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]

 

 

Epiphany 2A: Come and See, Come Now

following-christOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 49: 1-7

Read the passage from Isaiah

This week’s Old Testament passage is the second of those writings known as the “servant songs” that we discussed last week.  In this one, it is the servant (and not God) that is presented to the world.  You can imagine him stepping forward and speaking as God once did.  He tells of his calling, which has already taken place.  This seems to be a calling that was made to a specific individual, rather than to the whole nation of Israel.  But in verse 3, “Israel” is unmistakably mentioned.  Some may think that rather than this intending to mean “Israel, my servant”, is may just as easily mean: “You are Israel.  You are my servant.”  But either way, Israel is called to follow God.

The servant here knows himself (or herself!) as having been called by God and accepts the role that God has laid out as the speaker to the nation.  The servant understands himself as a “light to the nations”.  This is the one time that the servant is depicted as an individual.  In this case the “call” moves from a wider scope to a more narrow one, from communal to individual.  But either way, the servant’s role is to lead the community toward God.

This passage begins with a reference to the nations, even to those peoples “far away”.  So what God is doing here in Zion is meant to be witnessed by all.  This is not a private affair.  Essentially, the nations (all of them) are to be illuminated through the servant’s activity and existence.  A light is not a focus of attention on itself, but serves to open eyes to something that was previously not perceived.  So because of this servant and, then, because of Israel, all nations are called forth into the light of God.  Here, “to be a light to the nations” does not mean necessarily going out and converting.  It means, rather, to be faithful to God in such a way that others will notice.

The servant, as part of the acceptance of his role, asserts his true and total dependence upon God.  He lays out that his whole life, even from birth, has been set with God’s purpose for this specific vocation.  But the results still seem to be hidden and the servant becomes skeptical of the outcome.  But, as the passage implies, being chosen is just that—it may not mean understanding everything but rather being open to following.  The servant, chosen and named, has no escape from the task for which he has been summoned.  The servant is well equipped for the work that he or she is called to do—gathering and being light.

 

  1. What comes to mind upon your reading of this passage?
  2. What does this image of the “light” to the nations mean to you?
  3. What is the difference between “converting” and being faithful enough that others will be led to God?
  4. What do you see it took for this servant to totally accept his God-offered role?
  5. So what does this mean for us?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

Read the passage from 1 Corinthians

Corinth is located about forty miles to the south-southwest of Athens on the isthmus that links that area to the rest of Greece.  In ancient times, then, the city was very strategic commercially and, for Paul, also strategic religiously.  Because of its location, it boasted a wide religious diversity.  Politically, it was a colony of the Roman Empire, which assured a special relationship with Rome and the Roman government.  It sort of had a reputation, then, of a seemingly wealthy community without a lot of depth to it.  Many viewed it as having a lack of culture.  Paul probably arrived in Corinth in 50 CE, after he had established churches in Philippi and Thessalonica.  We learn in what we call “The First Letter to the Corinthians” that there was at least one previous letter, which we do not possess.

It seems that, in an attempt to follow Paul’s guidance in that first letter, there are members of the church that have tried to distance themselves from seemingly “immoral” people.  So, in our “First Letter”, Paul reminds them that they are a community.  To be a believer apart from the community is inconceivable for Paul.  This is where we get the parts of the letter that talk about the different faith maturities and different gifts.

In the passage that we read, we once again encounter more “call” language.  It is clear that both Paul and every member of the community is “called”.  He affirms what they have done so far, but he also leads them to see that this is just the beginning of their own journey of living out their call.  Once again, with the call comes complete dependence upon God and for that we are reminded to be thankful for that and for others.  Paul’s relationship to other believers and his thankfulness to God are linked and is not based on whether Paul likes them or agrees with them, but on the simple fact that God’s grace is active in them.  Paul reminds us that our lives in Christ are never just our own but always involve how we relate to those around us. Essentially, he begins to confront what is becoming a sort of growing “spiritual arrogance” for the Corinthian church or the sense of one’s own self-importance and “rightness” when it comes to the faith.

This whole idea of how we see ourselves as Christians takes us back to that “light to the nations” image.  It confirms that none of us have “arrived” and that we are all still on the journey.  It is again a call to “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention…” as we read in this week’s first passage.  It is a call for us to always be open to discerning who and whose we are for those of us who call ourselves “Christian”.

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What for you is meant by Paul’s image of this call by God—dependence upon God as well as relationships with others?
  3. In essence, Paul is claiming that the way we see ourselves as relating to God affects the way we see ourselves relating to others.  What meaning does that hold for you?
    1. How do you think those images affect relationships with others?
    2. Are there any that might contribute to that whole idea of “spiritual arrogance” that Paul warned against?
    3. So what does the call to be a “light to the nations” mean after reading this passage?

 

 

GOSPEL:  John 1: 29-42

Read the Gospel passage from The Gospel According to John

This passage is part of what is essentially the writer of John’s “prelude” to Jesus’ ministry.  Verses 1-18 celebrate Jesus’ origins, even back to “the beginning” of Creation;  Verses 19-34 narrates the initial witness of John the Baptist to Jesus; and Verses 35-51 depicts the gathering of Jesus’ first disciples.

So we begin in the middle of the John the Baptist section as John is shown as unafraid to speak the truth about his identity and his ministry.  He boldly announces the truth to anyone who will listen.  Verse 29 begins the highlight of John’s testimony and rather than just hearing “about” it, we get to hear the witness first hand.  Jesus sort of stands on the sidelines at the beginning.  John then identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He is pointing away from himself; he is pointing toward Jesus.  Note that sin is singular here.  It is talking about the collective brokenness of the world, rather than our individual sins.  He is pointing to Jesus as the Savior not of us as individuals but of the world.  And then John seems to step aside.

Then we switch to the beginning of the gathering of Jesus’ disciples.  Note here that two disciples follow Jesus as a direct result of John’s witness.  John showed them the light.  After this John simply disappears from the scene.  The verb “to follow” has both a literal meaning, but it is also often used as a metaphor for discipleship.  This is a distinctive trait of the writer of John’s style.  The first two disciples are the only ones given names in this call narrative.  The third one is not.  This anonymity is reflective of the writer’s understanding of discipleship as a broader vision.  (In essence, the “other disciple” could be us!) There is, for example, no formal catalogue of the twelve disciples in John.  Discipleship is meant for all of us.  And when Jesus calls us to follow, the answer is always “come and see”.  You have to come and see for yourself.

Walter Brueggemann describes our response as “finding a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”

“And what do you do?” we ask one another at a party. We get a list of accomplishments or a résumé, and sometimes we are caught off guard by the resigned description of a sad life. When that happens, we want to find another guest, one who follows the rules and says, “I’m in real estate. And you?”  What if we asked more of one another in our introductions? What if we skipped the world’s definitions and moved instead to God’s? The guest responds, “I work in real estate, but what I really am is a creature that God knit together in my mother’s womb. My family wants me to move into commercial development, but sometimes I wonder if I’m an arrow God hid away in a quiver, and I’m about to be shot out into creation. The world tells me I don’t make enough money to get my monthly credit card bills down, but my faith tells me I could be a light to the nations.”

Isaiah wanders over from the canapé table and says, “I couldn’t help but overhear your words, and I know exactly what you mean. I have labored in vain, yet surely my cause is with the Lord.”  “And our reward with God,” says the realtor. The party goes on around them, but they have been caught up in something new.  Jesus hears John introduce him again. This time John is standing with two men who will turn out to be the first disciples, and John announces, “Here is the Lamb of God.” That’s enough to make the men follow him, but Jesus seems to want to clarify.

“Who are you looking for?” he asks.  The disciples aren’t interested in the question. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask. The disciples are not looking for small talk, or more introductions. They are looking for a way of life. “Come and see,” Jesus says, as if to suggest that we do know one another not by titles or names but ultimately by how we live. How ordinary. Jesus has gone from being the Lamb of God to a guy having some other guys over to his place.

But then Simon Peter’s brother brings him to Jesus and says, “We have found the Messiah.” Is Jesus irritated with the grand introduction? Apparently not, for he responds by giving Simon an entirely new name. In the end, it is Jesus who makes the introductions and Jesus who gives the new life. (From “Grand Introductions”, by Lillian Daniel, in The Christian Century, January 2-9, 2002, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2256, accessed 12 January, 2011.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does a “call” mean for you?
  3. What does it say about our own call?
  4. What stands in the way of our response?
  5. What meaning does John’s “stepping aside” mean for you?
  6. And how does this speak to the call to “be a light to the nations”?

 

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The desire to fulfill the purpose for which we were created is a gift from God. (A. W. Tozer)

Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from a listening.  I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I’d like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear.  (Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 4)

The message of Jesus Christ demands a response of the hearer’s whole life.  (Richard Lischer, The Preacher King:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Movement that Moved America)

 

 

Closing

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

 

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self evident, that all persons are created equal.

 

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,

Who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

 

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of [humanity]…I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today!

 

You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds

And your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.

Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

 

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mount shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 

Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, I my God; your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;

See, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.

 

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.  With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of [unity].  With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together…to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

 

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

 

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning—“my country ‘tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing;

 

Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;

 

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

 

Let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.  Amen.

 

(Compiled by Shelli Williams from the words of Psalm 40: 1-11 and excerpts from “I Have a Dream”, a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)