Matthew 5: Salt and Light
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.
14-16 “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. 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. 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. (The Message)
Last weekend a group of leaders from this congregation spent an overnight at the Pilgrim Center Conference Center to look forward to 2017. One of our sessions focused on the practice of individual and communal discernment. We talked a bit about how we make decisions personally. To take a job, to move to a new city, to begin or leave a relationship, to fire a subordinate or confront a boss…Some of us discern in a way that is deliberate, others are more spontaneous. Some are still finding their way and some have learned from mistakes. Some trust intuition and some use logical methods. I, for example, have used piano playing as a way to center my heart and mind during search and call processes as a pastor. I’ve never had more than 2-3 songs I could play well, and I’ve not had to play them in over 18 years:). But, in those transitions, they were a way of grounding myself and developing trust that the right decision would become clear to me.
When we talked about communal discernment I gave an overview of various decisions made in the history of this congregation. As I list these, I’d invite you to raise your hand if you were a part of these decisions.
- One was a deliberate and exhaustive study done in the late 50’s before building this sanctuary;
- On 9 occasions we created search committees to call permanent pastors;
- In 1993 we voted, as a congregation, to become Open and Affirming;
- Creating and living into our Next Generation Initiative that fueled staffing, programmatic and facility changes from about 2007 to 2011; in 2010 we voted to undergo a major capital campaign.
- The related discernment process in 2011/12 to undertake what became known as the Southwest Partnership.
Each of these decisions had a huge influence on the direction of the congregation. In every case, some folks thought the process took forever, while others thought it was rushed. Some had widespread congregational involvement while others tapped the leadership of only a few. Some created unity, others conflict. All of them are decisions that still shape us today, as is true with hundreds of other small and large decisions in our congregational journey.
In each case, we as followers of Jesus have sought to embody in practical and tangible ways how it is we are ‘salt seasoning’ bringing out the flavor of God in the world and a ‘light that brings out the God colors in the world.’ In each case, we discovered along the way being salt and light can be messy business. We disagree, we get confused, things we thought we knew turn out not to be true, people we thought were rock solid members of the church fall away. At the same time, as with all communities of Jesus across the globe, we have found some measure of grace and hope. In trying to be a seasoning that matters where we are and in trying to reflect light to the very darkness around us – we’ve come to know the Spirit of God.
The sum total of these faithful ventures is what we call the journey of faith. Of course the journey is not done. Light is still needed, maybe now more than ever. Salt seasoning – that ingredient that helps bring flavor, color and sustainability to food, is quite possibly needed in our personal and social lives today in ways we could not imagine just a few years ago.
Last weekend, your pastors invited your congregational leaders into a season of discernment. The reasons for this are actually quite simple. In the midst of many, many, important and lovely ministries – we feel we are at some kind of turning point. Internally, our commitment and focus on the SWP is shifting. We will no longer be supporting it in any significant way financially (although we continue to commit budgeted and compassion offering funds into projects around our neighborhood). We’ve come through a more difficult year than most others – and as we enter 2017 the state of our spirits and our country is in great flux. Many of us want to be a strong and vibrant witness to justice; while at the same time we are feeling the effects of a toxic cultural environment. Together, we’d like to begin a season of deep listening. This is not a problem, but an opportunity, an way opening…
We’ve committed to a practice of ‘examen’ – rooted in the spirituality of Catholic teacher St. Ignatius – as we gather in meeting and conversation. Examen is essentially a practice of paying attention to the work of God by asking a few simple questions.
- Where do I see God in this church right now?
- What needs am I bringing to this congregation, and what needs are being expressed by others?
- Turning to wonder – Where is my discomfort? Curiosity? Imagination?
We’ll be asking these questions individually and together, and at times, we’ll invite you into asking them. While a planning process may emerge from them, for now they are not about planning, but listening; paying attention.
These, and related questions, are not asked in a vacuum. If we ask them in light of past decisions – whether or not we were here, I think we see a few themes that define who we are as people of God at Orchard Ridge UCC.
- The life of faith is rooted in both our personal, private lives and our public witness.
- The call of God is one of welcoming us ‘home’ even as it pushes us into places of discomfort.
- The mission of our lives is at once totally unique to our gifts and talents AND a common human project of love and compassion that has been practiced for centuries.
- The process of living is rooted in both our past and our future. As Brian McLaren has noted, it is about the God behind or beneath us as well as the God before and ahead of us. It is singing, praying, and acting out a faith that we both know and want to come to know.
On the one hand, we cannot know what the future brings. On the other, we know that it will be built on the DNA of this congregation and this tradition in which we live. Through prayer and attentiveness, today’s discernment is like an active conversation between our historical roots and our current context. We know that the God inspired stream into which we step has an origin that can be trusted and a destination that will be good, even if unknown.
For example, this past year our Christian Witness and Service Ministry discerned and selected three focus areas for their work. They were positive youth development in our local area; racial disparity; and climate change. As they celebrated what they had learned and how they wanted to proceed into 2017, it struck me that even if they didn’t know it, their good efforts in 2016 were stepping into a long stream of faithful saints at this church who’ve cared about those same things.
Positive youth development builds on previous efforts to support kids – like the housing of the Orchard Ridge nursery school in our building, and before that a project to provide school lunches for kids in need (before there was such a thing as a school lunch menu or a lunch lady), as well as efforts in the 60’s and 70’s to use our building for neighborhood dances and activities for area youth. These efforts have always been in addition to our strong commitment to youth within the congregation.
Our efforts to work on climate change issues builds on decades – literally decades – of faithful members of this church asking questions of faith and creation. The late Jim Hale gave me notes shortly before he died of educational sessions and sermons prepared by a team in 1970. From these concerns members and staff created a wildly successful program called the Earth Family Festival that ran for many years, which contained the seeds of what would eventually become our Memorial Garden, Garth, Veggie Village, and Rain Gardens as we seek to embody on this very property the values that have been present here for generations. It was in a small environmental action group called ENACT, for example, that I drove a hybrid car for the first time somewhere about 2004. Our parking lot today is a direct descendent of that early adopter member.
Our efforts to understand racial justice can be seen as a natural fruit of efforts in the early 60’s to take on issues concerning Native peoples (inspired by our first pastor who himself was Native American), as well as civil rights. Then, as now, efforts to be faithful in the midst of complicated and corrosive American issues created strife, confusion and extreme discomfort. If those who supported pastor Roger Knight in the mid 60’s as he joined the March on Washington and other civil rights efforts thought that era would bring an end to racial tension; we now know that our efforts with the Southwest Partnership, Black Lives Matter or White Privilege are just scratching the surface of that which ails our country, as well as our individual hearts. Our recent Covenant to Grow groups and our book study last fall with Between the World and Me are just the latest in a long line of efforts to be faithful, current and hopefully, Salt and Light to the world.
This morning we celebrated 5 years of our Southwest Partnership. Preceding that, ORUCC was working with JFF worker Mike Bruce (for at least 15 years) and Public Health Nurse Kim Neuschel (going back 10-12 years). That partnership built on existing relationships and invited us into new ones – including with Marianne Morton and Commonwealth, John Wroten and dozens and dozens of residents, nearby neighbors, and other institutional stakeholders.
At the same time, the formal partnership had related but somewhat unseen impact. Several of us began tutoring in the schools –all across the area. Many of us stepped more deeply into conversations and confessions about racial reconciliation even though we rarely step foot in our local neighborhood. Many of us have faced our own guilt and lack of awareness about issues of poverty and race – delving into important if troubling spiritual questions. Together we’ve challenged and inspired one another by our action, our observations, and our generosity. We’ve taken pride in our efforts to ‘go local’ in a deep and sustained way, whether or not we are involved personally.
The invitation to be salt and light is part of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the beatitudes – lifted up a couple of weeks ago by Richard Blackburn – Jesus’ is inviting his followers to be led by his spirit, to live and be people shaped not by the values of the world, but by the values of his Spirit. From this invitation and invocation, he then calls them/us to be salt and light. Light on a hill – not dominating or overwhelming everyone – but light that is so situated it can reflect the “God colors of the world.” Salt, not that which causes more pain and grief to an already injured world; but salt that brings out the Spirit led flavor and the divine sustainability of all creation. Light and Salt. This is a tall order. We may know “This Little Light of Mine” as a fun children’s song – but the spiritual task of being that light is fraught with uncertainty, doubt and confusion. And that is even more true in a culture that so often understands Christianity as a force for division, discrimination, or even hatred.
Discernment then is an important spiritual discipline. Difficult not because it requires a wide intellectual bandwidth, but because it asks us to listen, trust, pay attention, slow down, and pray.
Send Us Your Spirit . Let’s prepare our hearts for the singing and praying of this song/prayer (as Vicki begins). Let’s acknowledge that often we do not want to give up control, be led in a new direction, or open our lives to new input.
I invite you to stand, take a deep breath, and clench your fists. Hard. Really. Hard. As a symbol of all that we cling to that keeps us stuck, scared, small, or petty. Clench and hold that clench.
And release. Let go. Open up. As an act of prayer and preparation. Come to me, come to us, Spirit of God.
One more time, Clench…let go…
Be aware of your resistance…and give it to God so that in ways you have not yet imagined, you might be Light for the darkness in your midst.
Be honest about your fear…and turn it into a prayer for guidance, that you might be salt that seasons and preserves and gives flavor.
Clench. Let Go. Come to us, Spirit of God.