Monday, February 7, 2011

Sermon: "Salt and Light"

It seems to me that as Christians, we are called to enact a tremendous balancing act as we go through life. If we go too far in either direction, we risk doing more harm than good. What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s take a moment to unpack Jesus’ statement about our calling as Christians to be salt and light in the world. Most of the time we hear Jesus’ words and we take them to mean we should be out in the world, engaging it and making a difference. Jesus’ own teaching on this analogy leads us in this direction. "If salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored? It’s not good for anything, but it is thrown out and trampled under foot." And when it comes to light, Jesus says, "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house." There is no doubt that Jesus is encouraging us to let our faith shine forth in our lives. Yet, oftentimes, we don’t. Oftentimes, it’s easier to huddle safe and secure in our own "saltiness" and enjoy that light ourselves.

I came across an illustration of this as I was preparing this sermon this week. It’s a story written by Warren Hudson of Ontario, Canada. He writes, "One night at the end of a special Saturday night worship service a thunderstorm unleashed a bolt of lightning that plunged the church into darkness." With the congregation seated in total darkness, the pastor felt his way to the kitchen to find some candles. The pastor handed out the candles to everyone present. Persons lit their candles in much the same way as many churches do on Christmas Eve, each person lighting the candle of the person next to them. The worshipers then made their way through the church's winding hallways to the front door.

"Peering out, we could see the rain coming down in sheets," Warren remembers. With traffic snarled, people were running for the nearest shelter. Looking around they realized that the entire city was in darkness. "There in the darkness we stood," Warren writes, "a little band of Christians, each clutching a light, not sure whether to venture out into the storm or stay inside the church in hopes that the storm would soon blow over."
Isn’t this an appropriate analogy for many of us in the church? We know there is a world out there enshrouded in darkness. There is world out there that is bland and in need of spice. Yet, what do we do about it? Do we face the storm and shine our light? Do we add some spice to the world?

Many times our own insecurities, our own feelings of inadequacy prevent us from doing such a thing. We worry about offending someone. We worry about looking too presumptuous. We worry about coming across as holier than thou.

And well we should. Because that is the other extreme of Christianity that comes into play with Jesus’ words. I remember the time I came across a bumper sticker that really caught my eye. It read, "Jesus, Save Me From Your Followers." There was part of me that wanted to laugh while another part of me wanted to cry.
There was a level of me that understood exactly what this sticker was trying to convey. It’s the same idea I was trying to convey to the kids in the children’s sermon. Who of us hasn’t met someone who thinks they know all there is to know about Christianity? Who of us hasn’t met someone who thinks they know exactly how every Christian should act in every time and every place? Who of us hasn’t met a Christian who tries to force their understandings of Christ down our throat whether we want to engage them or not? "Jesus, save me from your follower," we might say.

This past week, I missed out on dealing with such folks. Both the church office and the parsonage were hit by roaming bands of evangelicals–probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. It just so happened I left for lunch just as the office was hit, and Valerie had to deal with them. It was bad for her, but probably good for those who knocked. I’m not too nice in a debate with such folks. They don’t like arguing with me because I’m not afraid to stand toe to toe with them in discussing the beliefs of Christianity.

Once, when Dawna and I lived in Seguin, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived at my door trying to get me to take their material. The lady who came up offered me the pamphlet and told me, "It talks about the day when Christ returns and how horrible and terrible it’s going to be."

I responded, "It’s not going to be terrible. Jesus is going to return in glory to make all the wrongs, right. He’s going to make everything new and restore the world to the way it’s supposed to be. It’s going to be a great day."

The lady didn’t know what to say. She just kind of stood there, and then said, "O.K. Thank you." And she left. They never came back and knocked. Sure, others left material, but they never engaged me in conversation again.

But that’s beside the point. The point I must ask everyone today is–how do you like it when such people
barge into your lives, uninvited and try to make you believe what they believe? Do you appreciate it? Do you find yourself drawn to the God they believe in?

Most folks don’t. Too much salt. Too much light. Indeed, too much salt makes something taste rather nasty. Too much light blinds you to reality.

Where is the balance?

That’s a good question.

Jesus ends his teaching in today’s Gospel lesson by talking about the law. He, in no uncertain terms tells everyone he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He tells those gathered that unless their righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, they will not enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t hold anything back when he says these things, so what does that have to do with the balance of salt and light? What does that have to do with living the Christian life and having the right measure of salt and light?

Well, if we read through the Gospels, I believe we get the answer because Jesus helps us as we struggle. A little later in the book of Matthew, chapter seven, Jesus reveals to us where that balance lies. Verse 12 reads thus, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."

Yes, it is the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do you like it when others get into your face and try to tell you what to believe? If you don’t, then don’t do it yourself. Do you appreciate it when people say one thing and then do something completely the opposite? Then don’t do it. Do you like it when someone does you a kindness? Then do it yourself. Do you like it when someone makes you laugh? Then make others laugh. If you were hungry, how would you want someone to treat you? If you want to be fed, then feed others. If you appreciate being loved, love yourself.

When applying this rule, it makes us do two important things: it makes us think about ourselves and define what we do and don’t appreciate. It makes us take a hard look in the mirror and realize what makes us tick. It makes us discern our likes and our dislikes, and it hopefully gives us a measure of humility when we think about how we treat others. And that’s the second thing it makes us do. It makes us crawl into the skin of others–as difficult as that may seem. It makes us think about how our actions affect them. It makes us realize our words and our deeds do have an impact, and it hopefully spurs us towards enacting a more Christ-like approach when we have such interactions.

And, after all, isn’t that what we are called to do? Aren’t we called to imitate Jesus? And by imitating the one who called us to be salt and light, don’t you think we will find exactly what we seek? Don’t you think we will find the balance between too little salt and too much? Don’t you think we will find the balance between too little light and too much? Personally, I do, and I hope you do too. Amen.

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