Epiphany 5A: Go and Be Salt

salt-and-light

OLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12)

Read the Old Testament passage

The writings that we know as Isaiah probably span several generations and several writers.  The 58th chapter is in what we loosely call “Third Isaiah”, which was probably written around 520 BCE, as the Hebrews began trying to rebuild and reshape their community after the exile.  The passage that we read for this week is full of instructions for how to do just that.

The people seem to think that they are doing all the right things, living godly and pious lives that will please God.  After all, they are doing it all right.  Their worship services are standing room only.  They say their prayers.  They follow the ritual fasting days that will bring God’s favor upon them.  So, it must have been quite a shock to hear this prophet’s strong condemnation of these rituals.  They are called to take a hard and discerning look at why they are doing these things.  Is it to gain favor with God?  Is that the only reason that you practice your faith?  Is that what you’re called to do?  And then the prophet points to the seemingly endless stream of injustices that are part of their society—oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty—the list is endless.  The question is how can a society or a people call themselves righteous, call themselves people of God, who would allow these things to exist?

The writer contends that this is the only way to have a relationship with God. The writer reframes what the fast itself means.  It is no longer the periodic fast days that are part of their religious life that “proves” that they are religious.  Rather, the fast to which God calls the people of God is a fast from domination, oppression, evil speech, self-satisfaction and self-preservation, blaming others, entitlement, and privilege.  God calls for justice to be lived and breathed by the people of God.  One cannot have a full relationship with God without having a full and just relationship with the rest of humanity.  You cannot disconnect piety from your everyday life.  It is lived out day in and day out.  God does not operate in isolation but calls the people into a partnership in building God’s vision.  That is what it means to be a child of God.  It is then that the light will break forth.

For us, we probably need to listen to the words, “Shout out, do not hold back!”  Deep down we all want to do something, to live out our faith in the way that God calls us.  But oftentimes, life gets in the way.  First we need to___________ [fill in the blank].  You know after we get ____________ [fill in the blank] in order.  That is the conventional wisdom of this world.  We know all about worship and prayer except how to let it change us.  But God calls us to get on with it, to begin living our life of faith in the fullest way possible without waiting until the time is right.  It is our own chance for healing.

How would your congregation respond to this call to worship?  “We hope you are not planning to go through the motions in worship, singing the songs but never engaging your hearts, hearing the Scripture but not listening for God, or giving an offering but not giving yourselves, because if so, you are not doing God any favors.  You do not get points for attendance.  If you really worship God today, then you will share with the poor, listen to the lonely, and stop avoiding those in need.” (Brett Younger, from Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 319)

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. In what ways does this passage speak to our own time and our own context?
  3. In what ways do we separate our piety from our works of justice and mercy?
  4. What happens when those two become separated?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)

Read the passage from 1 Corinthians

Paul continues his letter to the church at Corinth and the theme of competing wisdoms between the society in which they lived and their identity as children of God.  He is not trying to impress the Corinthians, who loved the Greek way of wisdom and knowledge, with flowery speech and rhetoric.  Paul just said it the way it was.  He preached Christ.  (And we then learn later that Paul struggled with some people who were still dismissing him because he was “unimpressive.”)

Paul uses the word “mystery” not to describe a wisdom that he attains but to describe the cross. And unlike the Corinthians, who viewed the notion of “spirit” as miracle and power, Paul’s concept of Spirit of course depicts the Spirit of Christ that is alive and lives because of the cross.  Paul is not preaching against being smart or intellectual.  I would guess that Paul would be a zealous advocate for deep and reflective study.  But for Paul, wisdom is something more.  It is the wisdom that one finds in relationship with God, the wisdom of the cross.

He sees the cross as God’s way of outwitting the powers of this world, the powers that divide the world and pull it away from what is right and good.  He is warning the Corinthian hearers that they are doing the same thing.  They need to decide which power they will follow, which value system is part of their lives, or they have, in effect, “killed” Christ all over again.  Those who love God, who follow Christ, who see the cross as God’s glory, will know the wisdom that is God.

Paul is actually being a little sarcastic here by employing the Corinthians own “everyday” language in his letter.  He is usurping those words that the Corinthians hold so dear in their value system—mystery, wisdom, spirit—and bringing them into a new and certainly wise understanding.  Paul is also challenging the powers of that world and of ours.  Perhaps we have become entirely too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the power and wisdom that is God “co-exist”.  Maggie Ross, in her book, Pillars of Flame:  Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, writes that “if we emulate the world’s understanding of power, we cease to be the church.  We merely mimic the power politics to which we have grown so accustomed.  In discovering and rediscovering the “self-emptying, kenotic humility of God,” however, we not only find our voice as God’s people, but we are empowered to become the kind of community that brings healing and new life to the world.”  (Richard M. Simpson, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 331.)

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. We’ve asked this before but how does this depict “wisdom”?
  3. Do you think we are too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the powers of God “co-exist”? What does that mean for us?
  4. We have talked about the “humility of God”. What does that mean in our world today?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 13-20

Read the Gospel passage

Last week we read the Beatitudes, the well-known discourse that depicts life in the context of God’s grace.  You will notice that the final beatitude changes to second person.  Verses 13 and 14 continue with this personalizing effect. The emphasis is on “you”….YOU…YOU…YOU.  (You are the salt of the earth, as if Jesus is speaking specifically to each of us.)  And so, in the middle of these concerns, Jesus provides the image of “salt”.  Why salt?  Think about some of the uses for salt—seasoning, nutrition (an essential nutrient that the body itself cannot produce), deicing, as a preservative, as a purifier (antiseptic for wounds), as a cleaning agent, or to add buoyancy in water (ships float higher in salt water than in fresh water.)  Real Simple Magazine suggests that you put salt into pine cones and shake them in a plastic bag to get all of the dirt off before you use them to make a wreath.

So salt does not have just one use.  The idea, then, of “becoming salt” calls us to a deep and multi-layered existence with God and with our brothers and sisters on this earth.  The passage does not say “you should be” or “you ought to be” or “when you have time, you should try to be.”  It says “you are the salt of the earth.”  You are the essential nutrient that the world needs.

Salt was so valuable in the ancient world, that the Greeks called it divine.  There were times when Roman soldiers would even receive their salaries in salt. In fact, the Latin word for “salt” is the root word for “salary”. For the ancients, the two most important things in life were sol and sal, Sun and salt.  In this Scripture, the salt referred to the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus.  Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were used to light an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. (“trampled under foot”).

Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural “dung.” But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics. Even today in Africa, workers request a portion of their pay in salt.  When one is presented to a chief, it is expected that you would bring a gift of salt.  Nelson Mandela once said, “Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.”  So, to really understand this passage, we need to have an African view of salt.  When we are told that we are salt, we are told that we are of great use and value in society.  We must add flavor to everything we touch.

Why light?  That one is probably more obvious to us.  A light illumines, points to something, reveals, makes it easier to see.  We are called to be light—to be the ones that reveal Christ to and in the world.  We are called to be salt, to shape the world, and we are called to be light, to point toward Christ.  That is the way that everything that came before, the laws, the prophets, the wisdom, is revealed in its fullness.  The point is that we are always called to be something more.  Christians make a difference in the world by being different from the world.

 

We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matt. 7:24– 29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his sayings what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them.

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. Why is this sometimes so difficult for us to really grasp and live out in our lives?
  3. What does it mean to you to “be salt”? To “be light”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Without justice, what are kingdoms but great gangs of bandits? (St. Augustine of Hippo)

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.  (Monica Baldwin)

There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice.  (Edward Hays)

 

 

Closing

I want to pay the highest compliment anyone could ever pay:

You are the light of the world.

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the leven in the loaf.

So, go and be light.  Go and be salt.  Go and be leven.

                                    (From Marcus Borg, who admitted that he stole it from William Sloan Coffin]

 

 

Proper 5C: Is There Really Room at the Table?

Photographer: Antonio Parente
“The Last Supper”, Tom Phillips, 2013, Flowers Gallery (Photographer: Antonio Parente)

FIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 17: 8-24

To read the passage from 1 Kings

The seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings begins the three-chapter account of the conflict between King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and Elijah the Prophet.  After confronting King Ahab for his introduction of the pagan god Baal, known for insuring rain for crops, Elijah goes into hiding from Ahab.  (Actually, it was Ahab’s wife Jezebel that pushed for this affirmation of Baal.)  The passage that we read is included in a grouping of three stories of Elijah’s experiences while in hiding.  These stories serve to establish Elijah as a legitimate and God-sent prophet.

The main reading is the first part of our whole passage and the second of these three stories.  The story begins with YHWH’s command to Elijah to go to Zarephath where a widow feeds him.  Elijah obeys and finds a widow gathering sticks.  He requests that she bring him water to drink, which she does.  Elijah then asks her for bread.  This time she protests the request, explaining that she only has enough to prepare a last meal for herself and her son.  Elijah assures her that the supplies will not fail until YHWH sends rain again.  (Because, after all, it is God, not Baal, who sends rain.)  She obeys and they eat for days.  The point is that even in this land of Baal, God’s grace and extravagant generosity is present.  It’s a commentary on what can happen when we live a life of abundance, rather than hoarding our resources in a life of scarcity.

The second act that we read, the sons of the widow falls ill.  It was severe; he was near death, possibly, according to some commentators, already deceased. The widow blames Elijah for her son’s demise.  She believes that the illness has come about because of something that she has done and that Elijah’s presence as a man of God has turned God’s attention or, in her understanding, God’s wrath toward her.  Elijah offers a prayer of lament, complaining to God that God has caused this illness and brought it upon the child of a woman who had saved him at God’s calling.  Elijah petitions God to save the child. (If, as many commentators claim he was dead, this was REALLY an unimagineable request.)  YHWH hears Elijah’s prayer and the boy is revived.  Elijah takes the child back to his mother.  Her response is a confession of faith, an affirmation of Elijah as YHWH’s prophet.

On the surface, it seems that Elijah, just like the widow, doubted that God would provide, questioned whether or not God would come through after all this.  In fact, Elijah got downright angry at God:  “I did what you said and you give me this???”  That’s probably a normal reaction.  But Elijah kept going—he kept believing and praying and otherwise imagining.  And the text says that God listens.  This God to whom we are told over and over that we should listen has listened to Elijah.  Maybe that’s saying that this is more of a conversation, more of a relationship with God than we thought.  Maybe it IS about what we do.  Maybe when we do somehow learn to speak Truth, God listens.  The truth is that faith is not a blind, unquestioning embrace of God’s promises; we’re just called to imagine something beyond it, imagine what we cannot fathom, imagine what makes no sense at all.  We are called to imagine something beyond ourselves and then go there.  That is why Elijah is considered a great prophet—not because he knew how to preach and obviously not because he never swayed in his faith in God’s response but because he just dared to keep believing and imagining that there is always a resurrection—here, from scarcity to abundance and then from death to life.

How powerful it is to be reminded that sometimes we are part of resurrection, sometimes God works through human agents that dare to imagine something beyond themselves, dare to imagine what the Truth really holds, dare to imagine that God is offering us all the abundance that we need.

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What most often stands in the way of our believing and imagining what God can do?

3)      How quick are we to blame God when our prayers are not answered in the way that we envision?

4)      What would it take for us to truly imagine resurrection in our lives or for our world?

5)      What stands in the way of our praying for the unimagineable?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 1: 11-24

To read the Galatians passage

Paul had founded the churches in the area in and around Galatia and then had moved on to do the same in other places.  But after he left, there were those who had questioned his authority, his “pedigree”, so to speak.  Instead, they were insisting that these new Christians had to first become Jews (or, in other words, be circumcised) or they were not really righteous at all.

So Paul begins by first re-establishing his authority not as a rabbi, a trained teacher, but rather as one called by God.  Paul doesn’t talk about his “conversion”, as if he is part of another religion.  Instead Paul refers to his experience as his “calling”, an experience in which his authority came not from human succession but from God.

This letter is odd.  It doesn’t begin with the normal salutation of the day.  Instead, Paul gets right to the point.  He is frustrated and angry that this newly-formed community seems to have gotten so incredibly off-course.

This is a difficult passage.  Paul is insisting that his calling, his authority, is divinely-received.  There is no tradition of the church or teachers.  There is no apostolic authority bestowed or any “laying on of hands” as Paul was ordained.  Paul, in fact, had never met Jesus and had actually spent years fighting against the very version of the Gospel that he was now so adamantly preaching.  This passage could very easily be interpreted as one in support of “non-organized” religion.  And yet, Paul is not completely denouncing Judaism; he is instead calling it to renewal.  (Hmm! It seems that most new denominations or new religions begin with a call of renewal for the ones that are already there.)  It’s not really clear if Paul sees himself as called to a revelation about Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ.  But Paul’s understanding of the faith was not one based on a set of rules or traditions but rather one that offered the tradition of faith to those on the outside.  Paul dared to believe that the revelation of God and the love of Christ is not limited by the bounds of our understanding of who God is.

In Feasting on the Word, Wendy Farley says it like this:

 

If this letter is bad news for authoritarianism, it can be good news for those committed to the constant renewal of Christianity.  It is good news for those outside systems of power who might see more clearly ways in which Christianity has cut off some of its own limbs in the name of tradition.  It is good news for all those oppressed by the church:  women, slaves, the poor.  It is good news for al those lovers of Christ whose wisdom about the Divine is distorted or repressed by leaders of the church.

Stepping back from the heat of this controversy, it seems that Christianity absorbed more of James than of Paul.  Though the Holiness Code and circumcision did not come to define Christianity, the rest of the Hebrew Scripture remains authoritative for Christians.  The authority of the church and its leaders has also survived just fine, but Paul reminds us that, as important as tradition may be it can never be adequate to the gracious and extravagant love God pours out on us.  For Paul, corralling grace in a particular community or in relation to particular practices will always violate the gospel.

I, personally, love the tradition of the church.  It keeps me grounded.  It gives me a springboard on which to start my journey of faith.  I don’t think Paul was against that.  He just didn’t believe that we should stop there.  So, Paul would probably contend that there was nothing wrong with holding the traditions of the faith and the traditions of the church close.  You just need to let them breathe into the present and leave room for the Holy Spirit to breathe into them a little.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does holding too tightly to traditions do to the church?

3)      What does letting traditions go do to the church?

4)      Why is it that this balance is so difficult for us today?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 7: 11-17

To read the Gospel passage from Luke

This passage cannot help remind us of the passage from 1 Kings that we read earlier.  Elijah, which, of course was part of the tradition here, serves as an archetype for the growing understanding of Jesus.  But here, the widow never speaks to Jesus.  She’s really just a catalyst for the story.  Instead, the story draws attention to the character of Jesus and the character of God as one who embodies compassion for all.

There is something more here than Jesus raising the dead.  Remember that in this time, widows were typically poor and vulnerable.  They were the least of the least, the very margins of acceptable society.  And now this one has lost her son too.  Jesus probably didn’t even know this woman.  He heard about her dilemma from a bystander.  And, yet, he is filled with compassion for a total outsider.  Jesus, with compassion and inclusion, raises both to life.

Note that the people did not see this as Jesus looking favorably upon the woman, but being filled with compassion.  The woman didn’t even ask Jesus to heal her son.  There was no evidence of her faith.  It doesn’t say that she DIDN’T have faith; it’s just not an issue.  There’s not even any real gratitude when it’s all over.  This is the not the story that you would expect.  It’s not really about faith but, rather about grace—undeserved, unexpected, unimagineable.  The choice is whether or not to receive it.  It just depends on whether o not we’re ready to imagine the unimagineable.

The following is from a blog by R.M.C. Morley, “A Garden Path”, available at http://rmcmorley.typepad.com/a-garden-path/2010/05/proper-5c-thoughts-and-exegesis.html.

This was big. A solemn and holy moment. And, they had no idea. Jesus tells the man to sit up.  And he does. The son of the widow is brought to life again by the touch of Jesus and his spoken word.

… on Trinity Sunday we wrestled with a God that is so big and mysterious that we have great difficulty comprehending how [God] even exists. God’s very existence is a struggle for us. And that is troubling to the soul and mind. But, here, we wrestle with the closeness of God. We have a God, a Savior, who touches us – solemnly, profoundly, and with purpose. And, isn’t that just as troubling? Isn’t it so much more desirable to have a God who is at arm’s length? Maybe not a universe away separated from us by incomprehension, but certainly not a God intimately reaches out his hand and places it upon us. We don’t do that.

Unless we understand ourselves as hanging on the precipice of birth and death. Unless we realize that we walk a tightrope, and in the balance is life itself. Because this story isn’t just about some guy who is brought back to life. I mean, that’s great and all, but this story is about us.

As Luke crafts this story he saturates it in death. There’s a woman who’s a widow. She is now a grieving mother. The corpse of her son is there. It’s a funeral procession. This story has been dipped and coated in death. It wreaks of decay, despair, and grief. And the one who is dead, is us. And Jesus, reaches out his hand and touches us. And he tells us to get up. And do we? Do we even know we’re dead? Do we even know that there’s a lifeline? Do we even know that there’s a life that’s so much better, if only we get up as Jesus asks us to? We get so comfortable in life that we think that everything is just normal – that all is ok. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.”

We can even get comfortable in church-life, shuffling along making our way to our pew. Sitting attentively. Behaving. Going up for Communion when it’s time, and dropping our money in the plate when the nice man comes by. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.” But, no we’re not. We’re either dead, or we’re being birthed by God. And, when you put it like that, touching is just fine. Bring it on. Bring those calloused hands on, and stop the parade. This is big. And we have no idea.

This story is not like many of the other healing stories.  We’re accustomed to Jesus being approached and asked for healing.  And we’re used to Jesus attributing their healing to faith  (as if somehow they deserved their own healing because they had faith). But nothing is said here about faith.  The woman doesn’t even ask.  She just cries.  Maybe that’s the point.  Healing is not predicated on our faith.  God is present when we ask and when don’t, when we listen and when we wander off doing our own thing.  God is God; we are not.  But, here, Jesus had compassion for one who was hurting, whether or not she asked, whether or not she deserved it, whether or not she was the “in-crowd” or not.  God’s Presence is not because we have faith.  God is there through pure, unadulterated, undeserved, unwarranted Grace.  What faith gives us is the ability to every once in a great while, get out of ourselves and imagine the unimaginable.  And then, just for a moment, we will experience the Sacred and the Holy, God’s Presence that is always there whether or not we know.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Why is it so difficult to chalk something up to pure, unadulterated grace?

3)      Why are we uncomfortable with the closeness of God?

4)      What do you think of the idea that we are either “dead” or “being birthed by God”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Our spiritual famine is concluded—we are just beginning to restore the honor of the imagination. (Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path)

 

Come not to discuss the words of others, but to listen…For in the sacredness of the moment Divine Grace is telling you alone all that is required.  (Jean Pierre de Caussade)

 

God is ready to give great things when we are ready…to give up everything. (Meister Eckhart)

 

Closing

Holy God of wind and fire;

Dance through this room today.

Holy God of [tornadoes] and illness;

Share our tears of sadness and pain.

Holy God of creation and new beginnings;

Show us again your vision of healing and wholeness. Amen.

 

(Katherine Hawker, “Outside the Box”, available at http://liturgyoutside.net/CPr5.html)