. Are not these and many other endeavors a form of church, worship, prayer—the acknowledgement that there is a Source that gives not just life but abundantly?
As it was sung in “Godspell”, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the salt of the earth, but if that salt has lost its flavor, it hasn’t got much in its favor.” As we approach the season of Lent, let’s be thinking of ways we can add flavor back into our lives and in our life together as a church. Let’s be thinking of what drains away our salt and light and whether we can take some rest, some time away from those areas.
Even so, we are enough, we are equal to the call God has given us, just the way we are. We can be generous with our lives. God desires that we go ahead and shine! Jesus goes before us to show us the way. The Holy Spirit is moving within us and amongst us, to inspire and energize us. Let’s tap into that.