Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seek First...

Jesus doesn't offer investment advice or self-help pop-psychology. He offers a hard choice. I can only hope I've done the text justice.

I am grateful for the work of John Petty of "Progressive Involvement," David Lose of "Working Preacher," and John van de Laar of "Sacresdise" for their work, which figures extensively in this sermon.

Though it is not included here, I am also adapting the "World in Prayer" for the Prayers of the People.

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Thus says the LORD:
In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

Matthew 6:24-34
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
”So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a bumper sticker I saw awhile back that reads, “If you aren’t completely appalled, you aren’t paying attention.”

I don’t really know how long it’s been going on, or where it started, but it seems like our society is bent on having something to be terrified about all the time, and if you aren’t sharing in the horror, you’re apparently misinformed, or, worse, part of “the problem.”

Politicians, TV commentators, and radio talk-show hosts make a very good living by pushing the panic button – health care, immigration, inflation, this crisis, that ideological attack, the other side’s lies about something or the other, it goes on and on.

Never mind that you and I live in one of the most affluent societies in the history of the planet. My friend the Reverend Barbara Vaughn says that we'd rather be scared and confused by those we think know better than trusting our own intelligence. As a result, if the politicians and pundits can get us to worry about taxes, shrinking incomes and rising prices, shortages and uncertainty, they can sway us to think and act and vote the way they want us to, and we go along with it.

But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “Wait. You’re better than that.”

At its core, today’s reading is a question: what, or who, do we place our trust in? Is it God, or is it “stuff?” If this is no small question for you and I, it was an even greater challenge to the people who were listening to Jesus that day on the mountainside.

There were a few very rich people in ancient Israel. At the top were the aristocratic families, many of whom were of Greek or Roman background, who had received their property through military conquest. They made up about two or three percent of the population at most.

Under them were the four or five percent of people who were merely wealthy: the major tax collectors, and those who held high positions with the major landowners. The tax collectors and landowners were agents of political oppression. You can count the priests and scribes in Jerusalem among them. They were not necessarily rich in terms of assets (some were, though), but they lived in palatial splendor. If the tax collectors were political oppressors, the priests and scribes were religious oppressors, so the people caught it from both sides.

Everybody else was poor. A good seventy-five percent of the people were merchants, fishermen, artisans, and farmers. Today, these are respected, often well-paid professions, but back then these workers lived a hand-to-mouth existence, making barely enough to get by, if that.

At the very bottom rung were the fifteen percent who were beggars, cripples, prostitutes and criminals who lived off the land outside the cities. So, rather than feeling challenged when Jesus said “you cannot serve God and wealth,” the people would have been in full agreement. After all, with the various taxes they paid approaching fully half of their already meager income, they regarded their economic superiors as greedy, living high on the hog while so many were near starvation. These wealthy and super-rich rulers were obviously following money and power more than God.

But one doesn’t attempt to serve two masters simply by having an abundance of wealth. Jesus makes six statements in these verses against worrying, and while it’s true that the wealthy felt great anxiety over keeping and enhancing the things they’ve accumulated, it isn’t hard to imagine that the people listening to Jesus that day, the poor and the poorer, had plenty to worry about. Funny thing is, no matter where they were in the economic spectrum, they worried about the same things: security and acquisition.

Soren Kierkegaard once defined anxiety as "the next day." We don't know what will happen "the next day," which creates anxiety this day. If you accumulate enough stuff – food, clothing, money, things – you will be secure against that great unknown that is “tomorrow.” Of course, we soon find out, if we’re paying attention, that there is never “enough.”

So, you see, Jesus isn’t offering a spiritual or doctrinal directive when he says that we cannot serve two masters. He is stating a physical reality, a psychological truth. It isn’t that we shouldn’t serve two masters, or that it would be a really good idea not to serve two masters, or that we should strive to not serve two masters. It’s that we cannot serve two masters, period. We lack the ability.

What Jesus is offering is a chance to reject scarcity and embrace abundance, to leave behind the economics of the world for the economics of God. To serve God is to be in relationship with God, and to live in the Kingdom of God, and the currency of the Kingdom of God – the coin of the realm, if you will – is love.

Love – and especially God's love – cannot be counted, tracked or stockpiled. And when you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you've entered into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world – Jesus calls it the "kingdom of God" – not worrying actually becomes an option. This world invites us to trust God's faithfulness in the same way that the lilies of the field trust in spring, or a bird trusts the currents of the air it sails upon.

This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can't defend themselves but must trust God's providence and love.

But let me ask you something: is this “don’t worry” philosophy realistic for everyone in our world today? Can we speak about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air to the people of Libya, to those still digging out of the rubble in Christchurch, New Zealand, or to Uganda’s Invisible Children, or to the millions living in refugee camps across the world? Can we tell a homeless man not to worry, or someone struggling with illness to set their anxiety aside?

I contend that this is why Jesus commands us to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. I’ve seen the word “righteousness” also translated as “justice,” and for good reason. “Righteousness” sounds as if we are to be seeking personal purity. This is a good idea, and certainly part and parcel of a right relationship with God, but the context of the passage compels us to look beyond the personal.

To seek the Kingdom’s justice is to recognize this fact: There is no lack of wealth, food or resources in our world today. There is only the lack of sharing, connectedness and equitable distribution that would ensure that all people have enough.

Living as servants of God, as residents of the Kingdom of God, requires a shift in our loyalties – from ourselves, our resources, our accumulated treasure, to God, God’s resources and God’s interconnected community. To share, to connect, to distribute. To be the solution. To let the victims of violence and war discover that they can be free because they are surrounded by peacemakers who are protecting and shielding them. To allow the hungry and the homeless to find that they are free because they are welcomed into the hospitality of caring brothers and sisters. To truly care for those who are the least, the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

Will it work, this putting the Kingdom of God, and God’s justice for all creation first? Will all of our needs be met as well? I don’t know. Jesus certainly thinks so. And we’ll only find out by trying… so let it begin here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Living More Deeply

This would have been a much more superficial sermon without the gift of friendship I enjoy with Rev. Kathleen Lambert. Her encouragement and support, and the permission to use her story in this sermon, are just a part of why she is a gift from God. I also relied heavily on the scholarship of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, and of Scott Hoezee of The Center for Excellence in Preaching.

When I think of nonviolent protest, and the dangers and rewards, I of course think of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the thousands of brave men, women, and children who marched with him in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I also think of the important, ongoing work of groups like SoulForce. But my heart remains with the people of the Middle east, who as you read this are bleeding and dying for that most basic human desire, freedom.

May they live to see their dream fulfilled.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading today has quite a history. The whole idea of not resisting evildoers, of turning the other cheek, has for centuries been used against oppressed people, has been used to keep abused women and children in dangerous relationships, has been used as an excuse to do nothing when confronted with violence against others, has been used to convince others to become a “doormat for Christ.”

Really? Is that what Jesus is saying here? Or could it be that this passage is one of those places in Scripture where a poor translation, and a few hundred years of misinterpretation, has taken its toll?

First, let’s look at the issue of translation. Where the New Revised Standard Version quotes Jesus as saying, “Do not resist an evildoer,” it’s translating from the Greek, “antistenai,” which is better translated, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” And in the context of the sentence just before, it makes perfect sense to read it this way!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” When this law, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” was first recorded in the book of Exodus, it was nothing short of revolutionary in that it functioned as a limit to how far revenge could go. The idea might have been to keep life from looking like a Quentin Tarentino movie. If someone killed your cow, you couldn’t burn down their barn. If someone hit you, you couldn’t stab them. If someone insulted you, you couldn’t kill their family. A person could do just enough to repair his reputation, just what it took to save face, and no more. One’s retribution could not go further than matching the original offense.

Remember that we talked last week about how Jesus, in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, is taking all-too-familiar laws and sayings and intensifying them, radicalizing them, making them personal and extending these teachings into almost every area of life.

Jesus is saying, “Look. Moses said that if you need revenge, you can have it, but don’t go over the line. I say put revenge aside. You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I want to be? A critical, cynical person, who refuses to forget even for a moment that old so-and-so owes me a buck, owes me an apology, owes me an invitation to dinner, owes me a phone call? So self-absorbed that I’m forever calculating what I’ve got coming?’ If you’re following me, that’s not going to cut it.”

Jesus' basic call in Matthew 5, and it is nowhere more obvious than here, is the call for us to be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called "surprising people." Instead of being like so many others in this world--people with chips on their shoulders, people always spoiling for a fight, folks forever hauling each other into the People's Court to settle silly disputes that just a little understanding and honesty could resolve in ten minutes, we are called to live more deeply.

If I may play off of a quote by C.S. Lewis, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas. Most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone. Then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who do not have to face circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing.

It is a sad but telling feature to our lives that we tend to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. We assume that no one else in the world faces precisely the dynamics we face. What we see through our own eyeballs and what we feel inside our own hearts are not shared by others because nobody has ever been hurt the way I have been hurt. No one has an enemy as pernicious and cruel as my enemy. Others can turn the other cheek but I am going to hit back before I get destroyed. Others can be loving and forgiving but I am going to use the good sense God gave me and be wary and defensive.

But we are called to live more deeply. To walk in that place where Jesus has walked before us. Jesus had the worst enemies ever and endured a hatred he could never in a million lifetimes have deserved. And despite enduring the worst that those enemies could hurl at him, he still managed to rasp out in a moment of agony: “Father, forgive them—they know not what they are doing.”

And if life consisted of just the petty, the superficial, if the worst thing that anyone ever had to endure was getting cut off in traffic or being ignored by a receptionist or having to wait on hold, then what I have said thus far would be enough. Play the piano, pass the plate, don’t forget to dance, what’s for lunch?

But as Christ calls upon us to live more deeply, we must recognize that the problems that we, and others in our lives and upon this planet, face, are all too often far more than mere inconveniences or insults to our dignity. To treat all situations as equal is to, and this is just one example, return to the horror of telling a battered woman or abused child to “turn the other cheek” and remain in a deadly situation.

The examples Jesus uses in expanding upon “Do not violently resist an evildoer” are telling. Each of the three scenarios – turning the cheek, giving your cloak as well as your coat when sued, going the extra mile – were things done to the powerless, the poor, the enslaved. These were things done by powerful people, in a system which gave absolute power to those with wealth and position and birth.

“…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” according to some of the scholars I’ve read, Jesus is describing an act done by Masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek, and was not at all an act of random violence or of fighting among friends or enemies. The blow was about asserting status, rank, privilege and power over the other. It had to be done properly, to demonstrate that the master had control of the slave. The slave must obediently stand facing you without external coercion. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand.

If this is correct, then by turning the left cheek, the slave renders the master powerless to continue the violence, and does so without lifting a finger.

“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Peasants did not sue one another, so this, too is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned - except for your underwear… which, in those days, was a “cloak!” Perhaps the idea is to publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns! Give him your underwear. Let him explain why you are naked.

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” Soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a mile. However, this was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing that day's labor, and therefore that day's food for the family. Perhaps going that extra mile not only exposed to the soldier the injustice he was committing, but it saved some other poor laborer from missing a day’s work as well.

We carry away from this some very important lessons in twenty-first century America. First and foremost, don’t be part of a system, and don’t act in a way, which forces others to turn the other cheek, to give us coat and cloak, to walk the extra mile. Live more deeply.

Next, we must recognize that there are times when the truth must be spoken to power in a way which exposes the evil and corruption inherent in their systems. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the protests breaking out across the Middle East. Change has come, and is continuing, in places like Yemen, Egypt, and in Libya and Iran… the change comes with a price as those in power use their police forces and armies to injure and kill the protestors. Yet as it did when people endured police dogs, fire hoses, and dynamite bombs in our own city in the 1960’s, the change comes.

And we must carry away something which, perhaps, cuts “closer to the bone,” if you will. We must learn to recognize when those offenses committed against us are petty, and when, by confronting the offender in love, we can bring a level of healing, restoration, and growth to both parties.

My friend Rev. Kathleen Lambert was asked, when she was being examined by the Committee on Ministry for ordination in her Presbytery, to describe a time when my faith was challenged or shaken.

She says, “I told them of a time when I was serving as an associate pastor with a senior pastor who was condescending to me and humiliated me in general, but once even in a worship service… he came right over to me yelling and pointing his finger at me… I was left with a feeling of being so reduced and so confused about what I should do next. How was I as a Christian woman and a subordinate to handle this situation?

“That night I prayed and prayed and prayed. I was up till 4:00 in the morning wrestling with this. Then a peace came over me as the answer became clear. As I prayed for him, as I began to imagine hope, my anger melted away and I saw a way for both of us to be restored.

“It occurred to me that he treated lots of people this way. The other associate, who was a man, his wife, his children, the church secretary, and the youth group. And nobody stood up to him. Surely, we were all afraid. And maybe, nobody ever told him that he scares people. Maybe he didn't even know how much he was hurting people.

“It became clear as day to me, that God was giving me that peace that surpasses understanding so that I would have the confidence to help him to be restored. I needed to say something to him, not just to stand up for myself, but to give him the freedom from the evil that possessed him and caused him to hurt so me and so many others.

“The next day, I explained to him how I felt from his treatment of me. I told him that I felt humiliated, like I had been slapped across the face. I told him that he was making unreasonable demands on me. I told him that I wanted to work it out. I was willing to go the extra mile. But that I would not accept being treated like that any longer.

“Then I drew deep from the well of divine confidence and told him ‘and so we have a problem.’

“Then I was quiet.

“He was quiet too. Then he said, ‘thank you. No one has ever showed me such dignity. No one has ever given me my humanity. Thank you.’

“That was the story I told to the chair and vice chair of the COM and that what I learned that day was how to handle confrontation. And it has changed my faith in a profound way.

“I am no longer afraid of confrontation, because I know as a Jesus follower, there is another way to handle it. A way that restores both people.”

Our reading ends with Jesus telling us to be perfect, in the same way that God is perfect. That word, “teleios,” could mean complete, as in brought to its end, finished, or wanting nothing necessary to completeness, and it could mean mature, full grown, adult.

The most obvious meaning is the latter, “mature.” But let’s not set that first idea aside yet. When Christ calls on us to live more deeply, he calls us to the maturity that brings depth, but he also calls us to that journey towards perfection, toward God's perfection. Toward restoration. Yes, restoration between ourselves and our fellow Christians, ourselves and our fellow human beings, but it cannot end there, because that makes Christianity little more than a social activism club.

No, to live more deeply, to walk this faith journey in the footsteps of Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is to strive to reconcile all of humanity with their loving Creator. To live more deeply is to love extravagantly – not the emotional, internal, felt “love,” but the difficult, dirty, inconvenient love. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people we don’t particularly like. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people who kind of scare us.

We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God's creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God – eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the peace and flourishing joy of all.

This is living more deeply.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Salt, Light, and a Little Storefront Church in Arkansas...

What if we acted like the most important thing in our lives was not how well we followed doctrine, or that our theology was more perfect than that other person's? What if we acted like salt and light? What would that mean?

I think it would look a lot like Canvas Community Church's "Warming Center." Watch the video - the young lady in the green shirt is Rachel McAdams (@gubeltrut on Twitter), who clued me in on this amazing effort.

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him” —
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet 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 ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The exile was over. Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland from Babylon. Little by little, people were returning to Jerusalem, and families were repopulating the lands they – and in many cases, their parents and grandparents – had been taken from almost sixty years before.

The inhabitants of Jerusalem work hard. They rebuild the Temple, though it’s rather tiny and run-down, compared to the one destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. They do their best to repair the city walls, the roads, and the marketplace.

While all of this is going on, the citizens of Jerusalem are very careful to attend Temple regularly, keep up with their sacrifices and tithes and donations, and (though food is scarce and many people are bordering on malnutrition) fasting two days each week.

But it seems that the harder they work, the worse things get. No matter how careful they are to keep the Law, no matter how pious they appear to be, there’s not enough rain for the crops. There are still holes in the walls, their houses are still in ruins, and many of the roads are unusable. The whole thing is very confusing. Could it be that, after bringing them through the Exile and returning them home, God has lost interest? Could it be that God has found another chosen people? Could God simply be no longer listening?

I can imagine how shocking Isaiah’s words were for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people who were saying, perhaps aloud, but certainly in their hearts, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

You see, in the same way that you and I may flip a wall switch and expect a light to come on, people in that day and age, whatever country they were in, whatever gods they worshipped, expected that if they followed the rules, made the sacrifices, and attended to their rituals properly, that god or those gods would respond as expected. Keeping the rules meant keeping the deities happy, and as long as He or she or it or they were satisfied, then the people would find favor with those deities, and nothing else mattered.

The obvious problem with this logic was that, from the moment God had called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, the Jewish people had been God’s chosen people, an example to the nations, a race which, by their very existence, had already found favor with God.

What was the point of all this fasting, all this self-abasement? If they were already God’s chosen people, how could they be more chosen? Isaiah’s call is for God’s people to act like what they already are – God’s people!

God’s people don’t need ritual fasts to get God’s attention. What God calls for is not more sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate someone’s piety, but a redefinition of “piety.” In this new definition we read in Isaiah, fasting is a new set of relationships within ongoing life. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, from blaming others, from evil speech, from self-satisfaction, from entitlement, from blindness to one's privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for radical, vigilant attention justice and generosity, day in and day out.

It is the fast of a people not seeking their identity, but confident and active within their identity! Not trying to be somebody, but sure of who they already are! It is a fast which, because of its generosity, compassion, and confidence in the blessings of God, will naturally result in the light, healing, help, protection, satisfying of needs, and, most certainly, the presence and guidance of God among them.

In countless Sunday Schools, Bible studies, youth groups and worship services today, discussions and lessons and sermons will be struggling with our Gospel reading, and I do mean “struggling.” Set aside trying to explain how salt can become unsalty; the whole thing about the Law not being abolished, and the requirement to be more righteous than the Pharisees is a tall mountain to climb for anyone.

It’s too easy to get the discussion wrong – to end up talking about how we, as Christians, might become the salt of the earth, or become the light of the world. Too often, the message will be that if we work harder in this or that, if we are more diligent in the other, then perhaps God will look favorably upon those actions, and mercifully account for our actions as attaining the status of being salt and light.

But Jesus never said “You can become the salt of the earth,” or “You will be the light of the world.” These are not potential states, achievements to be attained, or even future certainties! We don’t have to try to become salt and light.

Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! In Jesus Christ, this is a current reality. And when we embrace this reality, when we know who we are, everything changes.

The thing about salt is, whether it’s mined or harvested through desalinization, it can’t be not salt. It seasons, it preserves, in some areas of the country it melts ice on roads, and in the summer that same kind of salt helps freeze ice cream. In ancient times salt was rubbed on newborns, and had other medicinal uses. Some gourmets claim to be able to taste the difference between salt from different places on the planet. But whatever the application, salt has to be salt.

The thing about light is it can’t be anything but light. Light is pervasive and invasive; if you have to develop film in a darkroom, any trace of light seeping in will ruin the process. When it’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, a single match can make all the difference. Whichever extreme, light has to be light.

If we view church as something we go to, rather than something we are; if it’s a once-a-week get-out-of-Hell-free card or if it counts as positive marks on our social acceptability meter, we miss the point, and I would contend that we are in danger of finding out how salt can become unsalty.

And if we, as Christians, are struggling to be accepted by God, to be doctrinally perfect and theologically blameless, we’re missing the point. We are already accepted by God. We are already salt and light. We don’t cease functioning because we’re already there; instead, knowing who we are and whose we are frees us to act in response to this incredible gift of God’s grace! We can’t be anything but salt! We can’t be anything but light!

One of the most striking examples I’ve seen lately of this kind of freedom was when my friend Rachel McAdams told me about volunteer work she’s doing at this tiny storefront church in Little Rock, Arkansas, called Canvas Community Church. In early January, as temperatures in Arkansas were dropping far more than usual, the homeless shelters became filled to over capacity. People were, out of necessity, being turned away. There was no room. Canvas Community church members decided to open their doors so folks could get warm. There was no big pomp and circumstance, no running it through committee to make sure it didn’t violate the charter, no budget, and no plan for how to get it done. I don’t even think they ran it past City Hall. They saw a need and filled the need.

They set up row upon row of donated cots in the common area. They made coffee. They cooked food. They opened the doors. Over a hundred people showed up that first night, and aside from a few nights when the temperature has meant that the center could close, the place has been packed ever since. More than one hundred and fifty volunteers have done the following: Over 2,000 meals have been distributed. Hundreds of people have received haircuts, warm clothes, showers, sleeping bags, and hygiene kits. But the impact is going far beyond these basics. Over a hundred people so far have received medical assistance. Fifty six homeless and marginalized individuals so far have been helped into social services. Twenty-one people have been helped into rehab. Thirteen people have been helped into an education program. And no less than twelve families have been reunited.

What is striking to me, and not in a good way, is this: Canvas Community Church is all too unique, not because of what they did, but that they did it at all. They didn’t sit back and expect the shelters to magically expand their capacity to do the job. They didn’t wait on the government to step in. They were salt. They were light.

Seeing a need and actively, even recklessly, meeting that need? That is being the salt of the earth which brings nourishment, healing, and restoration. That is being the light of the world which brings hope, direction, growth, and life.

When God spoke through Isaiah, he was calling on the returning exiles to act like who they already were: the chosen of God, a beacon of light to the Gentiles, a source of hope for the nations. When Christ calls us to exceed the Pharisees in our righteousness, we can do this only by acting like what we already are – what we cannot not be! Salt and light!