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Sunday, February 9, 2020 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Adding and Shining
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In an extended season of Epiphany, the later
scripture readings turn to the ways of discipleship.
Piety and personal spiritual discipline and what
we would call social justice and responsibility . . .
cannot be separated. If they are, then both
become meaningless and not part of the worship of God.
In his Lenten devotional that was published in 2017, Walter Brueggemann writes this: “The crisis in the church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (Walter Brueggemann, Devotions for Lent: A Way Other than Our Own, pp. 2–3).
Dr. Brueggemann’s provocative critique of the church came to my mind this week as I sat with the passage I just read from the Sermon on the Mount. “You [plural you] are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Jesus made those pronouncements of identity to his disciples, people just like you and me. Now, before we go any further, let us first get clear that Jesus is not telling his disciples they should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He is not saying to us, “If you do this kind of thing, then you will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” These are not conditional statements. They are not task-oriented statements.
Rather, Jesus is telling them “This is who you are.” “Because you are my disciples, because you have been baptized into this family called the body of Christ, because in that baptism your last name became Christian, you are salt. You are light. This is who you collectively are in the world.” And so I ask you this morning, do you believe this to be true about yourself? Is this the way you live your life? When you are not in this sanctuary or in an adult education class or in youth group or a committee meeting or volunteering as a part of Fourth Church or Chicago Lights, do you ever think to yourself, “I am the salt of the earth. I am the light of the world.”
Because even though this is a communal ethic and identity (remember, Jesus does use the plural “you”), it also applies to our lives when we are not all together, perhaps even more strongly. So I wonder, would you live your life any differently Monday through Saturday if you both remembered and reaffirmed these critical pieces of your identity and call to be salt and light?
Let’s pause for a moment and briefly touch upon why Jesus used these very common elements in the first place—salt and light. First, salt: In Jesus’ day and in his Jewish tradition, salt had quite a few purposes. In the book of Leviticus, we learn that salt was used in sacrifice and offering. And in the book of Numbers, we read that salt was also a symbol of loyalty and covenant fidelity. Other historians have told us that in the first-century world when people sat together and shared a meal and conversation around a table that was often referred to as “sharing salt,” so there is also a communal slant to it. And then, of course, salt was used for purification, for seasoning, and as a preservative (Joe Clifford, Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, in a paper for the Well sermon lectionary group, 2010).
For me, though, the most important aspect of salt is the reality that it is not an element useful to itself. You don’t just eat salt. You don’t cure salt. You don’t preserve salt. It is only valuable in its application to other things. It flavors something else. It is used to cure something else. It preserves something else. It is the most useful when it adds something. And the only way it loses its saltiness is when it is rendered ineffective because it is simply overwhelmed by everything else.
You (plural) are the salt of the earth, Jesus proclaimed. You, church, are to cure and preserve and flavor the lives of those around you, the well-being of the community, the beauty of the earth. As Fred Buechner has preached, “The church is to bring out the true flavor of what it means to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be” (Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, p. 155). That is why they are.
This kind of focus is important, because, like salt, when we allow ourselves (as people and as a people) to become overwhelmed and overrun by everything else out there—by the flavors of contempt or greed or cynicism or rage or the desire for power that dominates—when we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by all those other strong flavors, we are rendered ineffective in our ability to help God change the world through our witness to the gospel of good news, the gospel of love and mercy. “When salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything,” Jesus warns.
Being light is quite similar to being salt. When Jesus told his disciples they are the light of the world, he was making reference to the prophetic word of Isaiah 49. He was drawing on the deep well of his Jewish tradition. It would have been a common metaphor. And again, like with salt, light is also the most helpful when it is in relationship to something else. The primary function of light is not to be seen but to let other things be seen.
I have been thinking about that truth in relationship to our own identifying phrase: we are a light in the city. I’ve wondered, sometimes, whether we are more focused on being the light that is seen and noticed as the light than we are focused on what or on whom we might shine, illuminate, call attention to. On this day of our 150th Annual Meeting of the Congregation, I think it is a challenging question for us. We certainly do not mind our historic reputation of being important in the city of Chicago and in the Presbyterian denomination. We take pride in that identity, and that is not wrong in itself. But with Jesus’ words echoing in our imaginations, I wonder if we ever forget that the true purpose of light is to illuminate the shadow places and to help others see themselves and the world more clearly. Light does not shine merely to call attention to itself.
So now, with this fuller picture of why Jesus might have used the common elements of salt and light, I ask again, do you think of yourself this way? Do you live your life being salt and light for the world? Do you wake up and say to yourself, “I wonder how I can add the flavor of the love and compassion of Jesus to my surroundings today. I wonder on whom I can shine the light of God so they might know they are claimed and loved?”
I realize I am being a bit pushy about these questions. That is because I have been deeply disturbed, following the National Prayer Breakfast this week, at what has once again become known as the primary witness of the Christian church. I usually do not pay much attention to what happens at the Breakfast, though I do have deep respect for fellow Presbyterian and seminary graduate Senator Chris Coons, who is very involved in the bipartisan event. But this year, I watched the keynote speech and the President’s speech that followed, because a clergy colleague friend, the Reverend Stephanie Anthony from Geneva, Illinois, was in attendance.
Knowing she was there, I turned on C-SPAN (something I have never done before in my life) and watched. At first, I was glad that I did. I was particularly moved by the keynote speech by Dr. Arthur Brooks, a professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Brooks began his address describing himself as a follower of Jesus.
He then said, “[That’s the same Jesus] who taught us to love God and taught us to love each other. [And] today, I’m here to talk to you about the biggest crisis facing our nation and many other nations today: It’s the crisis of contempt and polarization that’s tearing our societies apart.” Brooks then spoke at some length about the dangers of widespread contempt and the menace it unleashes on a communal culture. And with President Trump seated on one side of him and Speaker Pelosi on the other, he urged those in attendance not to let their disagreements over politics lead to the corrosive conclusion of contempt. He then made that challenge personal.
Dr. Brooks recalled once speaking to a group of conservative activists and telling them their political opponents were neither evil nor stupid. But when his speech was over, a woman from the crowd came up and told him he was completely wrong. Their political opponents were both evil and stupid. When she said that, Dr. Brooks reflected, he immediately thought about his Christian parents in Seattle. His parents held progressive political views, yet his parents were neither evil nor stupid. He loves them deeply, and they love him deeply. After making that point clear, Dr. Brooks then challenged all those in the room at the breakfast to remember their loved ones who have different points of view—and to stand up to those who would ridicule them.
Moral courage, Dr. Brooks declared, isn’t standing up to those with whom you disagree. Rather, it’s “standing up to those with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree.” “How do we break the habit of contempt?” Brooks asked. “Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense. Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard,” he said. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.” (I think the Washington Post printed the entire keynote sometime yesterday afternoon if you are interested in reading the whole thing.)
My friend who was present said the keynote was powerful and prayerful and that it imbued this “we can be different” kind of spirit in the room. To use Jesus’ image from our scripture today, Dr. Brooks was trying to remind those in the room who claim the identity of Christian that Jesus told them they are the salt of the world. They are the light of the world. Answer hatred with love, he said. Break the habit of contempt. Stand up for each other.
Now I am not going to reflect on our President’s response to the keynote. I am sure you have followed the news. It differed dramatically both in tone and substance from the keynote address. My friend told me it changed everything in the room and not for the better.
What concerns me most, however, is that in the aftermath of the breakfast, what is now getting lifted up once again as the Christian message, the Christian witness to our world, is not what Dr. Brooks said about answering hatred with love or standing up for each other. No, what is getting lifted up in our popular culture and media as the Christian witness is the overwhelming support and affirmation of the most partisan and contempt-filled parts of that breakfast offered by our more evangelical Christian pastors and leaders.
It is as if they did not hear a single thing that Dr. Brooks said, a single reminder of what it means to be a disciple, what it means to be salt and light. I will admit I am having to pray hard not to fall into my own kind of contempt for what they are doing. I get angry about it, because for the Christian church writ large, their voices are dominating the headlines and the newsfeeds. As a result, our collective saltiness is being completely overwhelmed by widespread contempt and the desire for political power, and our light is being obscured by a bushel of collective despair. People who are not a part of the church assume that is the only way to be a Christian.
Again, Dr. Brueggemann: “The crisis in the church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
This is why I am being pushy with you today, because I am more and more convinced that the only way the church will reclaim our identities as salt and light is if every single one of us dedicates ourselves to doing it each and every day. We regular preachers no longer carry the influence we once did, especially if we are not willing to be relentless self-promoters or say things so radical that they make headlines.
But if the 5,500 members and friends of Fourth Church were to wake up each morning and ask, “How will I add the love and compassion of Jesus to my surroundings today? On whom or where can I can shine the light of God today so we might all see God’s call for justice and compassion more clearly?”—if we were to ask those questions and then do those things, God’s promise is that the kingdom of God will be near and our world will be changed.
It is past time to stop flying under the radar, mainline church. Rather, it is time to be loudly kind, to be obnoxiously compassionate, to be irritatingly loving. To say no to the corrosive power of contempt and to answer hatred with the strength of love. To stand up for each other. To refuse to return evil for evil and to say why that is. To have good courage and to proclaim that often. To be the strongly flavored salt we are and the beautifully bright light we are, not only on Sundays when we are all together, but even more importantly in all of those other quiet, normal times and places in our lives during the week. For being salt and light is not just what we are called to do. It is who we are. So let us live fully and loudly and publicly as who we are, for God will use our witness. And our world will change. We will be changed. That is our promise. That is our truth. Amen.