Bide the Time
One evening in November, when it’s dark by 5:00, I left work and ran by Target for something on the way home. I was sitting at the light next to the Chick-Fil-A, in the far right lane to go straight across Third Street, when suddenly a white pickup truck was spinning in circles right in front of my car and slammed broadside into the car next to me in the left turn lane. Everything in the truck bed spilled on top of the little Honda. The truck kept spinning until it came to rest in the grass of the Chick-Fil-A. It was terrifying.
I was positive he’d run the red light and suspected he was drunk. To get out of the way I had to cross Third Street but I went around the block and went back, in case the police wanted witnesses. The Honda and the pickup truck were in the Fifth Third Bank parking lot. I talked to the woman in the Honda. She said she was fine. And that the man driving the pickup was really shaken but not hurt either.
“I’m worried about her though,” she said, pointing to the street. There was a very young Indian woman standing by the back door of her car, talking to her toddler in a car seat. She was a hysterical mess, because she was the one who’d tried to make the light. The truck had the arrow, and she slammed into him as he turned, sending him spinning. Her car was still in the road; cars were laying on their horns for her to move. She was crying so hard she could barely breathe. And the toddler was refusing to get out of her car seat.
Two things about myself quickly became clear: First, when the danger is low, I excel in a crisis. I hugged the mom and let her cry on me a minute. I then held her firmly by the shoulders and said, The other drivers can just deal with it. Ignore them. But the baby can’t stay there. It’s dangerous. Then I got the kid out of the car seat and we sat on the curb. The mama cried and we sang songs until Daddy and the police arrived. Then I went home.
The second thing I learned, and I am not proud of this: I was grateful she was a hysterical mess, because it gave me something to do. Without something to do, I’d have gone home with nothing but the embarrassment of having been arrogantly, pridefully wrong. I truly was certain I knew exactly what had happened at that intersection. I knew whose fault it was. I actually said to myself, “I should go back in case they need a witness of that guy’s recklessness.” When in fact, as facts go, I saw nothing at all.
Our text today comes from Jesus’s farewell discourse, at the table of his last supper together with the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. The dinner had already been weird. Judas walked out. Peter made a scene about dying for Jesus. And Jesus said, “Yeah, no.” Maybe the wine bottle goes around the table again. Maybe they drift to other subjects. But eventually Jesus begins to speak again, and he says,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many places to abide. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
And however much they don’t mean to, or want to, or know they shouldn’t, his friends cannot resist asking for more. I wonder if we don’t live in similar times, knowing we are supposed to be more faithful than we are, resisting (or maybe not) the temptation to ask for more from God than God seems to want to give these days.
Let’s pray: We want more faith, O God. We also ask for your guarantees before we will put our hearts out. We are deaf to our own hypocrisy and blind to your goodness. Goodness that has brought us this far. As you and the Father are one, let us be one with you, fearlessly sure you are here, and now. Amen.
As Jesus and his disciples sat around that table, a cohort of soldiers is gathered in an armory somewhere else in the same city, suiting up, anticipating resistance when they go to arrest Jesus. As it turned out – and not surprisingly, given his I will gladly die for you speech – one of Jesus’s own, Simon Peter, is the first to draw blood. I wonder how knowing those soldiers were out there played in Jesus’s mind, as his followers at that table asked him again to please show them the Father, so they would be satisfied enough to believe the things he said. I wonder if Jesus ever got discouraged, and especially there, near the end of his incarnation, when literally nobody seems to have a clue what his mission was.
He’s going away to prepare a place and coming back to get them. He needs them to believe he will do what he says he will do. And yet, all they seem to know how to do is argue. But where are you going? We don’t know the way. Please, just show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied. Then we can do what you ask.
As John tells it, Jesus doesn’t even blink, let alone smack his own forehead in frustration. He starts over. At this late hour (the soldiers, remember) he starts over, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
In the time that he has, in as many ways as he can say it, Jesus brings them back to what they have seen and what they have heard. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost on us. Phillip is asking Jesus to show him the Father after Jesus tells him I and the Father are one – Jesus ever so gently telling them to notice what they are looking at now, to remember what they have seen and heard while with him.
A friend with two little boys told me that regularly at supper the little one will ask, with his mouth full of food, “Mom, what are we having for bedtime snack?” Who among us hasn’t done the same? Worried that what we already have won’t be enough for what we might need later? Searched and longed for what was right in front of us but didn’t measure up to some expectation born of fear and anxiety? Or assumed what we saw was all there was to see, like the car wreck last fall, about which I was so very, very wrong?
Show us the Father, Phillip says, and truly believes he hasn’t seen Him – because his heart isn’t ready to see Him. His heart isn’t ready to let go of everything he has to let go of to see the Father right in front of him. The disciples around that table with Jesus imagine that foreknowing will make the future easier to bear, that it will make faith easier to muster. No, it won’t. It only tricks us into believing we are in control of things that cannot be controlled.
It’s the bane of quarantine, isn’t it? This not-knowing, in which we only get to know what will happen today. Not knowing is a loss to people like us: people with plans to make, calendars to fill. We can manage a week or two or three. But after a month, we start feeling a little offended, a little put out. We find language we didn’t think we had, about necessary risks and necessary sacrifices, as if being told we must bide these times, is some brand new suggestion to the human race and to people of faith in particular.
To bide our time is to do the very act of faith Jesus calls forth from his unborn church gathered around this table in John 10. His part is about to be complete, then their part will begin. In between they abide; they stay in one place and believe that what God needs doing is getting done without them. And when they are needed, they will be summoned. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Jesus even says that the work they will do will be even greater than what they saw him do. Which, in volume, was true – but I bet it was hard to imagine when he said it. It’s that indefinite in-between that we hate so much, isn’t it? And God’s reluctance to share details – details we would argue about, even if God did share them. That gets us crazy. Friends, during a pandemic or not, the same is true. We can’t know tomorrow. We can pretend we do. But that’s all we are doing. Pretending. And squandering the joy that is to be had in this moment.
Here and now is the time to know God with us, keeping us, carrying us, loving us in everything that is good, kind, and graceful. Abundance, remember. We don’t have to worry or be afraid. All of God we need, we have. Right here. Right now. But we shall only see and hear and find, by resisting the temptation to be elsewhere, embracing the gift of abiding, each moment, each day, in faith.
For our closing prayer, I want to read a few lines from The Tao of Healing. The meaning of “tao” is way or path – The Path of Healing.
Quiet the mind
And watch the breath of God
Rise and fall in all things.
Allow God’s breath to be your breath;
Allow God’s nature to be your nature.
The nature of God is to love and be loved;
Your desire to love creates intention
Intention focuses attention
Attention illuminates understanding
Understanding manifests forgiveness
Forgiveness is the fountainhead of love.
Intend to be Love
And know death for what it is:
The in-breath of God.
Have your Bible phones or Bible Bibles open to John 9 and 10 to stay with me, as I move through the text today. Like most stories, chapter ten makes more sense if you’ve read chapters 1-9, especially chapter nine, in John’s gospel. Because in chapter nine there is an awesome story where Jesus heals a man who had been born blind, and the Jewish leaders are so upset about it, they get into a big argument about whether the man was actually blind in the first place.
So they call in his parents as witnesses, who testify that yes, he was born blind, but about whether he was healed, you’ll have to ask him about that. So they do, and the man essentially taunts the Jewish leaders no end, which ticks off the Jewish leaders so they throw him out of the Temple – the irony being, his blindness kept him out because it was thought to be a sign of his sinfulness; but now that he can see, they throw him out for being a liar.
So Jesus goes and find him, asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, and the man born blind says, “Tell me, so I can believe in him.” “You have seen him,” Jesus says, “the one talking to you is him.” To which the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” Friends, check out the wordplay between hearing and seeing. The blind man who has only ever heard, asks to be told. Jesus reminds him he can see. Realizing AGAIN that he can see, he believes.
And then Jesus begins to tell. He tells from verse 39 in chapter 9, all the way to verse 30 of chapter 10. Now his disciples and some Jewish leaders are leaning in to overhear, but it matters to note that Jesus, speaking in our passage today, is talking specifically to a man who has asked to be told who the Son of Man is. A man born blind and healed. A man who has settled for the scraps of this world his whole life, never knowing how very rich he really is. Do you believe in the Christ? “Tell me,” the man said. And Jesus did. That’s the story we are listening to today.
First, let’s pray. We need you, O God, but then, we reach for everything else instead. If only we could be with you as sheep are with their beloved shepherd, ever listening, ever trusting, ever following as you call, as you lead, as you go, or as you stay. Helping ourselves to the abundance so freely given by your great sacrifice on our behalf. Amen.
I AM the Good Shepherd, Jesus says, maybe to differentiate himself from that long list of shabby shepherds in Israel’s past. Some were downright godawful, and I mean that literally. Remember Ezekiel 34, which I sometimes preach around Thanksgiving? Nobody ever likes it.
The word of the Lord came to the prophet Ezekiel saying,
prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
prophesy and say to them, the shepherds,
I will take my beloved flock
from your filthy, lying, corrupt mouths
and I will tend them myself.
But you I will feed with justice.
The prophecy goes on to promise a new shepherd, David:
and he shall feed them;
he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
And I, the Lord, will be their God,
and my servant David
shall be prince among them.
The prince became the king and, while he was better than all the shepherd kings who came before him, David also stole and killed and destroyed sheep, didn’t he? Not for God or country, but for the same itchy reasons as the others: greed, gluttony, and lust. He saw something that he wanted, and the voice inside his heart and head told him he should have it.
Bushi Yamato Damashii is a Buddhist Christian whose podcasts and writings I find useful. He comes to mind here in his Buddhist teaching on when to speak. He says that before speaking, the words we say must pass a three-question test: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? On this, he very much reminds me of the Quaker, John Woolman, whom we just read in our Lenten reading group. Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? If I pressed all my words through the sieve of these questions, friends, most of the time, I don’t even need questions 2 or 3!
So I got to thinking, what would preaching, what would Bible study, what would spiritual life be like, if we pressed our hearing of the word of God through the hermeneutics of these three questions: is it necessary? is it true? is it kind?
IS IT NECESSARY? Today is Good Shepherd Sunday in the Lectionary. Is that necessary? Maybe. How else will we ever get through the 590 hymns about shepherding published in English? And yet, Jesus doesn’t even say that in the assigned text for today. Rather, he says, I am the door. But unless you are reading from the King James Version, your Bible says “gate.” But the Greek is “door.”
I AM the door of the sheep. Why would Jesus say “door” to a man born blind? Maybe door is the exactly right and necessary word to say to a man who has been shut out of everything meaningful his whole life: shut out of the economy, begging for his daily bread; shut out of his own family (his parents won’t even stand up for him in public); shut out of his religious community, twice! Most of all, shut out of the very idea of divine compassion! Jesus’ own disciples parrot what they’ve heard of Jewish law, that his blindness can only be the consequence of sin – his own or his parents’.
That might have been a pretty powerful word, don’t you think:
I AM the door of the sheep,
and if any man enter in,
he shall be saved,
and shall go in and out,
and find pasture.
Think of that, friends, born broken and living your whole life shut out. Hearing it from everyone who passes by, whatever offering they toss your way reeking more of pity than kindness. Until one day you hear a different voice say about you, It’s not his fault. God is using him for something good. And half an hour later, you can see. In just enough time to get your hopes up that life might turn out differently, you’re tossed out on your own again. Seeing, sure. But as cast out, alone, and marginalized as you were when you were blind.
Question Two: IS IT TRUE? It was necessary that Jesus say, I AM THE DOOR. Is it true? What happened when Jesus heard that the man had been tossed out? He went and found him. Became the door he said he was, so that man could walk right back through the promise and into the hope he’d heard an hour before. If any man enter in, he shall be saved. Twice in that same day, Jesus found him and called him. Twice in that same day, Jesus saved him. As many times as it takes.
Jesus said I am the door. For our coming and our going. These days there’s precious little of it, except for all the crazy places our minds take us. Doesn’t matter. Jesus is still the door that we enter to find our way back to him. This passage ties directly to two others in the same Johannine neighborhood. In chapter 20, the disciples behind locked doors after Jesus’ crucifixion, that word “doors” is the same word translated gate in chapter 10 by most English translations. The one who said, I AM THE DOOR is now here among them. And through Him they leave that room in faith and joy.
And in John 14:6, which we will look at next week, Jesus’s goodbye discourse around their final supper table, promising they will meet again. Thomas asks, Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? And Jesus answers: “I AM the way – he might as well say, “I am the door” – “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Friends, don’t hear judgment. Hear promise.
Hear the same necessary truth the no-longer-blind man heard when he SAW and heard Jesus say “I AM the door of the sheep, and if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And there is the kind word: abundance. The kindness of God is no small thing, friends. The kindness of God is abundance.
Friends, if we could go back in time and interview that man, ask him what he most wanted in the world, what do you suppose he’d say? If he could choose either seeing or feeling like he deserved the space he occupied, the air he breathed and the food he ate, what do you suppose he’d choose? If he could choose either being able to see or earning a living and being respected by his community, what do you suppose he’d choose? If he could choose either seeing or having his parents claiming him and being proud of him in public, what do you suppose he’d choose? How about choosing between seeing and being accepted and useful to his neighbors and his friends? How about between seeing and being part of a faith community where he was welcome to worship God, serve God, and share the goodness of God with the world?
If all Jesus had done for the man was heal his optical vision, that would have been a big deal! But if the man had been asked, he might have said his vision wasn’t his greatest need, his deepest longing. And the reality is, Jesus didn’t just heal his eyes. Jesus came to give the man what he needed and longed for most. He did for the man, what Jesus does for all of us who believe. Abundance. God’s kindness is abundance.
He comes to us, wherever we are, in whatever condition we find ourselves. He. Finds. Us. And he opens the way to that abundance he has prepared for us – eternal life. Life in him beginning the moment we believe. Ending, never. Changing, ebbing, flowing. Ending, never.
For a sheep, honestly, it’s not much. Grass, really. And water. Like the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. But everything else is for us. His rod and staff protecting us through the valley of death, the constant mist of goodness and mercy falling over us – sheep don’t care about that; that is for us. Jesus didn’t just give him sight, he gave him everything: dignity, community, family, intimacy, freedom, faith, and a future.
The kindness of God, given in abundance to those who believe, no matter what brokenness we’re born with or told we must bear through this world, no matter the mistakes we’ve made or the mistakes made against us, the door is long open friends, and calling your name, your own name. Just waiting to pour out the kindness of God upon your life, whenever you are ready to listen.
Let’s pray: Loving Shepherd, calling, guiding, tending us through this world, may we hear your voice through all the others; may we hear our own name; may we hear the belovedness in your voice. Amen.
The Simple Presence
Simeon and Anna waited for Jesus their whole lives. Waited the way all people do at one time or another, hoping, praying that what we know of this life, this world, cannot possibly be all there is. A world where institutional government is corrupt and institutional religion is complicit, where the economy is steered by the rich to make them richer, and the poor get blamed for being poor. A world where every single day, kids die of starvation and illnesses a $5 IV can cure, while other families take their pets to daycare.
They waited and they prayed in the Temple constantly, Luke says, watching for the Messiah who would redeem Jerusalem. God promised I will see him before I die, Simeon believed. And while I doubt Simeon was the only one who believed such a thing, it turned out to be true for him on that day. Him and Anna both. The Bible scholar Shively Smith says every Christmas crèche should include a Simeon and an Anna, as they complete the infancy narrative no less than shepherds and wise men.
Having completed their civic duty in Bethlehem – the Roman census, you’ll remember – the Holy Family now embarks upon the sacred duty, thus their presence in the Temple. Those sacred duties were circumcision for the baby when he was eight days old and blood purification for the mama, when her boy baby was 33 days old. For girl babies, she was unclean twice as long. But with the sacrifice, she was restored; she could both worship and be with her husband.
They come in – Mary, baby, Joseph, pigeons in a basket. The pigeons make the socio- political-economic truth of the incarnation self-evident: the Messiah of the universe chose poverty as his venue within humanity. Pigeon was the sacrifice for people who could not afford a sacrifice.
See the poor. They are everywhere among you, Jesus told his disciples later, always and forever. To miss them is to miss him. Because he WAS them. His father, mother, brothers, sisters. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Do not miss this point of the gospel, friends. The one who comes as the great sacrifice comes from and to those too poor to afford a sacrifice. And so pigeons must suffice. He IS the poor. To miss the poor is to miss him. Simeon and Anna didn’t miss him. They knew where to look apparently. Were they even watching for a newborn? I wonder. Did Jesus see them too? Already, eight days or maybe one month old, his simple presence moves people.
He’s no bigger than a loaf of bread, silent save maybe a burp or yawn or squeak. And yet, by His simple presence, the gospel is drawn forth in ancient words Simeon had no doubt been practicing for decades – the gospel ringing round Him, while He blinks or sleeps, or roots or toots (seriously, babies don’t have a huge repertoire) and His parents are amazed. Simeon’s poetry has two gospel notes to play: one moment in His presence is enough to last a lifetime; being in His presence exposes our inner thoughts, for better or for worse.
Let’s pray: O let the ancient words impart, O God. That we might be changed. We have come, with open hearts. Amen.
The Spirit led Simeon into the Temple, and after doing what was customary according to the Law, Luke says Simeon prayed out loud:
now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
Having seen the baby Messiah, Simeon didn’t want or need another thing to be happy in this world; he could die in peace. Think about that for a second. Think about never wanting, needing, asking for anything else, ever again. No healing. No political changes. No new shoes. No extra courage. Nothing else. Ever.
How long could they have visited, Simeon and the baby Jesus, before He wanted His mama back? Ten minutes? An hour? Did they talk theology? Probably not. Peek-a-boo? Maybe. Definitely no miracles. No death and resurrection. Whatever it was, it was enough for Simeon.
I keep imagining Simeon’s waiting life and comparing it to ours, how he waited all his life for this meeting and lived the rest of his life from it, never wanting, needing or begging for more. Luke’s church was waiting. Everyone I know is waiting, waiting for some- thing, some change we think will make life better for ourselves or others. The large- hearted among us waiting for change we are convinced is absolutely necessary for the well-being of humanity. Economic. Political. Environmental. Social. Familial. Personal.
Luke’s first readers had just lived through a Roman crackdown. The destruction of the very Temple Luke writes about here. With it the sacred tradition of sacrifice. How bittersweet this story would have been for them. You can bet they wanted change and had invested those expectations in the one called Messiah. Not Simeon, it appears. Just His baby self was enough. Whatever else that baby chose was fine by Simeon. He could live his days in contentment and die in peace.
Friends, I want to love Jesus that much. I want to trust Jesus that much. I want to live from this day forward never needing, never wanting, never asking more from Christ than he has already given. I want this heart and mind of Simeon, that can rest in that once-in-a-lifetime presence of Christ in the midst of the world he describes in his next breath:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising
of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
It’s a new way for me to think about Messiah – a simple, silent presence by which our inner thoughts are exposed to us and we respond, as we choose, in gratitude like Simeon and Anna, or in fear like so many others. By following him or opposing him, either way, our hearts will surely be broken for the ones who choose differently from us. For the violence and the pain involved for everyone when even a few people choose fear instead of faith. Most especially when those in power choose to live and rule by fear. There’s little people won’t do when confronted with their fear. Little they can’t justify and explain and try to sell as right.
Your own heart will be cut in two, Simeon says to Mary directly. But not just hers. The hearts of all who choose love instead of fear eventually get broken. That was Simeon’s sermon, more or less. One sip of the Messiah’s presence was enough to last a lifetime. A sermon, by the way, that Jesus will preach to a woman at a well later in the gospel. That sip reveals a person’s deepest hopes and fears, Simeon says, for better and for worse.
Exit Simeon, stage right. Enter stage left, preacher #2.
Then a second preacher-prophet enters the scene – Anna. Technically I am named for Annette Funicello, but I gladly claim this Jewish contemplative preacher, Anna. The great age of 84 — if I am still preaching at 84 it means I’m now just at the halfway mark. Maybe I haven’t even peaked. There is something about this business I have still not gotten hold of. Anna is more noted than quoted, but as eager to preach Messiah as her colleague was. Redemption was her interest, the redemption of Jerusalem. Could be she was also a religious activist. Luke says she spent her time praying and fasting. Not for herself to be redeemed, it seems, but for her religion, the Temple, their faith.
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, the Temple was a pile of rubble. Sacrificial Judaism was just a memory. And I wonder what the word redemption meant to the early church, given what they’d been through, what they felt they were owed. I wonder, does the church today pray for our own redemption? And what do we mean by that? Do we mean being great again, even if we’d never call it that, or do we mean holiness?
All we have of Anna is that she did not fast and pray for herself, but for the redemption of her people, expecting that redemption from the single source from which such redemption comes: the creator of the universe, the promiser of salvation. She isn’t in Rome, nor at Herod’s palace. She is in the Temple, from which the moral courage necessary to break the reign of fear upon the world shall be found, if it is to be found.
God knows our own land is begging for redemption. Every op-ed piece I read seems to pontificate on the lack of moral courage among our elected leaders, like it’s some new thing. Friends, you do remember that the 13th Amendment passed the House of Representatives by something like two votes? We pretend otherwise, but the evidence bears out the truth.
We use language like “national interest” and “global interest,” but governments and institutions do not behave morally. They behave in the personal interest of the persons who stand to benefit most, usually economically. Reinhold Niebuhr has written about this extensively. It could be that having our inner thoughts revealed to us exposes us to the futility of our expectations of each other, our hope that a congressional action, another election, will somehow be the moral solvent for the problems that stress us.
That, friends, is one way our slavery to fear dresses itself in the morning. That wishful thinking that some other politician or preacher could fix this mess we’re in. Maybe. But that’s not the basket believers’ eggs go in. The place for praying for redemption is here. The redemption for which we pray begins here – the redemption of the church, the redemption of the people of God. This is Anna’s sermon. What she does, how she lives, is her sermon. We need not quote her words; let us quote her life.
What’s done is done, and praise the Lord for that, I say. It’s almost like a dare to suggest we believe it, that Jesus has done for us what needs doing; that it’s enough to live on, no matter how many days we have left – not just this election cycle, but for all the days of our lives. All we need of him, he has done. All we can ever ask of him, he has given. We live now and forever in the joyful, graceful light of his presence.
Would you pray with me?
Once I was making a cake to take to Scott Smart’s house for supper. Don and June Lewis were also going to be there. I didn’t have all the ingredients, so I sent Carl to my neigh- bor’s house to borrow a cup-and-a-half of sugar. She wasn’t home, but her husband went to the kitchen and brought back a ziplock with an exact cup-and-a-half inside. I dumped it in my batter and just happened to lick the spatula before I threw it in the sink. It was horrible. I got the ziplock from the trash and licked that too — salt! I decided it was easier to throw away cake than batter, so I baked it, thinking we’d pick up something else on the way. But my cake was so beautiful, I took it. And I warned June and Susan not to eat it. Scott, who is a cook, took a bite and looked stunned. He just kept swallowing. Don and Carl, however, just ate cake and never said a word.
That’s the thing about salt, don’t you know? Too much is revolting. Not enough tastes like—what? Bland, yes. But also empty. Another time I forgot the salt in my yeast rolls at Thanksgiving. It ruined the whole meal for me. They were both beautiful and altogether disappointing.
Salt. It causes a strange and wonderful reaction in all the food it touches, so that bread is more bready, and chocolate more chocolaty, cheese more cheesy. Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pie – none of them come out right, if the salt content isn’t pretty close to perfect. Too much or too little will ruin the dish.
It might be Jesus’ best metaphor for how to give away this faith life of ours. Measure it. Calibrate it. Don’t overwhelm, don’t hide it. Eugene Peterson translates it: You are here to make this life taste better to the people you affect. You’re not here to do the heavy lifting of saving their souls; Jesus has taken care of that, once and for all – for all time and all people. We know this from the epistles. Ours is the lesser calling, also older, found in the prophets: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
The Law is an expansion on those three, all of which Jesus is careful – intentional – to say, here in Matthew 5, still holds. Is not to be trivialized, as Peterson puts it. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Is it, though? Is the Law more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at our feet? What do we actually DO with the Law? Or the Sermon on the Mount, for that matter?
I would offer that by and large the church has overthought it, that it really need not be as complicated as preachers like me have made it out to be. Being salt, it seems to me, is simply one way to describe how we are to live with the abundance of grace that is ours in Christ Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection. Here’s how you live with that reality, Jesus says. Be salt. Be light.
Let’s pray and consider it just a little more: Ancient words, O people of God, Changing me and changing you, Let us come with open hearts, That the ancient words may impart to us new vision and new strength for being God’s people in this time and place. Amen.
How do we know how salty Jesus would have us be? In cooking, less is always better, because it is much easier to add more salt than take too much away. That cup-and-a-half of salt could not be taken out of my cake batter once I stirred it in. However, I come from a church tradition that believed people needed as much Jesus as could be poured into them from the start – no approach too assertive, no assumption about their lives too insulting, no question too personal. Hesitation like mine was considered weakness of faith. It took me a long time to separate that evangelistic style from Jesus’ example in the gospel – because that’s how we know what Jesus means: by watching what he does.
Once not long after our second baby was born, I was home with both kids, exhausted all the time. It was summer, but way too hot to be outside. A pair of Latter-Day Saints missionaries came by the house, both of them very young men. I was way too tired to invite them in or even be very nice to them, and as they started to leave they stopped and turned back around and said, “Ma’am, is there anything we can do to help you? You know, we could mow your grass or something.” My thought then was, “Gee, I am worse off than I thought, if 19-year-old boys are worried about me.” But mostly I felt so noticed, so loved by those two kids.
My thought now is, “Why do we think we have to guilt and overwhelm instead of notice, love and help people? As if they can’t figure out the reason we do what we do, when we offer to make them a meal or cut their grass?” You want to know why you are here? You are here to be salt. To make life better for the people around you, the people whom your life touches.
Jesus says a wrong thing about salt. He says that if salt loses its saltiness it’s useless and is thrown out. But salt is stable. Salt doesn’t lose its saltiness. Twenty-year-old salt, still salty. Fifty-year-old salt, still salty. But salt isn’t salty to the rest of the salt. Salt in its jar isn’t seasoning anything. It isn’t ruining anything, but neither is it making anything better or more flavorful, more enjoyable. Which, as Jesus’ metaphor goes, is apparently the same as useless. Might as well throw it out, Jesus says. It’s a good word, of course, that as his people we are forever useful, so long as we are being used.
I love reading obituaries of really old people: how they loved cooking big family meals and crocheting baby blankets; how they had three favorite dogs in their lifetime; how one worked at RCA for 30 years and was also a farmer and a preacher. Friends, isn’t it just an amazing thing to be a human being? To be set upon the earth in a certain place and time, among a certain set of other people with whom we will live out our given span of days? And to have the opportunity to choose how we will spend this time?
We can make the space we occupy gentle or chaotic. We can be content or forever irritated. We can choose to be kind or be nasty, to reach out to others or to avoid them, to help people feel welcome and included, or as if they are mostly to be tolerated. We can spend every dime and moment on ourselves and our own agendas, or we can tune our lives to what others need that we might be able to provide, like those sweet boys on my porch twenty-five years ago this summer.
I am as aware as you that Jesus was telling his first audience so much more than this. That he was speaking religiously and politically. That he was unlocking the Bible they thought they knew to a way of life they had not yet imagined. They’d always read the Bible to find out how to love. He was showing that love teaches people how to read the Bible. They kept the rules hoping someday they would one day be counted as righteous. He told them that one day was here and now and righteousness was a way of life. Everything they needed, they already had – in the Law and prophets, of course. But even more than that, in him.
That’s Matthew’s message, over and over and over again to folks whose country was upside down, ruled by a king and empire who seemed unstable on a good day. They never knew what to expect. Leaders of their own religion were in cahoots with the crazies in the government. And those religious leaders couldn’t get along with each other. The more history we read, the more we know for sure that nothing really changes, does it?
Today I want to draw a difference between religious leaders and religious loudmouths, and it’s the loudmouths who are making a public joke of our faith. Maybe it’s for the best, I think. Once we’ve lost all public credibility, it will be up to each one of us to be salt or light in our own little circuits on the earth. We ought not wait and hope for a new Billy Graham or some other Mother Teresa, as if the jar of salt right here isn’t full to overflowing with all manner of usefulness, to make life better for the people we already know.
Amen? Amen. Let’s pray.