March 10, 2019: The First Sunday of Lent
We are now in the season of Lent. Lent is a wonderful period of 40 days where the Church invites us to prayer, good works, and preparation as we journey toward the miraculous event of Easter. The Lenten season always begins with Ash Wednesday, and with Christians throughout the world we gathered this past Wednesday to pray and be marked with ashes on our foreheads. The ashes remind us of our mortality and total dependence on God. It is really a cleansing reminder, helping us to put away pride and any self-importance that might hinder our relationship with God. Now that the season has begun, we have just fewer than 40 days to get our hearts and minds ready for Christ’s resurrection. To help us do this sacred work, we’re studying The Sermon on The Mount, the sermon Jesus preached at the start of his ministry. There are two questions I want us to ask each time we gather to look at The Sermon on The Mount. First, what do Jesus’ words tell us about God? And second, in telling us about God, what is Jesus calling us to be and do as his followers? My prayer for you and me in this season is that these ancient and sacred words renew us in our commitment to Jesus as he continues to build God’s kingdom in our world.
On Ash Wednesday we heard the opening lines of The Sermon on The Mount, what we call The Beatitudes. Instead of starting his first sermon with something about faith or belief or religion, Jesus points out what sorts of people are blessed and honored in God’s kingdom. The news is shocking—at least it was for the time in which Jesus was living. Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, mourners, the poor in spirit, the meek and merciful, peacemakers, and the persecuted are blessed and receive God’s honor. The shock wears away a bit when we truthfully acknowledge that these people are actually you and me sometimes. Jesus isn’t saying that these are the only sorts of people who are blessed and honored in God’s kingdom. No, Jesus is saying that when we find ourselves on the down-and-out, when the bottom has fallen out, when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, God honors us, God sees us, God loves us. This honor and blessing then calls us, when we’re back on our feet—and God always gets us back up—to honor and bless those whom God honors and blesses.
Now, today, Jesus focuses his sermon in on the men and women who have already pledged to be his followers. He says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “You are the light of the world.” What does this tell us about God and what does this tell us about our life as Jesus’ followers?
Last night Katie and I had the pleasure of attending the Enid Symphony Orchestra concert in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church. One of the pieces on the program was Ottorini Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The final movement is a brooding meditation on Roman soldiers marching on the Appian Way, a great military road leading into the city of Rome. It begins quietly in the low brass and piano—marching, marching, marching. Then the strings join—marching, marching, marching. After that the woodwinds trickle in with various melodies, imitating the conversations of the soldiers as they march. In the distance one hears the sound of a herald trumpet, announcing the soldier’s proximity to the eternal city. All the while the strings and low brass keep the rhythm going—marching, marching, marching. As the soldiers get closer and closer to the gates of the city, the volumes rises and rises, and the percussion hammers louder and louder and louder. Finally, the trumpets blast, the cymbals crash, the army has reached Rome, and the whole orchestra in a frenzy rushes to the final chord and then…absolute silence.
I jumped right out of my seat. So did the rest of the audience. It is one of the most thrilling endings in all of classical music and the symphony utterly nailed it. My heart was racing a bit and my cheeks ached from the smile. In that moment, maybe because we were in the sanctuary of church, it was easy for me to imagine God smiling. Have you had a moment like that before? Have you ever seen something beautiful and thought, “I bet God is smiling”? Have you ever heard something magnificent or experienced something great and thought, “That must have made God happy”? I think God was smiling last night at the ingenuity and talent and togetherness that the symphony brought to our community. I believe that is how God is when God looks at the wonderful creation of his hands. I believe God looks at us, the things we invent and the problems we solve and the passions we have, and God smiles. I believe God looks at art, hears music, marvels at science and technology, watches in pride as we help and care for one another and build better communities, and God smiles.
I don’t know about you but that is not necessarily the image of God I learned in my growing-up years. God was not some mean or demanding parent in my first understandings of God, but I’m not sure I ever thought of God as pleased with me or with creation. But that is certainly the God we learn about when Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light. These two elements—these two very common, but very important elements—have simple purposes: one is used to preserve and the other is used to illuminate. And these two elements assume that there are things worth preserving and things worth illuminating. When Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light he is making the grand claim that God does in fact see elements in us and in creation that are worth preserving and illuminating. God looks on us and on the world and sees so much that brings him joy and pleasure. Of course, there is the stain of sin and the darkness of evil, but those were dealt with on the cross. We bring joy and pleasure to God, and so does the complex and mysterious creation we live in. These elements—salt and light—help us to see and know a God that is not eternally angry with us but a God who showers us with eternal love and pleasure. This is a God who wants the good things to continue.
In making this announcement, Jesus gives us our great commission. By startling us with the truth that God is pleased with us and with creation Jesus is pointing us to the work we must do each and every day. We are not to withdraw from the world because we follow Jesus. We are not to hide away in our living rooms until Jesus comes back at the end of time. We are not even allowed to live in just any old way. No. Jesus calls us to be salt and light, common and essential elements that the world cannot, and should not, be without. Jesus calls us to get in there and spice things up. Jesus calls us to get in there and shine a light that no darkness can overcome. Jesus calls us to search out the good and righteous things of this world and he calls us to keep them going. Jesus calls us to find the joyful and loving and peaceful, and he calls us to bring them into the light. Without salt, food is terribly bland. Have you ever tried to read a book at night without some sort of light? As Jesus’ followers we preserve and illuminate the things that bring pleasure to God, and as we do, the kingdom takes shape all around us.
One of the highlights of my week every week is serving as a tutor for our Wednesday after-school tutoring program. On a cold, blustery Wednesday about a month ago it was decided that we would not be taking the kiddos outside to play because it was just too cold. We usually take them outside to play to run off some energy before we sit them down to work. Instead, the tutors and I decided that we would take the kids up the third floor to watch a movie in our movie theatre. Of course, the kids were excited. They were excited about being able to watch a movie in the middle of the day and they were excited to explore the building. Once the kiddos were done eating their snack, they cleaned up like usual and rearranged the tables in the gym. Then, as they had been instructed, they formed somewhat of a line at the doorway between the breezeway and the Manna kitchen. But then, suddenly, they all just took off. I’ve never seen kids run as quickly as they did! The sound they made bounding up the stairs to the theatre would have brought the walls of Jericho down!
This made me and the other tutors laugh, of course, as we tried to catch up with them. If you think you’re in shape, I challenge you to run the stairs up to the third floor and we’ll see just how in shape you are. By the time the adults got to the theatre, most of the kids were seated, ready for the movie to begin. But when I got to the theatre I noticed three or four of the kids gathered strangely in the corner. As I approached, my ears told me more than my eyes ever could, because even from a few feet away I could hear the strained breath and wheezing of someone having an asthma attack. As I pushed my way through the little group of kids huddled around, it was confirmed: one of the boys was hunched over, gasping for air.
All of the kids looked on in concern. Luckily, it didn’t take much to resolve the issue—we quickly called the boy’s mom and she was at the church in minutes with his inhaler. The boy’s inhaler worked like a charm and he was able to stay with us while we watched about 30 minutes of “Hello, Dolly.” When it was time for us to return to the gym, we gathered the kiddos in another sort-of line and we started to make our way back to the gym. At the back of the line was the boy who had the asthma attack. I had problems with asthma when I was the boy’s age so I slowed down to walk with him. But soon more of the kids joined us. By the time we got to the gym there was no longer a line—it was one big blog of kids gathered around the boy who had the asthma attack. One girl said to him, “Next time, we won’t run. We’ll just walk.” Another looked at him and said, “My brother has asthma.” Then there was this tear-jerker: “I was scared. I’m glad you’re ok.” Needless to say, it took several minutes for the golf-ball size lump in my throat to disappear.
I don’t get asked often why we have an after-school tutoring program. But every so often someone will ask me if the program still aligns with our congregation’s overall mission. The answer is always a resounding yes. The kindness I saw those children is just one bright and shining reason why we do what we do each week. If you think the world is a tough place for adults, imagine what it is like for children. If our tutoring program can cheer these young people on as they show kindness to one another, then it is worth all the time, talent, and treasure we can sink into it. If our program helps one young person to know that they are worth something, then we have fulfilled our mission. If our program helps to create thinkers, lovers of beauty and peace, people with passion and compassion, God is smiling. Salt and light. Salt and light—this is our mission and it is a joy and it is our salvation.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it would foolish for us to turn a blind to the troubles we face as Christians, as Americans, as people living in 2019. It would be foolish to say that everything is great all the time. It just isn’t. Our church, our community, our state, our nation and world—all of it faces problems that, at times, confound the greatest minds and seem unfixable. But another part of what it means to be salt and light in the world is remembering with every fiber of our being that we are not Good Friday people—we are Easter people and Alleluia! is our song. We do not face our days with despair, we tackle them with a hope stronger than death. There are good things happening all around us and we just have to have the eyes and the ears and hearts to see. We are capable of so much that is noble and good and we just have to harness the energy to do it. We are salt and light. We are not going to be salt…we are not going to be light. We are salt and we are light. We must keep the good going and we must shine the light on those things that bring pleasure to God. We are salt and we are light. It is time, more than any time before, to get busy living like it.
A 12th-century monk was said, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I could not change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I could not change my town and so as an older man I tried to change my family. Now that I am even older, I realize that the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Then their impact could have changed the nation and maybe even the world.”
It starts right here, my friends, in our hearts and souls. And then it grows and expands and starts to take over everything. That’s the kingdom of God. A little salt here, a little light there. May God bless us so that everything we do and say and are brings glory to our God in heaven. Amen.