God-flavors and God-colors

Sermon from February 5, 2017 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.

Text:  Matthew 5:13-20

Welcome to the second installment in the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew.  Today’s message is brought to you by the Morton Salt Company, and by the Knorr Candle Factory in Del Mar.

(Just kidding.)

So we began last week with the Beatitudes, one of the best known passages in all of scripture.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, and so on.  I’ve been working on tweeting those this week; I’m an amateur at it, so it’s been a little sporadic.  If you’ve been tweeting, I hope that has gone well for you!

I love how Jesus begins this teachable moment, this Sermon on the Mount, in a rather unorthodox manner.

He doesn’t start with a syllabus, or an outline of any kind.  No due dates for ridiculously long papers – footnoted, of course – or requirements for web forum postings.  Office hours – who knows.

No, he starts elsewhere.  He starts by validating and lifting up not only his listeners’ existence, but their experience.

He calls them blessed.

As I considered this story, I thought about the great teachers I had throughout my school years.  I thought particularly of Clayton Liggett, who for years was the drama teacher at San Dieguito High School.  The performing arts center at San Dieguito Academy is named in his honor.

Mr. Liggett didn’t operate by the model Jesus uses.  He ran his classroom with discipline and order.  We were all a little afraid of Mr. Liggett.  But boy, if you got an A in his class, you knew you had earned it.  When he was ready to give praise, you knew it was authentic.  And so in spite of our fear, most of his students would say today that he was the single most influential teacher they ever had.

And that’s the model we’re a little more used to, isn’t it?

So this story might seem a little off.  Jesus AS USUAL is going against the grain.

But it’s not against the grain in our Lutheran theology.

No, this is a perfect example of a core tenet for us: GOD MOVES FIRST.

Let me repeat that:  God moves first.

We don’t choose God.  God chooses us, ALL of us.

So Jesus’ telling the disciples and the others gathered that they are blest, and that they are salt and light, is an endorsement of their worth as beloved children of God BEFORE THEY’VE EVEN HAD A CHANCE TO DO ANYTHING TO EITHER EARN IT OR PROVE IT.

If that isn’t being set free, then I don’t know what is.

They are set free to be the people God has created and called them to be.

I’d like to re-read this passage, but from a different translation.  It’s really more of an adaptation or paraphrase than a translation.  It’s called the Message, and was put together by scholar Eugene Peterson.  He figured it would be helpful to have a version of the Bible that was instantly understandable and accessible.  He says, “when the prophet Isaiah was writing, the Israelites in exile didn’t have to go to the library to research what he said, they just understood it.”

Here is the salt part.

Matt. 5:13   “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.”

Salt-seasoning.  He writes it as a hyphenated word.  It’s kind of like those blended sea salts you can get at Trader Joe’s: you get the good sea salt in the grinder, but you might also get garlic.

Now, you put a little of that with some harissa and rub it on your chicken before grilling or pan-frying – I guarantee you that will bring out the God-flavors in that chicken.  And we are called to do the same for the world.

One thing that intrigued me about this reading was this whole idea of losing saltiness. I’m all, pretty sure that’s not a thing.  So I went to my kitchen and pulled out my container of MarkenSalz, which I purchased in Salzburg, Austria in 1987.  Yes, I still have it and no, I haven’t used it.  Don’t judge.

I tasted it, and believe me, it is just as salty as the day I bought it.  Turns out salt doesn’t lose its saltiness and remain salt.  So why does Jesus say this?  This is long before the era of alternative facts.

I wonder if Jesus is speaking from a place of knowing full well that salt doesn’t lose its saltiness – rather, he is subtlely making the point that God’s covenant with God’s people doesn’t LET anyone get thrown out or trampled underfoot.  God has created us for this purpose – God has made us “salt” – and God isn’t going to abandon us in the midst of that purpose.

Throughout human history, salt has been an essential element for seasoning, for preserving, and for a host of other things.  If each one of us is the salt of the earth, then we are indispensable to the carrying out of that covenant relationship with God and with God’s creation itself.  If we never open that pour spout and let our saltiness bring out those God-flavors – if we don’t spread that salty love – then we are, as Paul says, just a noisy gong.  Losing our saltiness is actually bottling it up tight.

Peterson has this to say in his paraphrase of the passage about the light:

Matt. 5:14   “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  15 If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand.  16 Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

“Going public.”  That has got to be one of the best ways I’ve heard to explain what it means to live our life in and as the light of Christ.

You see, dear friends, the gospel is not good advice.

It’s not a “Dear Abby” column to be read with detachment and considered with indifference.  No indeed.

The gospel is not good advice.  The gospel is good NEWS.  It is the factual reality that God loves us no matter what.  And it is also the factual reality that because of that love, Jesus calls us to go public.  To keep open house.  To be generous with our lives.  To open up to others.  To live into the implication of our baptism:

“Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

 I like these words.  We repeat them at every baptism as a commissioning of sorts to the newly baptized.  But I’m afraid that my default setting isn’t quite so noble.  I would like it to be, but I seem to mess up pretty regularly.  Perhaps you find yourselves in that place sometimes too.

Our default setting leans toward comfort, conformity, and complacency.  Deep down, we know that if we are the salt Jesus needs us to be, what it REALLY might do is sting.  If we are the light – it just might expose what we do not want to see.  We might have to get uncomfortable.  We might have to rise up and follow where God leads.

We hear Jesus’ next words about the law, and we might feel that sting a little more.  But I wonder if what Jesus is really doing here is beginning his distinction between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law.  If what he’s doing is challenging that default setting.

Here is how Peterson brings it:

Matt. 5:17   “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama.  18 God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.”

A vast panorama.  What a great image for the fulfillment of the law.

You might remember that elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, and he replies that there are two: first, love God; and second, love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s like the story of the rabbi who refers to those commandments as the essence of Torah.  “The rest,” says the rabbi, “is merely commentary.”

What if Jesus’ intention is for us as disciples to imagine and live into an attitude of the heart, a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible?

What does such imagination and living-into look like?

Our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, tweeted a prescient observation earlier this week.  “In the Good Samaritan story,” she said, “the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor.  But Jesus asks, who ACTED as neighbor.”

Perhaps this is the key.  Maybe here is where our imaginations are ignited, where our living-into begins making God’s peaceable realm possible.  It begins with Christ’s “attitude of the heart”, his righteousness, given to us in God’s grace, whereby our attitude of the heart is activated and enlivened as we then act as neighbor.

Instead of sitting passively, just acquiring knowledge about who is our neighbor – which, by the way, is full of judgmental overtones – we are called to be actively seeking out those to whom we might act as neighbor.  No vetting required.

It is knowledge accompanied by action.  In other words – discipleship.

You see, knowledge without action is a barrier wall against the Kingdom of heaven.  Knowledge without action is what perpetuates the existence of racism in our world.  Knowledge without action keeps us quiet about sexism and ageism.  Knowledge without action overlooks the hungry and keeps folks in the margins.  Knowledge without action is also against the grain: against the grain of God.

But I think we know a little bit about knowledge WITH action.

Remember our stewardship chair’s slide presentations on stewardship?  When we saw all the ministries of Bethlehem appear one by one in a word cloud?  And he then said, “thank you for your stewardship”?

That stewardship, those ministries – this is knowledge coupled with action.  It’s not only stewardship, but discipleship.  Together with the Beatitudes’ blessings, Jesus begins to lay out the blueprint for building the Beloved Community – the way of discipleship.

There’s a reason that this particular Isaiah text was chosen several decades ago to be read alongside this Matthew gospel lesson every three years.  The Isaiah text is before us today because it is the essence of that vast panorama of fulfillment of the law.  It is the most flavorful of all salts, it is the brightest of lights.  It is the way of discipleship.

As we heard read:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…..and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; …..you shall…..be called…..the restorer of streets to live in.”

Knowledge and action.        Salt and light.

Dear friends:  Be that salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this world.

Be that light that brings out the God-colors in this world.

Go public.  For this gospel is not good advice.  It is good NEWS.

 May it be so among us.