Sunday, February 27, 2011

Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies

Robert J. Elder

February 27, 2011

Matthew 6:24-34

Psalm 131

Consider the lilies of the field,

how they grow;

they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,

even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed

like one of these.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field,

which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,

will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Our passage from Matthew comes from a section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with the distractions of earthly concerns. And who could not identify with the issues Jesus addresses here? From the disintegration of our material lives – whether by moths in the sweater drawer, or rust on the fenders of our cars – or the much greater fear of the invasion of thieves into our material worlds of possessions. In the midst of these concerns – the mere mention of which can cause a slow or fast rise of panic in our minds (Did we remember to lock the car in the parking lot or the house as we left this morning? Did we?) – Jesus declares that the more we store up, the greater will be our quotient of worry. He knows it’s in our best interest to sit lightly in the material world, because the essence in each of us is not material, it is spiritual.

Matthew was probably fully aware that the churches with which he shared these words from Jesus had a high proportion of people who could no more write Greek than we could, who possessed very little material wealth, and many of whom came from backgrounds of poverty and oppression. Of course the ancient world was thoroughly unacquainted with things like retirement plans, and life for the vast majority of people, on a material level, could be characterized as a rather desperate hold on what little material wealth they had.

With that kind of poverty in mind – the sort most of us can only imagine from fleeting images we may chance to see on the TV screen – we can learn from our brothers and sisters in the faith who live full lives in many places around the world, possessing only the tiniest fraction of the kind of material wealth we know. Still, Matthew’s gospel message, like ours, is spoken not only to poverty-stricken people, but also to a sophisticated world of people, filled with a kind of anxiety that rooms full of material goods can never ease. Knowing that, we may know how Matthew understood Jesus’ words when he heard them, and why he passed them on.

We know that these words from the lips of Jesus are not about several things: They are not a reasoned argument against a struggle for self-sufficiency; They do not promote a passive do-nothing attitude in the face of adversity; They do not advocate fatalistic resignation; Most of all, they are not a club which wealthy people can use to beat poor folks over the head in order to keep them in their place. Rather, this passage is more like that most dreaded of examination questions from our school days: the “forced choice” question. Jesus the teacher would want to ask us to choose our ultimate loyalty between God and mammon, between a single-minded trust and an anxious distrust, and then make a case for our choice:

But if God so clothes the grass of the field,

which is alive today

and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,

will he not much more clothe you…?

This passage is mostly about things that can be trusted, and serves as an encouragement to us to live as if we believed these words were true.

Anyone who places even partial trust in material things – social position, personal achievement, earned run averages, won-loss records, Wall Street trends, Social Security, a fifteen-year-old automobile for midnight rides on I-5, their share of Daddy’s estate – knows the meaning of the word anxiety. It’s not that we can avoid involvement with material things, Social Security, or – many of us – old model automobiles, any more than baseball players can avoid earned-run averages or Wall Street players can avoid the Dow Jones.

These words do not amount to a hymn to resignation. They are an encouragement to remember what comes first. Seek first the kingdom of God. Things can be worried about at their own level of importance. To be a part of God’s kingdom puts some of life’s experiences in perspective, it is to know first of all that we are precious in God’s eyes.

Now that may sound like a pulpit cliché: “we are precious in God’s eyes.” But it is Jesus who took great pains to let us know that it is so. He was aware that people possess a built-in reluctance to see it this way. Perhaps our reluctance has to do with a merit pay scale view of life. Any mother’s child knows that in this world we don’t get by on other peoples’ good will. What we receive is what we have earned. We may utter pious platitudes about believing in the essential goodness of people, but our life experiences often give lie to that sentiment.

From school days through retirement, modern life is a constant program of performance evaluation. High School transcripts, college transcripts and test scores provide means of entry into employment or professional school. And after all that, following the first few years in a career, job performance begins to outweigh records of academic achievement. Every major company has performance review for employees. Businesses stand or fall on their record of performance. One must earn the trust of creditors before securing a loan, and that respect comes mainly through means of good past performance on loans and payment schedules. How many times have we heard about some outstanding citizen who is said to have “earned the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens”?

Evaluation – measuring up – is part of life, as American as apple pie. We are so accustomed to the idea that everyone gets what they deserve that it is no wonder we are surprised when someone challenges that wisdom. In some ways, translators might as well have left Jesus’ words in their original language when he uttered those phrases about anxiety over the material things of life. What else is there to get quite as anxious about? Yet, in the face of our desperate daily chase after the security of material possessions, Jesus uttered a quiet and welcome word of grace.

Birds of the air do not plow fields or plant corn, yet our heavenly Father feeds them. The lilies of the field never had a cumulative grade point average of 3.9, but God sees to it that their clothing is more glorious than anything Paris Hilton has in her closet. If this is so, if mere birds and grass are subjects of God’s great concern, how much more the pride of his Creation, the people whom he has chosen to call his own?

Jesus took our normal expectations and turned them upside down. We might not like a merit pay scale, but at least it’s familiar. We know how to act when someone asks us for two or three references. But the idea that God’s care is available to everyone without cost flies in the face of so much of what we spend our lives doing.

Our perspective may be like the story of the farmer and his pious pastor. The preacher looked at his beautifully cultivated field and exclaimed, “What you and God have accomplished!” The farmer replied, “You should have seen it before God took me on as a partner!”

How like us all that comment is: “I have worked for what I have. What part has God played in bringing home the weekly paycheck?” Yet we consistently miss the point if we think our lives are about our own hard work, or food on the table, or a three-day weekend, or even time to be with family.

Our word from Matthew is a word of trust as the best remedy for anxiety.

It’s interesting that our money declares, for all the world to see, “In God We Trust”... but it’s the US Treasury Department, not God, that puts its good faith behind our currency. One joker said, “In God we trust: all others pay cash.” Even so, even in its secular, compromised sort of way, that simple declaration on coins and folding money is a way of admitting the limited sort of assurance that money can provide when we start throwing around words like trust.

Those who have lost everything and survived to tell about it generally mention trust in something beyond the material realm in the story of their survival. Psalm 121 is generally loved for the wrong reason. You remember it, it begins with an interrogative statement:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From whence does my help come?

It is not – and this is important – a declarative statement:

I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.

That is because our help does not, ultimately, come from hills or dales or big bank accounts or even lean ones. Our help does not come from beautiful mountain settings, nor lush golf course greens, nor libraries full of books, nor the latest computer system, nor safety deposit boxes filled with securities. No, Matthew, and the Psalmist with him, want to remind us – since we are so prone to forget it – our “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That trust in God is just about the only trust worthy of the name. Nothing less will do. Not for long.

I’ll close today with some thoughtful words from an old hymn text by William Cowper1 – a paraphrase of Matthew and the prophet Habakkuk2:

[Tomorrow] can bring with it nothing

But God will bear us through;

Who gives the lilies clothing

Will clothe the people too:

Beneath the spreading heavens

No creature but is fed;

And God who feeds the ravens

Will give his children bread.

And just in case lean times threatened the understanding of this hymn, he continued:

Though vine nor fig tree neither

Their wonted fruit shall bear,

Though all the field should wither,

Nor flocks nor herds be there;

Yet God the same abiding,

His praise shall tune my voice,

For while in Him confiding

I cannot but rejoice.

© copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 “Joy and Peace in Believing,” #48, Olney Hymns, Glasgow: William Collins & Co., Printers, 1843, p. 332.

2 Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jesus at Home

Jesus at Home

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Mark 2:1-12

Have you ever used the phrase, “I felt right at home”? It’s a pretty good phrase for purposes of describing some degree of comfort about a situation. I’d say Ichiro Suzuki makes himself right at home standing at home plate or at first base. I’d say that Tom Brokaw was a broadcaster who was at home in front of a TV camera. I know people who feel most at home when they are out tending their garden, or working under the hood of a car (my brother Bill), or standing by a river bank with a fly rod in hand (also my brother Bill), or playing with an Xbox or a Wii.

So, often, this being “at home” business is not meant to be taken literally, it’s a figure of speech. I was pondering that thought as I read the first verse of our passage for today:

“When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,

it was reported that he was at home.”

If Tom Brokaw could be said to have been at home in front of a TV camera, I believe Jesus was at home in the same way in Capernaum, where his ministry drew people almost effortlessly.

“He was at home.” The scholarly commentaries don’t even pause at this verse in their eagerness to talk about the rest of the story: the healing, the controversy the healing occasioned, the folks who brought the paralyzed man and lowered him through the roof, the man himself, the authorities and their quibbling about the language of forgiveness, and so on. But just for this moment of reflection that we have together, let’s have a look at that first verse, and not let it slip by us quite so quickly.

Now, if we know the whole story of Jesus, we know that he is very often referred to by his contemporaries as “Jesus of Nazareth.” We associate him with Bethlehem too, of course, and we do so because of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. But it is clear in the gospels that Jesus’ actual hometown was Nazareth, where Joseph was a carpenter and made his home with Mary. So how is it that he was “at home” in Capernaum as Mark reports?

Well, we know that after John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:14), Jesus came to Galilee, a region in the farthest north part of what was Israel in those days. And right at the farthest north part of that region was the little town of Capernaum. The name comes from a Hebrew word made up of two words, “caper” - meaning “village (of)” and “nahum” – the same as the name of the fierce Old Testament prophet, Nahum, whose name means “comfort.” – though there is no evidence of any connection between the prophet and the little town that I know of.

If you go to Israel today, you can see the ruins of little Capernaum, which has not been occupied for many centuries, but has been thoroughly excavated in modern times. There you would see ruins of a home which has many indications that it was once the home of Peter and Andrew, and very likely the house where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). It is located very near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The house is just a few hundred yards from the town synagogue, which is also in ruins that are visible today.

In those earliest days of his ministry, Peter’s house was coming to be known for the healing that was taking place there. Mark reports that in addition to healing Peter’s mother-in-law, many who were sick were brought to Jesus until, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” (1:33) After that, Jesus left the town for the countryside to visit other towns and synagogues, but people in need of healing showed up everywhere he went, and he ministered to them in ever-increasing numbers. He could hardly move without mobs of people gathering around him.

So when we turn to Mark 2 and it begins by telling us that in Capernaum “it was reported that he was at home,” it was not so much telling us where Jesus’ actual home was as it was a way of explaining why, when “it was reported,” that is, when word got out, “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door.”

And what brought so many people to him? The obvious answer would seem to be: their search for healing. But there is no evidence in Mark that the paralyzed man was seeking healing per se, though it is clear that his friends were seeking it for him. So, a paralyzed man, lowered through a now-demolished roof by his friends to the feet of the one with the spreading reputation for healing looks up into the eyes of the Healer. Jesus, Mark says, saw “their faith.” Whose faith? The ones who were so sure he could help their friend that they risked destroying a roof to get him to Jesus? The faith of those friends as well as the paralyzed one? Whatever particular individual or group, Jesus saw evidence of faith not proven by facts, and it was that evidence of faith that caused him to say to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now, we ought to stop right there. These folks knew of the authorized and acceptable places to go to seek forgiveness for sin. They could go sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, though carrying a paralyzed man all the way there would be a task more than a little daunting. Still, there was the faith they heard expounded in their synagogues, which had things to say about the forgiveness of God. To hear a word about forgiveness they might have gone elsewhere. But Jesus’ word was not just a word about forgiveness. He declared that forgiveness was granted, claimed for himself, as it appeared to the religious scholars nearby, the power to forgive sin.

I once read that back in the fifteenth century, in a far-off place in Russia called Kerajestan, a church was built. Construction took place during a time when a deadly epidemic was stalking the land. So familiar were the people with the victims’ sufferings, they built their church with wide doors, and gently sloping ramps, so the sick could easily be carried in. As the people constructed their church, they remembered this story in Mark, of the healing of the paralyzed man. And so, for many years, this particular church also left the dome of its sanctuary unfinished, open to the elements, covered only by a large tarp. For those Christians, the hole in the roof became a sign, a powerful symbol of their calling to be open to the Word, and to minister to human need. For whatever reason people may have needed to get in, this congregation was committed to finding a way.

As long as forgiveness is the way of our faith, it’s a little like maintaining a sort of hole in our otherwise self-satisfied spiritual roof, a reminder that we need to let more into our understanding of what it means to be in the presence of Jesus than what we already know about our faith, an essential reminder that Jesus not only has the power to forgive, he has the power to surprise us and change us, to make us disciples who are the next generation of stretcher-bearers, carrying those who need forgiveness into the presence of the Lord, on a stretcher through the roof if need be. Persistent disciples are called to be like that.

An ancient theologian of the church once wrote, “In everyday life... we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts... We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”(1)

Important as the healing of his paralysis must have been to the man on the mat who came dangling through the roof, Jesus’ words of forgiveness provided the transforming, always-spoken ‘yes’, thanks to the friends who carried his needs into the presence of the Master.

In Herb Gardner’s 1962 play, A Thousand Clowns,(2) a man named Murray spends his time standing at Lexington and 51st in New York City, making simple apologies to people on the street, complete strangers, because he discovered that when he did this, they would almost invariably forgive him. “I’m sorry,” he says, to those walking by, and in almost every instance, they forgive him on the spot. He reflects, “That’s the most you can expect from life, a really good apology for all the things you won't get.”

But don’t you wonder what would have happened if he had stood on the street corner telling those who passed by that he forgave them? Wouldn’t you imagine that the responses probably wouldn’t have been so warm? Some folks might even have become hostile, this was New York after all, not generally perceived as an “I’m sorry” kind of city. Probably most of us can work up our own lists of things for which we believe we’re owed an apology, but admitting that we’ve done anything that requires forgiveness comes less easily.

We are invited to be such friends for each other, carrying them to the Master if we can, figuratively or literally, so they also can hear the good news of forgiveness of a God who loves us more than we could imagine to have been possible.


(1) Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius.

(2) Debra Farington drew my attention to the interesting connection between Mark's story and Gardner's play in her article, "Dose of Forgiveness," in Christian Century, February 7, 2006, p. 17.

copyright ©2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Custom and Consequence

Custom and Consequence

Robert J. Elder

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time: February 13, 2011

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-24

5:21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

In the second part of Matthew 5, Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a familiar rhetorical device in his teaching, going back and forth between “You have heard it said...” and “...but I say to you.... We know the rhythm of it; it goes, “You have heard it said...” and there follows some bit of proverbial wisdom that would have been familiar to his listeners, like “an eye for an eye;” then he continues,“but I say to you...” and here is where he applies the customary understanding with such unaccustomed strictness that everyone winds up convicted. “You have heard it said ... 'you shall not murder (that) whoever murders shall be liable to judgment...'” Then comes the harder truth, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

It is a striking raising of the stakes, isn't it? You have heard it said “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but I say to you, unless you eat a shipping container full of apples, the doctor will be called in shortly.”

When Jesus says “You have heard it said,” he is referring to some piece of generally acceptable ethical wisdom which had its foundation in the law of the Old Testament. When he goes over to the “But I say to you” part, we may be sure that he is announcing a new vision of what those old ethics have come to mean for our understanding of the character of God, the character of the Christian community, and - probably last of all - our own character as individual believers.

See how it works? Customary ethical wisdom has consequences. Customarily we expect many things about our lives, and generally speaking, we anticipate familiar consequences. Yet the customary things have deep roots which we sometimes miss, a stricter application which could enrich us immeasurably if only we could see it. Jesus helps us see. And it was to this deeper level of meaning in the customary laws of Israel that Jesus pointed so skillfully each time he continued with “…but I say to you…”

At this point in my ministry with you here at First Presbyterian, some of you have become familiar with my three-part refrain at times when we are speaking together and you may happen to mention a third person not present with whom you are disappointed or angry, or whom you think needs to be set straight in some way. If you are not familiar with my usual response, I am happy to tell you how it goes and you can be prepared for it if the need arises.

  1. If Mr. McGillicutty says to me, “Pastor, I have to tell you, I am unhappy with the way Mrs. Finkelfern always parks crooked in the parking lot,” I will respond to you, if I have my thinking cap on, “Have you spoken with Mrs. Finkelfern about your concern?”
  2. And if McGillicutty says 'no' but adds some reason he is hesitant to speak to her directly, I will then say, “Would you like me to go with you some time so you can speak with Mrs. Finkelfern about this?”
  3. If McGillicutty declines, I may offer a third option, “Well, I could speak with Mrs. Finkelfern about your concern, but I would be sure to tell her that it is your concern and not mine, would that be alright? Direct communication is always the best way to get to the root of a problem.” If the answer is still no, I have to say, “Well, then I wish I could help you but I can't. But I do wish you well.

Students of human behavior call Mr. McGillicutty's approach and invitation to me to talk about a person not present triangulation, a term with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Our lives are filled with triangles, any time we speak with someone about a third person not present. It's easy to see how easily a casual such conversation can take a wrong turn. I believe that was part of Jesus' motivation on behalf of the emerging community of faith when he told them that carrying around unresolved anger about a third party not present could having literally damning results.

The “but I say to you” portion of Jesus' teaching leads him to place a figurative hand on our shoulders and to say to us, “…for the sake of love and especially for the sake of the health of the church community that continues my ministry, think on this teaching: Forget murder; if you are even angry with your brother or sister, or call them a fool behind their back, you are liable to the hell of fire!”

Think of it this way: The lens we need to use to understand Jesus' words is the lens that understands what community really is. His words aren't addressed to individuals but to a fellowship. Matthew was addressing his gospel about Jesus to a struggling community of believers who were sorting out their lives of faith together. We need to reflect constantly, what does it mean to be a community of Christ? How should we live? Then think of Jesus' statements as remembered instructions to disciples who one day shared them as a way to keep relationships alive and vital in the rough and tumble life of communities of believers from that time to this. His instructions concerning our anger and other shortcomings in community are meant to tell us about the character of God first, secondly the way that character should be reflected in the life of the community that follows Christ, and only lastly our own character. The Sermon on the Mount was intended as instruction for community building even more than individual character-building.

You have heard it said that you shall not murder, but I say to you, the God who loves you has refrained from acting out his anger, and the community to which you belong should aim for that higher righteousness. What community of faith can survive if its members are riven with anger, refuse to speak directly with one another in love, refuse correction offered in love?

Jesus said that even if we are present at the altar with our gift, ready to hand it over to the priest, and entirely without our meaning to do so, we remember some hurt that we have caused to, or received from, a brother or sister in faith, we should stop the ritual and go be reconciled. Why? Sure that spoils the whole religious service, but reconciliation is more important than religious observances because trust and relationship within the community of faith are of paramount importance, more important even than appropriate sacramental observance.

Jesus declares that there is no obligation more important, no duty more solemn than reconciliation between Christian brothers and sisters. That is what builds community. All sacraments, all prayer, all religious observance flow from a community which is the body of Christ, and are not optional attachments onto the body, whether that body is broken or not. Nothing is more important than peace among brothers and sisters. Nothing.

Years ago, when my daughters were still small, I read them a children's story about a koala bear in a magazine called Your Big Back Yard. This koala and his mother were peacefully moving from one tree to another one day when they were spotted by two men who thought they would make good pets for their children. The little koala was riding along on his mother's back, and the two men snatched them and put them into a burlap bag to take home.

A little later a ranger asked them if they had seen the two koalas, since his count was short by two. The men said that, yes, they had captured them and planned to take them home to their children for pets. To make a long story short, the ranger helped them see the wisdom of leaving the koalas out in the wilderness where they belong, since there would be no adequate means of feeding or caring for them at the men's homes.

Several hours had obviously passed during the course of the story, but when the men opened the sack to let the little koala and his mother go free, the little one was still holding fast to the fur on his mother's back. In all that time, he had not let go.

In the Old Testament, Moses once put a choice before Israel.* God set before them blessing and curse, life and death. Moses urged them to choose life. And he told them that the way to choose life is - as a community of God's Chosen People - to love God, obey God, and hold fast to God; just what that little koala bear was doing in relation to his mother in the dark recesses of the burlap bag. In his little marsupial mind, he knew that no matter how how bleak things looked, they could only look bleaker without her. And similarly, we may know in our life together as a community of Christ's beloved people, that there is no lost place, no dark bottom of a burlap bag that is beyond the reach of God's love and care. God will make of us the community that our own solitary efforts cannot. Praise be to God who gives us this life-giving gift of his church.


* Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Copyright © Robert J. Elder, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

All in Good Taste

All in Good Taste

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time: February 6, 2011

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Isaiah 58:1-9a

Matthew 5:11-20

This passage from Matthew follows verses we refer to as the beatitudes – the words Jesus spoke to his disciples beginning with “Blessed are…” at the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Today it’s especially important to remember that after all the statements that begin, “blessed are the” comes this “blessed are you.” Verse 13 picks up with an answer to the implied question, “What about us?”

Remember, Matthew was writing a gospel for what most Bible scholars agree was a community made up almost entirely of Jewish Christian believers. Moreover, Matthew’s gospel was written down after the fall of Jerusalem and the complete destruction of the temple. What was going on in Israel in general is reflected in microcosm – between the lines – in Matthew’s gospel. The question being asked at this time had to do with the future of Judaism when there was no longer a temple as the focus of Israel’s worship. Today we know that the future of the Jewish faith after the Temple was gone became rabbinic Judaism, celebrated exclusively in synagogues. But no one knew that then.

For several years a struggle had been under way for the future of the religion of Israel around the time of the writing of the gospels. Christians thought that they held the keys to the future of that historic faith, but the party of the Pharisees was strong, and they disagreed, and, ultimately, they won out. So by the time Matthew wrote down the stories of Jesus in his gospel, he was making a collection of them for a community of Jewish Christians who were very likely discouraged that in the contest between the struggling house churches that followed in the way of Jesus, and the well-heeled synagogues that didn’t, the synagogues were winning. The majority of Jews were staying with the synagogues, not joining those who had become followers of the crucified Jesus.

A question asked in every generation, and surely then, must have been, “If we’re not really winning, why are we trying?” How many people do we know who define the future and the success of the church by the number of people who are joining, by the ways programs are growing, by the “bigger is better” philosophy? That’s not what was happening in Matthew’s community.

As a parable(1) for what was going on then in Matthew’s struggling community, just imagine a tiny church across the street from a large, well-heeled and prosperous mega-church. The tiny church is struggling, dwindling, its main ministry being a thankless, run-down soup-kitchen style outreach to the homeless, for which they receive little fanfare and even fewer donations. Their youth group is non-existent, they have no groups for the younger up-and-coming consumer-oriented Christians, they are mostly older folks who try to follow the teachings of Jesus while being a church together. Across the street, the prosperous mega-church stands in all its pillared glory, beautiful building, lots of their people parking all over the lawn and parking lot of the tiny church since no one much uses their parking lot anyway, in order to walk over to this growing mega-church. One of the main budget problems under study currently at the mega-church is which security company to hire to protect their buildings.

At the mega-church, the congregation rocks to the beat of a praise band, and the sort of gospel preached is one which declares “We don’t need to have pastors from fancy schools, we just preach the Bible.” They have a school, a bus ministry to fetch people, and by all the physical measures anyone can think of, they are growing by leaps and bounds, in part because they affirm a gospel of success by just pointing to how successful they already are. The tiny, struggling church continues to preach a less appealing gospel of service, self-giving and self-sacrifice.

The surprise in this parable is that Jesus walks into town one day, walks down the street, and turns in to enter... the tiny struggling church! It’s as hard to imagine as a gospel about Jesus addressed to a tiny and powerless group of his followers and calling them a royal priesthood! They looked like nothing of the sort. But that is the sort of gospel that Matthew passed along.

In the Christmas stories from Matthew, Joseph was called a righteous man. That is a very complimentary title, one reserved for only two individuals in all of Matthew’s gospel. He wanted to do the righteous thing by Mary when he discovered she was pregnant, which was to put her away quietly according to the laws of Moses. But the angel revealed to him a new righteousness couched in an obedience to the word of God that surpasses social conventions and morality, a sort of kingdom of heaven righteousness rather than a kingdom of Israel righteousness. Matthew tried to help a struggling church see that righteousness – discipleship – is not necessarily to be identified with numerical or financial success stories.

Think for a moment about the logical absurdity of Jesus’ opening statements in this second section of the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything.” Any chemist will tell us that salt cannot lose it taste, does not degenerate, it’s just sodium chloride, that’s what it is, it can’t stop being that. So it seems that Jesus is saying, if you are a disciple of mine, you are the salt of the earth, that’s what you are, you can’t stop being a disciple, try to forget about it on Tuesday, pick it up again on Thursday. This passage doesn’t mean to tell us to get out and get salty; we are disciples, we already have everything we need to be to be effective witnesses. Our little struggle is not ours alone.

Or take Jesus’ comment about the light under a bushel. No one turns on a lamp in their living room, and then puts a big old garbage can over it. If you do, what’s the purpose of having a lamp lit? The purpose of a lamp is its light, apart from that it has no particular purpose. A disciple is like that, a light on the path for others, that’s what we are. Disciples can’t stop doing that any more than a lamp can stop being a source of light and still be true to its very essence.

It’s so graceless to be forever pounding people over the head, saying, “If only you would do this or achieve that you could be the salt of the earth, you could be the light of the world.” Jesus wants us to know that we are his already. Nothing needs to be added to make us more “disciplish” than we already are. It reminds me that in the beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are you...” not “you could be blessed, or might be blessed,” but “you are blessed.” A blessing to others is just what a disciple is.

The church has inherited an ancient call of Israel from the prophet Isaiah, who said that our light could rise in the darkness, that we could be a light to the nations, the small group that can save the rest. To say, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world,” far from being words of praise to the pietistic, is to say if we are Christian disciples, this is what we are: salt, light. These are not words to accessorize our faith, they characterize faith itself.

When the Christian community does have enough witness to be seen, it counts, and though we may rarely, if ever, see it ourselves, it counts eternally. That is not always obvious to us, it may never be. Especially during those times when it appears as though our witness doesn’t count for anything; when no one responds, no one seems to believe, we find ourselves in our struggling little marginalized church, metaphorically across the street from a mega-institution that’s booming, how can it be that God is blessing our little bit of faithful witness? I know of one tiny church. They have every strike against them: located in what used to be a great part of town, they now find themselves in a decaying old section of town, with buildings that cost a fortune to heat and cool, and no new families in sight, they are getting smaller, smaller, smaller, and in the end, barring some future known only to God, that church might one day have to close. But that doesn’t mean their current faithfulness counts for nothing. It counts, and it counts eternally.

Recently research(2) has been undertaken, seeking to discover why generous people – people who seem to have a built-in capacity to give of themselves selflessly – why they are able to be that way. One study discovered that the inclination to live a life that could be described as generous has nothing to do with parents or upbringing or the level of schooling or even moral education. We all think that if we were just better parents, perhaps our children would learn to be generous people, but that is not what was learned in this study. The one common factor found running through the lives of all people who could be described as generous turns out to be this: each had some experience in life in which another person acted generously toward them in a life-transforming way, and they have internalized that experience, made it into one of the narratives by which they live their lives. They keep looking for ways to make that experience the characteristic story of their lives.

The story of one man in that study went this way: As a child he was terrified of the dentist. The slow-moving, old-fashioned drill, and the pain he associated with it, were too much for him. Each time he went to the dentist he was terrified. Then on one visit, a kindly dental assistant befriended him, and when he became visibly agitated at the approach of the dentist and his whining drill, she said to him, “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you.” And she didn’t. A simple thing, nothing really dramatic. She probably forgot it by the next day.

But the man never forgot that simple, generous act from his childhood. It became part of the story that shaped his life. Years later, working as an Emergency Medical Technician he happened upon a terrible truck accident. The highway as well as the truck and its trapped driver were covered with gasoline. Naturally, the driver was terrified, because until the fire department arrived, there was every chance that the whole scene could go up in flames at any moment. The sensible thing to do was to stand a hundred yards off and wait and hope. Even so, this man went to the driver, sat beside him until help arrived, saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you.” The story of generosity in his own childhood had become his life. Later the truck driver said, “That guy was crazy!” Maybe so. Or maybe he was the salt of the earth, the light of the world, who knows?

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. For many of you, I know, you couldn’t put that light out if you tried. So don’t try.


1 from a seminar with Dr. Tom Long at Princeton Theological Seminary.

2 Ibid.

© copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder