These Are The Facts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 5, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Isaiah 58:1-12 + Psalm 112:1-10 + 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 + Matthew 5:13-20

***************

Please pray with me this morning:

Holy God,
You tell us the truth about ourselves.
That we are salt. That we are light. And you call us to live like it.
Remind us of these truths, these facts, when we are fearful.
And especially when we aren’t feeling particularly flavorful or luminous.
Amen.

***************

A few years ago I was making the solo 14-hour drive from Chicago to Arlington, TX. I was doing it solo because I had a meeting with my candidacy committee and Tiffany had to work, so I set off on my own. I left Chicago about 5:30 in the morning, grabbed my Starbucks iced coffee with 4 shots of espresso, and away I went. I turned on NPR as I do quite often, and I just kept going. I got about halfway down Illinois before I had to switch radio stations, and then I found the central Illinois NPR station, then the southern Illinois NPR station, and then the St. Louis area NPR station, and at that point it really just became a game. I made it almost to Joplin, Missouri before I was no longer able to find a public radio station.

I went almost 9 hours and nearly 900 miles of just listening to news and facts and commentary.
That’s another reason I was driving alone, because there’s no way Tiffany would have let me do that if she were in the car…

I consume information.
I listen to public radio, I read blogs, and articles, and headlines, and updates.
I am data junkie.

But to what end? What does my consumption of information do for me?
I certainly consider myself well informed. I purposefully seek out perspectives that are different than mine. But ultimately, what have I gained?

Knowledge without purpose isn’t useful. Our knowledge needs direction.
Consider us this morning, church. I mean, for the most part, we have a lot of information about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and God. We know a lot of stuff.
But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just that…information, data…

But what if we amassed information and knowledge for the sake of the actual, physical, life-or-death difference it might make on the life of another?

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist simply as knowledge. Knowledge about God—or more simply, theology—is the knowledge of God’s very presence in the world. To know about God is to notice the ways God is moving and active in our world.
It’s not enough, then, to know about God. As disciples, we have to live into, we have to be the activity of God in the world.
It’s not just that we are salt and light, Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Jesus calls us to live out our identity as salt and light.

To let our righteousness, or more accurately translated justice, exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That type of justice is an embodied justice, it’s actualized.
Like Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Church, it’s one thing to sit in here for an hour on a Sunday morning and nod our heads in agreement because everything I’m saying and everything we’re praying and singing sounds really good and really, wouldn’t that be lovely…but it is a wholly different thing to take these words to heart, and not just to take them to heart, but to let them seep into our very bones, the very fibers of our being, and have these words bind up our lives so that we can’t not go out and do the very things that the Gospel is calling us to do.

Knowledge without purpose, without action, perpetuates the way things are.
Knowledge without action allows us to see injustice in the world, but justify our inaction because it doesn’t square exactly with our worldview, or the problem is just too big, or there are too many problems, or “I’m just one person, so what difference could I really possibly make…”
Friends, it is a myth and a lie that injustices in the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, our world is rife with injustice. Yes, our world looks very different than the vision of the peaceable kingdom that God envisions for God’s world. But dear people, this is an opportunity, not a prohibitive excuse!
Because these are the facts: You are salt. You are light.
And as claimed, and called, and beloved children of God, we must start living like it. Because it is truly a matter of life or death.

Knowledge without purpose allows us to continue in the dominant narratives of fear that we tell ourselves.

I fully believe that, fundamentally, it is fear that prevents us from truly living as God calls us to live, as salt and as light.
And so I wonder, church, what are you afraid of? What do you fear?

How you answer that question probably depends on your demographic or your social location.
For example, if you’re a 30-something like me, you might fear that you’ll never be able to pay off the mountains of student debt you might have.
Or if you’re a little older, you might fear the increased number of visits to the doctor, or the myriad of specialists you now have to make appointments with.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you might be fearful of being able to be your fullest self, for fear that some people might not accept those parts of you.
If you have a daughter, or son, or family member, or loved one serving in the military, you might fear the prospect of them being put in harm’s way, or worse, returning from their service only to be so deeply emotionally and mentally affected that they’re just not the same again, only to find a system not set up to give them the support that they need and deserve.
If you have family or loved ones overseas, you might fear for their safety. You might legitimately be afraid of going to visit them, for fear of not being able to return home.
These aren’t politics, church, this is real.
Just this weekend, a hate-filled note was left at the house of someone in the Riverstone community, just down the road. This also happened in Sienna Plantation. And near the Galleria.
This is not who we are.
These are all real, actual fears that many of you sitting here this morning have.
These are all real, actual fears that many of your siblings in Christ have.

barbed_wire_in_the_sky

Friends, don’t hear me saying that fear isn’t real, or that fear isn’t warranted. God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Rather than practicing self-serving fasts, like the prophet in Isaiah says. Rather than quarreling and fighting and going back and forth on facebook.

Because “This is the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your own house, to clothe the naked, to give to those who ask of you
Then your light will shine forth like the noonday! Then your light shines in the darkness!”
Then…you are being light.

You are free to be Christ…to be the very embodiment of God…to be Love…to your neighbors who are fearful. Who need to be wrapped in the loving warmth of God.
You are free to be salt and light to a world that needs to be flavored and illumined.
Don’t let your fear prevent you from living out the truth of who God calls you to be.
God says be salt and be light anyway, in spite of your fear.
Because by doing so, maybe…maybe…we can begin to overcome our fears.

If I’m honest, sometimes my continuous consumption of information makes me feel overwhelmed and causes fear to rise up inside me. And it’s not easy to see God in the midst of those times. But when I take time to pause, and breathe deeply, and really look for God, often a small flicker of light, a glimmer of hope, catches my eye.
It happened to me two weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged and fearful. And just then an unread email caught my attention. It was from a then-unknown friend at The Islamic Institute here in Houston. One of my predecessors had reached out to them and begun conversations about finding opportunities for partnership between our congregation and any number of Islamic faith communities in our area.
He and I have only just started exchanging emails, but I am so, so hopeful for the future directions of these conversations. I hope we can build bridges of peace in our corner of the world, rather than digging deeper trenches of division.

What do people see when they see you? Do they see salt that has lost its taste, or light that has been snuffed out under a basket?
Church, we are salt. We flavor the world we inhabit. Let that flavor be good and wonderful and pleasing to God.
We are light. Light that shines forth from us wherever we go. I hope that what people see from us is beautiful and Christlike. That people see Christ in us, and give glory and praise to God in heaven.

These are the facts, Church:
We are a city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. And we are the light of the world.
Christ has freed us to live it.

Advent Devotional: Wednesday, December 10: Commemoration of Thomas Merton

Today is the commemoration day of Thomas Merton, mystic and contemplative of the 20th century. Merton came from the hills of Kentucky, not quite the place one might expect a contemplative to emerge from. But, then again, Jesus came from the small now-where town of Galilee, and no one expected that. As Philip said in the Gospel of John, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” The Messiah, it was thought, would come from Jerusalem, or from a place of power.

But the only thing that came from Jerusalem was a cross.

One of Merton’s most poetic and beautiful life moments came when he was in the presence of another religion, Buddhism, a place where it was thought no spiritual good could come from for a Christian (at least, in his time and place). But Merton writes this about encountering the giant Buddhas of Polonnaruwa:

I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, the peace not emotional refutation…that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures….Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.

The above writing came on December 4th. Six days later, on December 10th, Thomas Merton had lunch with friends, retired to his room, and died peacefully in his sleep, having gained a clarity most of us, mystic or not, can only dream of.

 

Perhaps it’s important for us to take the absurdity of this week’s Bible verse and really embrace it. After-all, the child and the snake cannot play together. Or so the worlds says. Likewise, much of the world says that differing religions cannot learn from one another. And yet…

 

Questions for reflection: Where in my life have I learned from something that I thought would give me nothing? How can I keep my eyes open to accept gifts of wisdom in any form they come?