“Be What You Are”

January 29, 2017


Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20


Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, is famously said to have given this advice to those who preach: “Prepare your sermon with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

The past week has been filled with extreme events happening extremely fast. Newspapers have not kept up. Television reports have not kept up. And even trying to follow events online has left this preacher feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up.

One example: On Friday—Holocaust Remembrance Day—President Trump issued an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States. The irony in this horrible action comes from the fact that during WWII our nation, worrying about national security, turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, fearing that they might be Nazi spies.

That executive order on Friday also suspended immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries—although not from any countries in which President Trump has business interests—and left an estimated 500,000 people with green cards who are currently out of the country stranded and unable to return to their homes here. No concern seemed to be shown for the families being torn apart, the chaos that was being caused, or the callous disregard for human beings fleeing desperate situations.

Jen Smyers, the director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program Church World Service, called Friday a “shameful day” in America’s history.

Put your own Bible in one hand and you will discover God’s constant concern with:

Leaders who seek the good of the people;

The plight of the poor and the perils of wealth;

Hospitality for strangers and foreigners;

Beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Read that Bible along with your own newspaper and I think you will begin to see that things are going in a terribly wrong direction.

I can’t address all of this today. But the sermon I prepared on Thursday seemed woefully out of date yesterday. So I put down some new thoughts, which are, of course, incomplete and not as articulate as I might hope. And, of course, the judicial stay of that executive order late last night means that my words this morning are out of date as well. I have a feeling that we are moving into a time when there might be a lot of incomplete and inarticulate sermons.

This morning we heard the demanding words of Jesus: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the realm of heaven.”

“Righteousness” is a word that speaks of right relationships—between people, between nations. Those actions that make for right relationships are “righteous.” Those people who work for right relationships are “righteous.”

We know that there have been times when as individuals and as a nation we have not been righteous. We stand under that judgment. 

Left to ourselves we would certainly be called least in the realm of heaven that Jesus announces.

But we have not been left on our own. 

The One who holds out a greater righteousness as our calling also announces and offers the mercy and forgiveness of God. The One who tells us that the law of love is binding for us is also the One who makes it possible to fulfill that law.

Let’s be honest: when it comes to righteousness, ultimately all that we have—and all that we can offer to others—is the assurance that God still loves us and still calls us to love others.

It is only with that assurance that we can hear the call to live in the world as salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?

Salt that had lost its taste was a figure of speech for being foolish. Jesus says that those who follow him are truly wise in a foolish and dangerous world.

What is our wisdom?

Our only wisdom is Christ crucified and risen.

To know Christ crucified is to discover the God who is present in the depths of human suffering. It is to find God made known to us in weakness, anguish, and despair. It is the hope and faith that God is making something new even in the midst of great suffering.

Refugees are turned away and we see great suffering born of our own unrighteousness.

Our wisdom is also found in the resurrection.

The power of the resurrection is the ability to act that comes from a faith that even in the midst of suffering God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of that work and that creation. The power of the resurrection is the ability to act because in the resurrection we come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. We can act, trusting that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.

This power comes not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. This power rises from God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection. We see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith we claim that God continues to bring new life today.

We are called to be salt:

to live out of the wisdom that life is both good and possible because it is a gift from God;

to live out of the wisdom that God moves always toward new life and healing for the deep wounds of this world and its people;

We are called to be salt—wise in the world because we know Christ crucified and risen.

You are salt of the earth. Now.

A world in deep shadows needs illumination. Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world.” Now. 

It is the property of light to shine. Once lit, a lamp just naturally sheds light. And like a lamp on a stand, like a city on a hill, we are a visible community. What we do needs to be seen.

We shine in the world, Jesus says, so that our good works might be seen; we shine in the world—so that our good works will lead others to an understanding of the God who judges and forgives and makes life new once more.  A world in the shadows of terror and war, greed and poverty, hatred and fear needs the light that we are.

Now, please know that there are times when we—as individuals and as congregation—have been salt and light. Our annual meeting this morning gives us the opportunity to celebrate such occasions in the past year.

When we sent witnesses to Standing Rock, we were salt announcing the power of the resurrection in the face of suffering. When we showed up at the Pride Festival as we do each year with a booth announcing our welcome for all to LGBTQ people who bear the scars of rejection, we were salt announcing the power of the resurrection in the face of suffering.

When literacy tutors meet in Rockwood Hall to work with immigrants, our light shines in the darkness. When our giving to One Great Hour of Sharing supports refugees and makes their lives just a little more bearable, our light shines in the darkness. When we feed the hungry at the Free Lunch Program and provide winter clothing for children and adults, our light shines in the darkness.

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the light of the world.

And as salt, as light, we remember those words of Isaiah: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

As salt and light we must continue to be involved in shaping our common life, allocating our resources, and dealing with shared problems so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order, and peace.

We won’t always get it right but we are called to raise our voices like a trumpet.

How do we do that?

Let me suggest three ways. Let us continue to:

Act vigilantly.

Question ruthlessly.

Trust God constantly.

Act vigilantly.

We are the salt of the earth. We are descendants of the great Protestant reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. Our tradition has continually fostered important innovations in meeting social needs. Our tradition has produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and has frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest and social change. We are the ones who addressed such issues as racism and civil rights, welfare for children and families, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the protection of the environment, reproductive rights and choice, hunger and homelessness and poverty in America, and the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people.

Embrace this tradition. It is yours. It is ours.

A congregation is not the place where political consensus is reached among members, nor is it a place where discussion of political issues is silenced. Rather we should be a place where a variety of political positions receive critical theological attention, so individual Christians can become theologically informed citizens. The sovereignty of God calls for all to participate in decision-making, and that decision-making, in the church and in the world, should be guided by the common good. We do this in a small way this morning in our Annual Meeting—giving each a voice, each a vote so that we can each raise our voice and use our vote in larger contexts as well.

As the salt of the earth we act vigilantly because that is what God requires of us.

We are the light of the world. We are people of searching faith, who don’t settle for quick answers. We question ruthlessly.

We shine the light of questions upon our community and nation. We ask: Are our laws and our institutions being used to shore up the economic and political power of a few and make the powerlessness of many inevitable? Is our quest for national security being driven by a fear that casts out all love? Is the desire for profit that is constantly in search of those who will work for the lowest wages and the lowest standards a major cause of poverty in our nation and our world?

I recognize that these are dangerous questions to be asking. The late Archbishop of Brazil, Helder Camara once said, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked ‘Why are they poor?’ they called me a Communist.”

Of course there are many more questions to be asked. Let your light shine upon the shadow places of the world as you question ruthlessly.

And because our righteousness is not greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we trust God constantly.

We recognize that all our struggles—to love our neighbors, to create peace and justice, to welcome strangers and stand with the outcast—all our struggles are not losing battles because of God’s grace working in us and through us.

Sometimes we try so hard, as if everything depended on us and us alone.

It doesn’t.

While it is true that God depends on us and uses us for working in the world, it is God who is at work. After we have done all that we can do—and there is always much that we can do—the best action is to then let go and trust in the grace of God, as we have through all the circling years.

You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

Act vigilantly.

Question ruthlessly.

Trust God constantly.