Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13-16)

Right on the heels of the Beatitudes Jesus says, “You are the light of the world… you are the salt of the earth”. One of the things struck me about this verse recently was this is what Jesus says we are. So often we refer to Jesus as “The Light of the World”, and he is, but here he says that we are that light and we are that salt. We are the ones who are to salt_shaker_on_white_backgroundshine light into the darkness and who are to preserve and bring flavor to the world. The big question is, again, “so what? What does that mean?”.

A friend and colleague of mine once preached sermon unpacking the many implications of what that means and how a first-century Jewish person might have heard it. One of the things she pointed out was that salt was often used in the soil in order to make it more fertile. Think about it: Here is this land- this soil, this earth- struggling to bring forth any kind of life, and mixing salt into it helps it do just that. In that context, Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth”. In other words, you, people of God, Body of Christ, are the salt that is mixed into the infertile soil of the world to help it bring forth life

The implications of this fascinate me. I remember when I was in college and in the campus ministry of which I was a part there was great pressure to be “salt and light” wherever we went. I remember feeling not inspired by this, but shamed by it. It felt like a biblically rooted way of pressuring people into not being bold with our faith but obnoxious with it. We were to basically to go out on campus to be “salt and light” by the spreading the “good news” that if you have not “accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”, you would be headed toward eternal hellfire. And this was all done through a very specific and regimented format and formula. While there may be a credible stream of theology along these lines, I just don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he called us, “the salt of the earth”.

What can end up being behind this kind of approach to “being salt” is that we’re not actually being salt at all. We’re not trying to be one of many ingredients in a soil designed to bring forth life. With this approach, we, ourselves, are trying to be the very God that makes that life come forth. That is, while maybe well intended, we try to fabricate some kind of spiritual experience for people that only God can create. And for me, it did not bring forth life anywhere. In fact, it was squashing life out of me.

Our job is merely to be the salt. We are merely to be one part of a vast organic system by which the Spirit of God gets a hold of people and brings forth life. That said, this is not a call to spiritual passivity. I am not advocating silence in and about our faith. We need to be bold in our faith, but we need to be sure that this boldness does not cross over the fine line into obnoxiousness. While salt is good and necessary, and while we are indeed called to be salt for the earth, the reality is that too much salt kills. Too much can ruin the meat, can oversaturate the soil, and can raise one’s blood pressure. We need to be the right amount of salt for the soil into which we are to go.

Jesus knew how to be this right amount of salt. The world was perishing, but the world was a good place, a place God created, a place worth preserving. And just as Jesus called us to be the salt of the earth, so too was he. So he became just that. He went down into the earth to preserve it, to sustain it, to bring it back to life. Jesus went down into the earth to be salt in order for the earth to become an atmosphere where dead and dying things could come to life.

When Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth”, let us remember that he modeled it for us. He became that very salt himself. To be the “salt of the earth” is to lay ourselves down for one another. It is to see one another as God sees us- beloved, beautiful and worthy of preservation. So let us go into the earth and be salt for its soil, trusting that we are among many other ingredients which, by the power of the Spirit, bring dead and dying things to life.

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To Be Blessed (Matthew 5:1-12)

c48ce017c36941505c2f6433fe30e96aSo Jesus opens his famed “Sermon on the Mount” with what we call “The Beatitudes.” I love the Beatitudes. Always have. There is a certain poetry to them in their repetition that woos me into mediation more so than learning. GK Chesterton once wrote “the poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that Splits.” That’s how I feel about the Beatitudes. The more I try to understand them and fully grasp what they are teaching, the more confused I get. But when I simply try to step into them, observe them, and look around in them, as I would the inside of a grand cathedral, peace washes over me like baptism.

Many years ago, early in my pastor days, I had to teach a study on the beatitudes based off of a brief Sermon on the Mount series we were doing at church. I remember sitting in my office immersed in various resources, staring at a blank Word Doc and resenting the blinking cursor before me. Every blink felt like God looking at me saying “so? how d’ya like me now?” I had nothing. How does one teach this? I decided to come before the group of 8-10 parishioners and have us each take one verse to read out loud. Upon reading the passage I simply asked, “what did you hear through these words?” It took an awkward minute to get things going but we had a beautiful 60-minute conversation about hope, peace, trust, and grace. I don’t know that anyone walked out with theological insights, but I think we all walked out with a deeper sense of God’s activity in our lives.

I don’t think the Beatitudes are intended to be understood, studied, and even taught. Every now and then there are words in Scripture that, to me, feel more divine than others. That is not say that the others are any less true or worthwhile. It is only to say that every now and then words creep in that transcend us, that go beyond anything our brains can fathom. If we let those words simply penetrate into us and live and move in us, they can then actually form us more than teach us. The beatitudes are such words.

From here he will launch into his teaching. We’ll see what that brings in the coming days, but as we do, may the heart and spirit of these words weave their way through those teachings for us.

Turn Around (Matthew 4:12-25)

“Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17,NRSV). If you ask me, here Jesus sounds like his street-preacher cousin, John. My end-is-nearearliest recollection of this kind of talk came when I was young and Superman II came out. I’ll never forget Zod and his two cronies taking over Metropolis, and as cars and taxi cabs flew through the streets, there was this one lone man wearing a sandwich board which read, “The end is nigh”.

I had no idea what that meant, but for some reason whenever I read these passages of Jesus or John the Baptist saying “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” I see them wearing such a sandwich board. I’m kinda thinking they weren’t, but that’s what I see. Maybe it’s just me but rhetoric like “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” sounds like an ending, like it’s all over, like a “what was your favorite life on earth moment”. It’s important to remember that the kingdom of heaven is not an ending but a beginning.

The question is, “what does it all mean? What exactly is Jesus saying here?” Scholars have debated this one forever and will until… the end of time. I think a big piece of understanding this is in the word “near”. The NRSV says “has come near”. The NIV says “is near”. The King James says, “is at hand”, and Eugene Peterson says in The Message, “is here”. I don’t know about you, but depending on what translation you read, there are some important, but subtle, differences in where exactly the “kingdom of heaven” is. “Near” and “here” are not exactly the same thing.

“Near” makes it sound as though it has not quite arrived, whereas “here” and “at hand” make it sound like it is indeed here, within grasp. The Greek word used here is ἤγγικεν (ēggiken). It means “to come near” and is in the perfect-active-indicative” tense, which means it is a completed action. It is to say that the kingdom of heaven “has come near”, that it is has completed the task of “coming near”. Near means, as the King James indicates, within grasp, “at hand”. It is not “near” in the sense of waiting for someone to arrive at your house who is “near”, but still a half mile away. It is “near” in the sense that they are at your door, and it is up to you to answer. It is “near” in the sense that the coffee pot is “near” but I need to get up and walk into the kitchen to get it if I want coffee. Which is why Jesus calls us to “repent”, to turn around and come to it. The kingdom of heaven is as near as it can get on its own. So “repent”, come around to it, wake up to it, shift your gaze toward it and come to it.

And so there are these fishermen, busy at work, and Jesus comes saying, “come follow me” in the context of this “repent” business. The text says, “immediately they left their nets and followed him”. In his book Three Months with Matthew Justo Gonzalez asks the question “how would I change my life if I knew that the reign [kingdom] of God was coming tomorrow?” (p. 21). This is a good question but a dangerous one. It’s good because it reminds us that there is something much bigger than our “nets” in this life. We need to be reminded of that and live more fully into the “kingdom of heaven” rather than any “kingdom of this world”.

But I find it a dangerous question as well; it reminds me of Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians when he said “…But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you…” (1 Thessalonians 4:10–11 NRSV). To behave as though God’s kingdom is coming tomorrow can lead us into irresponsible reckless living rather than radical revolutionary living.

And with that in mind, I counter Gonzalez’s question with a question: Hasn’t the kingdom of God already come? Aren’t we living in it right here and right now? Isn’t the reign of God available to us at all times, in all places and with all people? Are we not strangers implanted in a strange land to be vessels of God’s love, peace, and truth, and in so doing, builders and expanders of God’s kingdom?

The kingdom is here in our very midst, so while we are called to reorient our lives, we must be careful not to “leave our nets” too quickly. The Kingdom of God is in the nets- those nets have a purpose. They are providing food and part of someone’s vocation. And it is in this sense that the kingdom of God is indeed here, all around us. It is in the cube at in the drab non-descript office, it is in the classroom at Aquila Elementary School, it is in the firehouse across the street, in your children’s playroom, on the mattress at the homeless shelter, in the hospital room, on the UPS route, in the movie theater ticket office, and, yes, even in the debate on a special called General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

God’s activity in this world is all around us, everyday, in every breath we breathe. So may we all wake up, open our eyes, turn around and see that kingdom of heaven has come near. The sacred, the holy, the kingdom of God, has come, is coming, and will continue to come on earth as it is in heaven. It’s closer than we think.

Lies (Matthew 4:1-11)

mblp7sf1_400x400-2So in chapter 3 Jesus gets baptized. John says he’s not worthy to do it, but Jesus insists and he does it. Upon being baptized, Matthew 3 tells us, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’”. Appropriately God names Jesus at his baptism: “My Son, the Beloved”. One of my favorite things about baptizing babies is the moment before I actually baptize them, and I get to look into their eyes and ask, “do you know that your are God’s beloved? And that in you God is well pleased?” And every time the look in their eyes tells me that they know it more than I do about myself. The waters of baptism name us: beloved.

Immediately following this baptism, this naming, Jesus heads out to the wilderness to fast and ultimately to be tempted. I’ve often heard it said that this passage shows us that “Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted”, and that from that we are to take great comfort. It never really helped me. Deep down I’ve always asked, “to what degree was he tempted?” How tantalizing were the ways in which Satan tempted him? The deal with the bread is compelling, but to the others I imagine Jesus responding with a resounding “enh”.

What does happen, however, is that in each one of these temptations is (As Justo Gonzalez points out in his book Three Months with Matthew) an attack on Jesus’ identity. That makes sense. I have a hard time imagining Jesus being tempted by kingdoms of the world, but getting him to doubt his identity as God’s “beloved son in whom [God] is well pleased” matches up with the root of all temptation. That is, at the root of all sin is bowing to something other than God, looking to get life, to get our “okay”, our value and worth, from something other than God. We are all starving for life, vitality, worth. And the world is filled with things claiming to be able to give it to us. But the reality is that the only place we can get life is from the creator, giver and sustainer of life. And that creator, giver and sustainer of life calls us “beloved”. Could it be that we choose to bow to things other than God when we forgot that we too, like Jesus, are God’s children in whom God is well pleased? In that is life. Real life. And because that is who I am, I can then freely see all others whom I encounter as such. Because I am a child of God, I need not look to others to be filled, but can begin to see them as God created them. Because I am a child of God, others must be treated by me as God’s beloved. This is who I am, and this is who you are, and there is nothing we can do to make this more or less true.

Burning the Chaff (Matthew 3:1-17)

So we fast forward a lot of years- presumably about 30. The infant Jesus has dodged the massacre of Herod, grown up and is now about to start his work. But before he does he 023yqcomes to John the Baptizer to be baptized. But that’s only five of the 17 verses in this
story. What about the other 12?

They can sound peculiar. So much so that the temptation is to fast-forward right through them to Jesus’ baptism. Let’s not do that. After all, these are some big words. So let’s look at those, and I’ll let you wonder about the meaning of Jesus’ baptism.

John is out in the wilderness baptizing, calling people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and we get this note that what he’s doing is fulfilling a Hebrew Bible prophecy that one is to come and prepare the way for this. Immediately after this note, we get a description of John: He “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist…” Stop right there.

Let’s go back to 2 Kings 1. Here we meet a prophet called Elijah. Elijah is the one who “never died”, but was swopped up into Heaven (2 Kings 2:11), and is said in Malachi to be the one to come back to call the people to repent (Malachi 4:5). Well in 2 Kings 1 someone asks about Elijah and the people describe him in this way: “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:7-8). Matthew is making John the Baptizer an Elijah. And what Elijah will do, among other things, is speak truth to power. He will call out of the sin of the people and of the religious system to prepare the way for the coming kingdom of God.

And that’s exactly what John does in verses 7-12. The people are out in the wilderness with John being baptized because the system has excluded and marginalized them. They are shamed in the temple (if they’re even let in), and so they head out, away from it all to repent, and they do so under the leadership of this wild but captivating character named John. When the authorities get wind of this, they head out there too.

As they approach, John goes off on them. There’s is a lot going on here, but one of the reasons these words are important is that all of them will be echoed later by Jesus. Matthew is doing two things in this passage: One, he is (as he will do throughout the Gospel) point out ways that Jesus is the Messiah. We see this in the naming of prophecies. Calling out John as an Elijah is to also call out Jesus as the Messiah. But, two, he’s also setting us up for the kinds of things the Messiah will say and do, almost like a prologue. Jesus will continually go after the religious powers of the day. Watch for these same kinds of words from Jesus later in the Gospel.

But before we get too haughty: As we see Jesus (and John) going after the religious powers of the day, may we remember that as protestant American Christians, our churches and their broader systems are the religious powers of today. What might John and Jesus have to say to us?

Least of These (Matthew 2:13-23)

This is a horrific passage. It speaks to the absolute horrors that can come with absolute power. Upon hearing of the birth of the “King of the Jews” (a description of Jesus which will frame his life, mind you), Herod feels his power is threatened and orders all children two years old and younger to be slaughtered, instituting what we call today, “the slaughter of the innocents”. It’s awful, and before we dismiss it as 1st-century “culture”, we should remember that the same kind of maniacal, paranoid leadership can exist anywhere at any time, no matter how overt or subtle the manifestations of it may be.

I have to admit, though, that in this case, I too often read this story selfishly. I read it through the eyes of someone who needs Jesus rather than through the eyes of Jesus himself. What I mean by this is that I read it and breathe a sigh of relief that at its end, Jesus is ok. Jesus survives. As one who needs Jesus, I finish the story feeling good that he survived.

But how would Jesus hear this story? Yes, he escaped, but untold thousands of children did not. Jesus was the child Herod was after, yet he survives and thousands of others don’t. I think this story must have crushed the heart of Christ. In Matthew 19 he will warn us, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”. Jesus loved children and for untold thousands of them to die in pursuit of his life must have crushed him. How precious they must be to him. It also presents a curious paradox in the Gospel story: Thousands of children’s lives were lost in the pursuit of the one who will lay down his life for our sake.

As we read this story, it’s okay to feel a sense of relief that Jesus survives. We need him to. But let us never forget the lives that were taken. We must remember that the Gospel comes to us not just at the cost of the life of Christ, but at the price of untold thousands of innocent children as well. It’s a horrific thought, but it’s there, and it crushes the heart of God.

As thousands of children still die every day at the hands of oppressive and disordered systems of power, may we redeem whatever we can out of this story to do what we can, by the power of the Spirit, to dismantle those systems. May we Methodists fulfill our baptismal vows to “resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”immigration_holy-family-as-refugees_kelly-latimore

The reality that many want to turn away from today because of its immediate political implications is that the Holy Family found sanctuary in Egypt. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will say those famous, guiding, and piercing words: “…Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV).

May we work with God in defending, protecting and drawing in the world’s most vulnerable, innocent and marginalized, rather than putting up barriers for them. Let us never forget that the Gospel is not about us, but about all of us.

Looking Up (Matthew 2:1-12)

Having preached on this passage many times, It’s hard not to come into it without preexisting ideas. It is, however, among my favorite stories in all Scripture. I’m not sure pp,550x550.u2what it is about it, but I am strangely drawn to it. I wonder if it is that if I were to be a Biblical character, I think I would be one of the Magi.

Other than my early childhood years, I was brought up outside of the church. By the time I was of confirmation age, I knew little to nothing about Jesus, had never read the Bible, and wouldn’t know how to even if I wanted to. I was basically brought up to be a good agnostic. But within all of that, I have always had a strong sense of wonder and a strong sense that there is something bigger out there.

As a child and a teenager, I was hungry for spirituality. As an elementary aged kid, I would go to Mass with my best friend down the street when I slept over at his house on Saturday nights. It didn’t bother me at all. I loved the costumes, the sets, the pageantry, the ornate building, and the strange rituals, even though I understood none of it. I remember sitting in the pew looking up the big domed ceiling wondering what it was all about.

Later on in life, I remember participating in Shabbat and then going to Talmud-Torah class the following morning when I slept over at my Jewish friend’s house on Friday nights. Again, I was lost (especially since this time it was literally in a different language), but when those candles were lit and prayers were spoken, I was hooked. I wanted to be a part of whatever this was. Then I remember feeling more lost than ever the following Saturday morning being in a room full of 5th graders who were begrudgingly learning a strange language that connected them to a massive story. Don’t get me wrong, it was boring, but there was something there that I knew I was missing. I wanted to be connected to a bigger story like they were.

Enter the Magi: Outsiders. Mystics. Aliens… but true, authentic seekers. They had no business going to see the Christ child. They were gentiles. But they’re knowledge of some prophecies, an innate curiosity, and a spirit of wonder and adventure compelled them to go, to move, to seek. “They looked up and saw a star/ Shining in the East beyond them far”, the old carol sings. Don’t we all want to belong to and have the courage to follow “something beyond us far”?

Ultimately it was a star that led me too. I was an unchurched, agnostic who found himself on a mission trip in Mexico. It was in that Mexican desert sky that my agnosticism morphed into something more. That sky told me there was something bigger, and I did indeed belong to it. It wasn’t just for the robes, copes, and wafers of the Catholic faithful or just for the candlelight meals of the Hebrew speaking chosen. No, it was for me too. But how? How would I connect to it? In what forms would I express it?

For the magi, it was frankincense, gold, and myrrh. For me, well, I don’t know. The form just doesn’t matter to me anymore. I just want to be like the Magi, who broke through outer courts of religion and into the simplicity of a manger to get a glimpse of the Christ-child and give to him what they had. That’s me. Just a boy, strangely drawn to Jesus by the night sky, still journeying to find him, and give him whatever I have. As Christina Rosetti wrote in her beautiful hymn In The Bleak Midwinter:

What can I give him, poor as I am
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part
But what I can I give him, I give him my heart