FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
‘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. Matthew 5:13.
The first thing to remember is that these words, indeed, the entire Sermon on the Mount, are directed not to individual persons but to the community of disciples.[i] It is not as though Jesus calls us to struggle heroically as lone individuals in the midst of a sinful world to embody a set of highly impractical moral precepts. Neither is the Sermon a kind of spiritual measuring rod designed to “put us in our place” so that we can be properly repentant. To the contrary, these words of Jesus are a gift, a vision of the life Jesus promises to his followers in order that they might become what preacher, teacher, farmer and advocate Clarence Jordan called “a demonstration plot” for the reign of God. It is through the community called church that the world comes to know there is a better way of being human, that the way things are is not the way they have to be nor the way they always will be. Or, as Jordan puts it: “The crowning evidence that [Jesus] lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”
So how then does the church function as “salt”? There is no small discussion among scholars as to whether the metaphor implies that the church is a preservative, as was commonly the case in the ancient word, or whether the church is to be understood as a spice. Either way, it is obvious that the church is intended to have a redemptive effect on the world. Moreover, it is obvious that once salt has lost its taste (however that might happen), there is no restoring it. Adding more salt is much like throwing good money after bad. You only dilute the good salt you have to produce mediocre salt. The point, it seems, is that Jesus’ community of disciples is to be different from all other communities. Unlike communities and societies grounded in race or nation or tribe or culture, the church is grounded in its allegiance to Jesus. It exists within every nation, but it does not pledge its ultimate allegiance to any of them. It is made up of people with differing loyalties and commitments, but none of these commitments, whether to nation or party or family, rise to the level of their baptismal vow of loyalty to Jesus. The worst thing that can happen to the church is for it to become “just like everyone else.”
Some time ago I related on this blog how I was listening to an interview on the radio of a young man in his twenties who had recently converted to Islam. It might have been on NPR but I can’t swear to that. I was only half paying attention until I heard the young man say that he had been raised a Lutheran. Suddenly I was all ears. When asked why he turned away from the faith in which he had been raised, there was a noticeable pause. I was beginning to think that the station was having technical difficulties. Finally, the young man spoke out a little tentatively. “Well, you know, the church I grew up in was full of nice folks. I have nothing against them. But since I was a teenager, I was always looking for something more, something I could give my life to. I just figured there had to be more to faith in God than playing Twister and eating pizza in the church basement.”
I don’t doubt that there were people of faith worshiping and serving in the congregation where that young man grew up, but somehow, they failed to transmit that faith to him. He didn’t hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in that church’s preaching, teaching or ministry. He never caught a vision of the reign of God worthy of his dedication and commitment. What a tragedy. Here was a young man looking for the Bread which comes down from heaven and all his church offered him was Twister and pizza. No wonder he went searching for something with a little more spice!
I am not faulting this church for trying to appeal to teenagers anymore than for trying to reach millennials, boomers and however many members of the “greatest generation” are still around. But I suspect the underlying assumption here might have been that any serious effort to engage these kids with Jesus’ call to discipleship, challenge them with a grown up faith pushing them out of their comfort zones and enlist them in worship, prayer, witness, service and giving would surely have driven them away. Who knows? The assumption might have been correct. Perhaps the alternate approach I suggest would have driven many, or even most of those kids away. It might be equally unappealing to millennials, boomers and the greats. But I suspect that a serious engagement with Jesus would very probably have held this one young man who was seeking him so earnestly. As I used to tell my church council to the point of eliciting a “there he goes again” eye roll, I would prefer making one new disciple to signing up twenty new members.
A lot of churches, including my own, have a sign that says “all are welcome” in some way, shape or form. If that is taken to mean that all are welcome to come in and check us out, I guess that’s OK. But is it the case that everyone should feel welcome once they come inside? If David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, sat through one of my church’s worship services and then told me how welcome and at home he felt, I could only conclude that we are not doing our job. There are clearly attitudes, opinions and ideologies that are unwelcome within the Body of Christ. So too, if a church is attractive because the music is singable, the sermon is always upbeat and the pastor stays away from controversy, I have to question whether that church is really fulfilling the Great Commission. If we are hiding the hard realities of the cross and downplaying the good news of God’s reign in the interest of marketing, we are doing exactly what the Apostle Paul warns us against in our second lesson. If people cannot sense Jesus’ thirst for justice, his longing for peace and his commitment to defending the human dignity of every person when they walk in the door, we are not salty enough. If we are to be preservative for a world rotting with racist and nationalist hate, if we are to be a people shaped by the mind of Christ and his yearning for the reign of God, it follows that a lot of folks will not feel welcome within our walls-not only the new ones walking in the door, but many of the old faithful members walking out the door.
I know whereof I speak. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I serve took a welcoming stance toward same sex couples, we lost a number of our churches to breakaway bodies. When I announced that I stood with my church and that I would recognize these couples and their marriages, I lost five members of my congregation. As a result, however, we were in a position to welcome one wonderful new family that immediately became active in our children’s ministry and we were able to provide assurance to a number of people in our church, who had previously been living their lives in partial secrecy, that they need not hide who they are any longer. Let me add that I am not proud of the way this went down. A better pastor might have been able to welcome and affirm our gay and lesbian members while convincing the objectors to open their hearts, get to know these new people and trust the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all truth.” Regardless, if we would be the salt of the earth, then we need to become the kind of community in which the mind of Christ is formed-even when it drives potential members away and alienates the ones we have. Because church is finally not about accumulating members. It’s about making disciples.
When the church loses its focus on God’s reign, we are in the impossible position of having to salt the salt. Fortunately, Jesus loves us too much to let that happen. Jesus declares to us, “you are” the salt-just as Saint Paul says to the hopelessly dysfunctional church in Corinth, “you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Jesus simply will not allow us to go stale on him. He continues to breath his Holy Spirit into our communities, salting them with fire and prodding them with his promises. We have everything we need to be the demonstration plot for God’s kingdom. Jesus has given us the kingdom. All we need to do now is start living in it.
Below is a poem by Maureen Ash telling a story similar to that of the young Muslim related above. Salt, it seems, was in short supply.
The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.
It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light.
Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.
Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
Source: Poetry Foundation, Poems for Children, (c. 2012 by Maureen Ash). Maureen Ash is an American poet currently living in Wisconsin.
[i] To be sure, the “crowd” is present and paying close attention. But in Matthew’s gospel, the crowd is a character in its own right sometimes selfishly seeking Jesus’ gifts of healing, sometimes curious and, in the end, hostile. Jesus nevertheless views the crowds with compassion “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.