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Category Archives: Epiphany

Down from the Mountain

(a sermon for February 23, 2020, the Last Sunday after Epiphany andTransfiguration Sunday, based on Matthew 17:1-9)

One summer several years ago when our children were young, our family did some camping at Mount Blue State Park, located in the beautiful western mountains of Maine; and as part of that experience, the kids and I decided one morning that we would actually climb Mount Blue itself.  On paper, that didn’t seem like a hard thing; the park brochure said that the trail we were going to take was a relatively easy one, and what’s more, you could drive right up to the base of the mountain, park your car and then you only had to walk a mile and a half-long trail to reach the summit; I mean, what could be simpler?  Of course, what they don’t tell you is that’s a mile and a half straight up! 

So I’ll admit, it was an arduous climb for the children and especially for the father(!), and honestly, we spent as much time sitting down to rest as we did actually walking (it’s no coincidence that the gift shops in those parts sell t-shirts, key chains and such that proclaim, “I survived Mount Blue!”)!  Despite the huffing and puffing, however, we did make it to the top, and it was well worth the climb.  The view was amazing, a literal panorama of God’s glory revealed in the beauty of creation, and we pretty much spent the rest of the day just drinking it all in. 

And I have to say, I’m feeling pretty good about what we’d accomplished, even getting a little cocky about it; I remember actually saying to my kids, “You know, this wasn’t easy, but in the eternal struggle of man versus wilderness, we triumphed!” But then I made my real mistake, by adding these words: “…and getting back down is going to be a piece of cake!”

Definitely a mistake!  The fact is, heading back I made the interesting discovery that I was tired, my legs were stiff and hurting, my arthritic knees were starting to kill, and every single step I made walking down the mountain trail felt like it might well be my last!  And adding insult to injury was the fact that Jake (who was, as I recall, 14 at the time) and Zach (who was seven!) fairly well ran down the trail, leaving Sarah and I to slowly, painfully hobble our way down (and truth be told, I think Sarah – my sweet little girl (!) – held back because she felt sorry for me!).  At one point we’re about three quarters of the way down, and we run into some hikers on their way up the trail, and one of them says to me, “There’s two kids down there – a big one and a little one – draped over the hood of a car.  Do they belong to you?”  And I said, “Yesss… Are they alright?”  “Oh, yeah,” he said back, “They’re just wondering if you’re going to make it back anytime soon!”

So much for the triumph of the mountaineer!  Needless to say, we did make it down… eventually; tired and sore, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  It’d been a good time and a great memory for the kids and me, but I did learn an important lesson:  that oftentimes, the hardest part of climbing a mountain is coming back down; and eventually, you always have to come down from the mountain!

It’s a lesson I’ve thought about a great deal as I’ve returned this week to this morning’s reading from Matthew, the story of how Jesus led three of the disciples “up a high mountain, by themselves,” where Jesus was “transfigured before them,” his face shining “like the sun, and his clothes [becoming] dazzling white.”  Actually, it makes sense that the setting for this particular story is a mountaintop, because throughout scripture mountains always hold a place of great significance; basically, if anyone from the Bible goes up a mountain, you know something important is going to happen.  It was on a mountain, for example, where Moses was confronted by the burning bush, and later where he received the Ten Commandments.  The temple was built in Jerusalem on Mount Zion; one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings is now commonly referred to as the “sermon on the mount;” and even his crucifixion took place on that “hill, far away,” Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” otherwise known as Mount Calvary.  In the Bible, you see, mountains are always considered to be places of revelation and clarity and wonder; and more often than not, serve to illumine what happens beyond it!  

And so it follows that it’s on the mountaintop where Peter, James and John see Jesus, bathed in brilliant, dazzling light, and with incredible clarity come to recognize just who Jesus is, standing there and in “deep conversation” with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. This was form them an experience filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power, and it’s awesome and terrifying all at the same time.  And it’s not at all surprising that Peter’s first thought is to preserve the moment forever: “It is good for us to be here,” he says, “if you wish, I will make three dwelling here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  

What’s interesting is that in Mark’s version of this story, we’re told that Peter was so stunned by what was happening that “he didn’t know what to say,” (9:6) and he just sort of blurted this out without thinking; but I’ve always kind of felt like it was a awe-inspired gesture on Peter’s part, an effort to try to hang on to the feeling of this “mountaintop experience” as long as possible!  But of course, the thing about mountaintop experiences is that try as we might for it to be otherwise, they aren’t made to last; and the gospels all make it clear that as suddenly as this one began, it was over; and “when they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.” (The Message) It’d been this incredible, fleeting moment of wonder and terror and divine revelation, but now it was gone.

But here’s the thing: though the disciples’ transfiguration “experience” had passed, their journey – in just about every sense of the word – was just beginning. And we know this because of the very next verse in Matthew’s account of all this: that just as soon as it was done, “they were coming down the mountain.”  You see, this is the other thing about mountaintop experiences: eventually you always have to come down from the mountain; and while that’s often the harder part of the experience, it’s also the place where true faith begins.

It’s worth pointing out here is that biblically speaking, the transfiguration story comes essentially at the mid-point of the gospel.  Up to this point in the story, we’ve learned about Jesus’ teaching and healing acts, and his growing ministry, and even after the experience of transfiguration, all that continues for Jesus and his disciples; except now it’s different.  Now it’s off to Jerusalem, with all that that journey implies.  In other words, we’ve had a moment of glory up on the mountain, but now it’s time to come back down to the valley.  It’s time for us to go to the cross. 

Likewise, it’s no coincidence that this is the story that bridges the boundary between the season of Epiphany, in which we revel in the light of Christ coming into the world, and the season of Lent, when we remember how darkness sought to overcome that light.  Moreover, it serves as a reminder to us that in the Christian life, we always stand on the boundary between mountain and valley, light and darkness, radiance and pain.  In faith, as in life, we cannot avoid the darkness and pain; the reality of things is that we can’t stay on the mountain forever but always to come down into the valleys of life to face all the dangers that dwell there. 

There are those, of course, who would succumb to this notion that the Christian life is simply one mountaintop experience after another; and that a belief in Jesus somehow removes you from things like human hurt, personal tragedy and the many injustices of life.  But the truth is that for believer and unbeliever alike, there is trouble in life, and it does rain on the just and unjust.  And anyone who approaches faith with the expectation that all of life will be all sunshine and roses will either drop out at the first sign of trouble, or else find glean on to some bad theology that convinces them that they are somehow personally at fault for every bad thing that happens; and that’s a burden that some people will carry for a lifetime.

It’s one of the great misunderstandings of the Christian faith, in my opinion, that its power is to be measured based purely on “good things” that happen.  The difference between this kind of thinking and true Christian faith is that we already know there are dark valleys, and that the shadow of death lingers over so much of human experience but nonetheless as we come down from the mountain we walk confidently, because we also know we are not going into this valley alone but in the embrace of God, who brings us safely to green pastures and still waters. 

This is true faith, friends; and what we discover in this transfiguration story we’ve shared today is that this faith finds its assurance in Jesus.

It’s there in the final moment of that wondrous experience, when the cloud overshadows the disciples there on the mountain, and as they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  You see, whether they realized or understood it at all, these three slack-jawed, awestruck and fear-ridden disciples had just been given the key to dealing with everything that was to come:  

Listen. Learn. Trust

Listen to what Jesus is saying to you; learn from his teachings; and trust that even now as you’re coming down from the mountain you will be led safely through the dark valleys ahead.

I’m reminded here of something Frederick Buechner wrote some years ago about a time in his life when he’d been filled with despair over his daughter’s ongoing struggle with the eating disorder anorexia.  As you can imagine, this constitutes a nearly impossible situation for any parent, and so it was for Buechner.  In fact, in his book Telling Secrets he tells the story of how one day, driving back to his home in Vermont and sick with worry over his child, was forced to pull over to a highway rest stop so that he might at least compose himself for the remainder of his journey.  And there in the parking lot, Buechner spied a car with a vanity license plate; although, he noted later, this time it really wasn’t a vanity plate.  The plate read simply, in capital letters, “TRUST.”

Buechner saw it as a revelation, and in that precise moment, he said, a great sense of calm swept over his life and he knew he could go on.  Never mind that the vehicle in question was a company car owned by a New England bank trust department officer; it was the word “TRUST” that made the difference:  a simple insight, a little snippet of divine teaching, a vision of what was his all along:  love, strength… and hope.

Every once in a while, you know, we do get a real glimpse of who Jesus is, and what he has to give us:  sometimes it comes in the midst of worship and prayer; other times in the kind of love and encouragement that’s shared between friends; perhaps in the fleeting memory of a particular time or place that stirs our heart just for the thought of it; a singular moment, that mountaintop experience in which we knew we were standing face to face with the Lord. 

This morning’s gospel reminds us to hold on to such things even as we come down from the mountain; for these are the moments that will sustain us as we walk more deeply into life, and as our faith transforms us from those who merely plod along the way into those who walk boldly and in tandem with Jesus Christ; those who understand that even walking through the darkest of valleys, there’s going to be a light leading them forward. 

Beloved, I hope and pray that whether your journey this week finds you climbing up the mountain, or making your way back down, you’ll be carrying that light as your own. 

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. MIchael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2020 in Epiphany, Faith, Family Stories, Jesus, Lent, Life, Maine, Sermon

 

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What’s Your Foundation?

(a sermon for February 16, 2020, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-23)

Along Route One just north of the town of Monticello, Maine there still stands an old farmhouse that is in fact, the Lowry family homestead.  Surrounded by acres of woods and potato fields, my grandparents lived in that house for pretty much their whole lives; it was where my father and his brother and three sisters were all born and raised, and it was the place we gathered for countless family reunions, Christmas Eve celebrations and Oyster Stew suppers, which was in those days the Lowry family meal! 

It was also a place of endless fascination for me as a young child, in particular in the way the house itself was laid out.  Actually, it was and is a quintessential New England farmhouse, in that it exists in pieces that were built over time and are connected one to another.  First there was built the main structure – or the “big house,” as it’s sometimes called in these parts – with the kitchen and living space downstairs, bedrooms and, eventually, a bathroom (!) upstairs.  Then, some years later, a couple of additions were built on:  on one end, an extra kitchen and living room where my grandparents stayed in their later years while my uncle and his family were living in the main house; and on the other side of the building, an addition made into a laundry room.  And then, attached to that laundry room was a shed, or “back house,” that was built primarily for storage and to stack firewood.  And of course, this is to say nothing of the porch that at one time or another was attached to the front! 

Like I said, as a kid I loved that house! I remember it as being filled will all sorts of nooks and crannies, with doors in every room leading to these “mysterious” closets and crawl-spaces. And the thing was that though it really wasn’t all that big of a house, it still just seemed to me to stretch on forever!  These days I like to think of it as in the words of that Schooner Fare song, the “big house, middle house, back house, barn,” built piece by piece and all connected as one; but not only by virtue of wood-framed walls and a shingled roof but in a much larger sense by the several generations of family who have lived there, as well as in and through all the changes in their lives over the years. 

It’s an amazing thing when you think about it: all that history; all that experience; all the stories that grew out of a house that continue to be told to this very day.  But here’s the thing: it all started by the house having first been built on a strong foundation… because whatever else you choose to build on it, a good foundation is what really matters.

Actually, it strikes me that much the same thing can be said about this church building in which we are worshipping this morning. After all, not only is this building one of the oldest – if not the oldest (!) – original church edifices still standing here in Concord, but it’s also quite literally connected to our fellowship hall, which began its life as a residence across the street here on Mountain Road and was physically moved here to become part of the church!  That’s interesting in and of itself, but it seems to me it’s a great analogy – a parable, if you will – for who we are and have always been as a congregation  Truly, we at East Church have always sought to be a congregation that reaches out in faith and love to one another and outward to the people of this community.  And we do that, come what may, because first we were built on a strong foundation… and like I said before, a good foundation is what really matters…

…understanding that while all those rocks and blocks of granite that underpin this building are of great importance, there’s more to it than simply that.  In the words of Brian Peterson, of Lutheran Southern Seminary, just as any building “must fit its foundation, [be] supported by it and shaped to match it,” so it is with the church.  Because the church, you see, already has its one foundation, and as we sang at the beginning of the service this morning, “it is Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And as Paul makes clear in our text for this morning, “each builder must choose with care how to build on” that foundation, because the materials we use in the building will not only be revealed, in the end our construction going to have to pass inspection…

…which, it seems to me, is not only applicable even now to the manner in which we govern and direct the building up of our churches (including this one!) but also to the way you and I seek to build our lives as well!

This morning we return to Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth; a group of new believers who were remarkable both for the passion expressed in their new-found faith but even more so for the divisions that almost immediately rose amongst them!  In fact, at the time when Paul had sent this epistle, there was this growing divide amongst the Corinthian Christians over what leader they should follow: Paul, who had spent 18 months amongst them as a “founding pastor,” so to speak; Apollos, this new, well-spoken and apparently very charismatic missionary leader in their midst; or the well-remembered sentimental favorite Cephas, that is, Peter… yes, that Peter! This question of leadership had become, to say the very least, a heated discussion, and it had now gotten to the point where whenever Christians were gathered there were bound to be lots of signs waving and fiery debate (kind of sounds like primary season in New Hampshire, doesn’t it?).

So of course, here comes Paul right in the midst of the fray!  But his response to this conflict is quite interesting:  rather than claiming a pre-ordained victory or spiritual high ground over his central political rival – excuse me, his spiritual partner Apollos – Paul acknowledges that yes, “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation” with you in Corinth, “no one can lay any foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation [that] is Jesus Christ.”  Actually, a couple of things should be mentioned here: first, that this is indeed metaphor, because in these early days of the church there were no temples under construction; Paul is talking here about the building up of the body of Christ (in fact, the Greek word that’s used here for “church” is ekklesia, which is where we get the term “ecclesiastical,” and refers to a gathering of people). And while we’re on the subject of language, the Greek words that get translated in English as “skilled master builder,” actually are better translated as a “wise architect.”  So it’s not so much that Paul’s bragging about all he’s done in building up the church; but rather that “using the gift God gave [him] as a good architect” [The Message] he was able to build on the only foundation that matters: the good foundation, the strong foundation, the foundation that is firm in Jesus Christ. 

So essentially, what Paul is saying here is that while yes, I do have some part in the building up of the church (as does, for that matter, Apollos, or Cephas or any other human leader), ultimately this is not about me; and by the way? It’s not about you, either!  This is about you and I at work together building up the Body on the good foundation that is Jesus Christ; using the kind of spiritual tools and materials that will stand the test of time and show forth the sincerity and passion of your faith.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Paul asks. Don’t you realize that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple?”  Like we said before, it all comes back to the foundation on which you build; this foundation on which you are built… it’s the foundation that really matters!

So, then… given all that, the question is… what’s your foundation?

I remember once, years ago as a much younger pastor in a prior parish, I met with some visitors in our church to discuss the possibility of their joining with our congregation as new members.  Now, I should tell you that though I had only recently had the opportunity to meet this couple in person, their reputations certainly preceded them: I was already aware that these were people greatly respected in our community as tireless volunteers, and moreover they were very well thought of by their friends and neighbors.  They’d been coming to worship for a few weeks, they seemed to be hitting it off with everyone, the pastor included, and soon I was having folks in the congregation coming up all excited and telling me we’d be really lucky to have these two be part of the church!

So now we have this meeting and, well, it was interesting to say the least!  First of all, this woman had a literal checklist of questions she wanted to ask, ranging from the program goals and frequency of youth ministries in the church and whether or not we participate in a sports league, to whether or not I would ever preach on things like the virgin birth or the story of Adam and Eve (no joke!); and she took extensive notes on every one of my answers. And some of the questions were rather telling:  If you become a member, are you required to serve on a committee, and for how long?  What about stewardship; how is it decided what we’re to give?  Are you supposed to come every Sunday to worship, or can you just come sometimes?  Kind of odd questions to ask the pastor, I’ll admit, but okay… I’m not exaggerating when I say that this conversation covered just about every aspect of church life, and also that it felt pretty much like a job interview!

But it was all very enjoyable, and when the meeting was done I felt pretty good about our conversation and the prospect of their joining the church; but alas, it was not to be.  After a couple weeks, they were gone and rumor had it they’d started attending another church.  And of course, what I’m thinking – because this pastor is only human, after all – is what did I do?  I mean, I tried to be gracious and welcoming, but also honest and above all, pastoral… so what did I say to these people that was so wrong?  How had I driven these people away from our church?  Well, later on I learned from a fellow pastor that this particular couple who were so well-respected in the community were also well-known by local pastors as chronic “church hoppers” who had gone through the same interview process in virtually every church across the denominational spectrum for miles around and had never settled on any church… anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. And as I shared my disappointment to this colleague, he said it all: “Don’t worry about it, Michael.  Some people are just far more concerned about all the benefits they get from faith than ever looking at its responsibilities.”

I’ve never forgotten that; and it’s always served as a reminder to me, not only as an occasionally overeager pastor but also as a Christian who is ever and always challenged to grow in wisdom and to always build on a good foundation of faith, that as many and as wonderful are the blessings that come in this life of faith I lead, it is not wholly or even primarily what I get out of the experience that is the most important, but rather the glory of what I am strengthened and enabled to build along the way all with the spiritual gifts I’ve been given, most especially in the love of Jesus Christ, who is and shall always be the foundation of all that I am and everything I seek to do.  The Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, a Presbyterian pastor from Georgia, says it well: “Good foundations matter… [and] as people of faith, our foundations should [always] be in the promises from God; those outlined by Christ himself and those proclaimed throughout the entirety of scripture. [These] are the bedrocks of our faith that allow us to build our lives in a way that is shaped by our relationship with the Divine.” And what we build on that foundation, both in our work individually as people of faith and together as the church, will grow and expand even as it’s ever and always being tested and refined by God.

In other words, it matters, beloved; what we believe should always translate to how we live: in how we talk to each other, how we reach out to others in need, how we seek to “be” the church in this time and place.  Part of our responsibility, yours and mine – as Christians and as the church – is to make sure that whatever we are doing, we are doing on the foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord.  

What’s your foundation?  Because it matters, beloved… it matters.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2020 in Church, Discipleship, Epiphany, Faith, Ministry, Paul, Sermon

 

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To Shake and To Shine

(a sermon for February 9, 2020, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.”

I’m not sure who researches these things, but here’s a fun fact: it has been said that that salt has more than 14,000 uses!  Now, mostly when we think of salt we think about its use in cooking or to bring out the flavor in food; it’s also something that doctors warn us against using in excess!  But it’s also used for the protection and preservation of food, it softens hard water, it helps to regulate boiling, and sometimes it’s even used as an ingredient in fertilizer. It’s salt that gets thrown on our doorsteps and walkways this time of year, which helps to melt the ice that’s frozen there and keeps us from slipping and falling; the same principle, by the way, that’s essential in the making of homemade ice cream!  

Salt is also medicinal in nature, useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments: one of the very first things that doctors recommend in this perilous cold and flu season is, in fact, to gargle with salt and water; and it’s worth noting that our salty tears go a long way in soothing sore eyes (to say nothing of what it does for our saddened souls!).  I even read something recently that said that the amniotic fluid that protects unborn children is slightly saline; that is to say, salty (!)… so in fact you and I actually come into this world protected and preserved, at least in part, by… salt!

Of course, this appreciation of all that salt can do is nothing new: in biblical times, salt was overwhelmingly viewed as a valuable resource. It’s mentioned time and time again throughout the Old Testament in connection with Israel’s covenant with God, specifically in regard to the purification and offering of sacrifices; salt was, symbolically at least, considered something of a sign and seal of that relationship between God and his people!  So salt served a religious purpose, to be sure; but did you know that in Jesus’ day, salt was also often used as currency?  That’s right; special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as salarium argentum, which the Latin forerunner of our English word “salary…” and in fact, it’s where we get the expression, to “be worth one’s salt!”

So… all of this to say that when, during his “sermon on the mount,” Jesus said to them, “You are the salt of the earth,”  he was speaking of much more than simply something to add some flavor to an otherwise bland meal; Jesus was referring to that which was, and is, a necessary element of life… and of one’s relationship and life with God!

Which, as we’ve heard in our text for this morning, is why it makes sense that nearly in the same breath Jesus also says, “You are the light of the world.”  Because, yes, light is essential to our lives as well: to begin with, light keeps us from stumbling around in the darkness and banging into furniture in the middle of the night(!); but we also know, especially in these long dark nights of wintertime, how essential light is to our physical and emotional well-being!  Literally, figuratively and spiritually light does illuminate and brighten the dark places of our lives and shows us the way to go; light helps us find things, but also tends to reveal the true quality and character of what we find. And of course, biblically speaking our very existence has everything to with light, from the very first words God spoke at the time of creation (“Let there be light.” [Genesis 1:3]) to that moment in the fullness of time of the coming of Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone… coming into the world.” (John 1:9).  From the very beginning, now and forevermore, it is light that gives us life!

And it’s with all of this in mind that Jesus says to them, “You are the light of the world.”  And, “you are the salt of the earth.”

It’s arguably one of the most familiar and oft-quoted passages found in the gospels.  In the words of Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, these two exhortations of Jesus represent the “great and holy attributes and promises of discipleship.”  Jesus’ words offer us the flavor, if you will, of life as it is defined by the coming Kingdom of God!  But here’s the thing, friends; and it’s what transforms this sweet and all too familiar bible teaching into a challenging reality in these days of confused situations.

It’s personal.

Because you’ll notice here that Jesus is not talking about those who are poor in spirit, or meek, or pure in heart, as he does just prior to our reading this morning, nor has Jesus been telling the multitudes on that hillside that they ought to be like salt and light; in at least one sense, this is not a call toward a new kind of lifestyle that someday they might manage to achieve.  No, that’s not what Jesus is saying; Jesus says, you are the salt of the earth… you are light – and not a mere sunbeam, mind you – but “the light of the world!”  This is who you are already!   Everything that is essential for life and that which brings it meaning and purpose and vitality – salt and light – is already right there inside of you, and always has been!   It’s a gift of God’s truly amazing grace: a gift of life and love and mercy that exists within each and every one of us here; and it’s everything we need for the living of these days and as a child of God!

However… (!)that said, the real question is not whether or not we’re salt and light but rather what we’re going to do with that.  You know the saying about how “with great power comes great responsibility?”  Well, it is also true that this blessing of being salt and light comes with responsibility.  Karoline Lewis writes, “It’s one thing to know and to claim your identity. It’s another thing entirely to live it.”  And here’s Jesus to say we have to! And why?  It’s “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven coming to pass here and now and not just in our future.”

In other words, our response to this gift of amazing grace that God has given must be to reflect that grace in the way we live and the way that relate to others.  Otherwise, what is the point of the gift?

That’s what I love about this passage: in Jesus’ words there’s not a lot of wiggle room!  You are the salt of the earth, he says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Now what’s interesting about that statement is that even in Jesus’ time, people understood that salt, in and of itself, does not lose its flavor; salt is always going to be, well, salty!  So the effectiveness or value of salt essentially comes down to the one making use of it; and if we are salt, it follows that it would be you and I that brings forth its flavor and vitality!  Otherwise; well, actually, The Message  translation of this says it all: “If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?”  It’s no accident that the Greek word used for salt having lost its taste is moronos; that’s right, where we get our word, “moron,” or “fool.”  If salt becomes tasteless and useless, Jesus says, then it’s also foolish and if it’s foolish, then what good is it?

And the same standard applies to the ways that you and I are light: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, [where] it gives light to all in the house.”  Light is not light unless it shines!   To quote Karoline Lewis just one more time, in these verses, “Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist as simply knowledge… It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light.”

Or, if I might put it another way, as disciples we’re meant to shake and to shine. We are to shake and shine in a way that by our very actions fulfills the law of God; so that “[our] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” and assures our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. 

That’s the sum and substance of the gospel for this morning, friends; and as I suggested before, Jesus doesn’t provide a whole lot of grey area where this is concerned.  Every day and in every way, as Jesus’ disciples we are to shake and to shine.

And that’s great, except…I don’t know about you… but there are days – times and situations – when I just don’t feel like shaking or shining… at all.

Sometimes I’m having a lousy day (yup, even ministers have bad days from time to time!); maybe I’ve been hurt somehow, maybe I’m overwhelmed and stressed out with stuff going on in my life and I’m not feeling so inclined to offer flavor and brightness to those around me!  Actually, I suspect that maybe you do understand this because you’ve been there; we’ve all been there!  I mean, this week alone (!); all it’s taken is to see, hear or read anything on the news to make one want to completely withdraw from any kind of light-giving activity!  Simply put, on a day like this, in times like these, given the way we’re feeling how can Jesus ever expect us to “let our light shine before others,” much less in a way that “give[s] glory to [our] Father in heaven?”  Sometimes you just don’t want to be salt and light!

I remember once some years ago in a prior parish, I’d been asked if I might help out at our local soup kitchen; and while I had volunteered  for that duty joyfully and eagerly, I must confess that when the morning arrived for me to do that, I was neither joyful or eager for the experience!  Bottom line, for some reason I still cannot recall I was in a foul mood that morning, a situation made worse by the fact that our church had contributed this huge, heavy, hot, sloshing over pot of stew to that luncheon, which I had to carry the three blocks between the nearest place I could park my car and the soup kitchen three blocks away!  Trust me here, for me there was absolutely no flavor or brightness about this particular act of discipleship!  In fact, I’d decided that as soon as I’d dropped off this stew at the soup kitchen, I’d make up some excuse and get out of there fast!  But of course, I couldn’t do that; the kitchen was short-handed and they needed people like me to wait tables… so me and my foul mood grabbed a coffee pot and started moving from table to table.

I’ve always said that one of the great things about working at a soup kitchen, be it the Friendly Kitchen or elsewhere, is what you don’t expect from the experience.  I mean, you’re expecting to see the effects of poverty and homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness; you expect to be amazed and horrified about how rampant (and local!) hunger truly is.  You expect and are unsurprised by the kind of “troubles” you witness in a place like that, and especially by how many children are there with the adults!  But what you don’t expect, what ends up surprising you, is what a joyful setting a place like that can be: the kind of laughter and lively conversation that happens around those tables; the gratitude that’s expressed for simply another cup of coffee; the kindness of people who have absolutely nothing of value to offer except to ask you how you’re feeling on this random Saturday morning that you would have rather spent elsewhere.

Suffice to say that my mood changed rather quickly… and I left there humbled and very aware of my responsibility to be salt and light for the sake of the kingdom… to shake and to shine as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Shortly before he passed away, Eugene Peterson, the preacher and writer who wrote the paraphrase of scripture I draw from so often, The Message, was asked what he would preach on if he knew that it would be his very last sermon.  He answered that he would probably just focus on what the people around him were already doing every day, and then try to help them to do it in ways that glorify God.  “In my last sermon,” Peterson said, “I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse.  Treat your children with respect.  Do a good job at work.’”  

At the end of the day, beloved, it all comes down to being salt and light in this often difficult world where we live and with all the people we know and love… maybe even with a few we don’t (!)… but always letting our light so shine “so that they might see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” 

So might it be… so might we shake and shine.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

©  2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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