“Flavorful Faith;” Matthew 5:13-20; February 9, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Flavorful Faith”
Matthew 5:13-20
February 9, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01On Thursday, there was a statement released by New York City officials, that this brutal seemingly never-ending winter had created a severe salt shortage. An emergency 2,000 tons of salt was delivered to the city, and it still wasn’t enough. Kathy Dawkins, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Department reported that this winter, the city has used 346,112 tons of salt. That amount of salt is equal to the weight of nearly 100,000 adult elephants or 50,000 John Deere 310 tractors. That is 170,919.5 cubic feet of salt.[1]

Slide02If we look at our shoes or our cars in this season they are inevitably covered in salt. It’s impossible to keep a car clean, as they all turn grey from the salt. In winter, we use salt to melt the ice, salt to make traction for our safety as we drive. Salt is very important. However, salt in and of itself does not eliminate the ice. Rather, it is aided by sunshine, by just enough warmth that it can do it’s work.

SLIDE 3 - Salt and LightOur scripture today carries this same equation of elements to revitalize the world: salt and light.

When Matthews Gospel calls us the salt of the world it’s an interesting comparison. What does salt mean to our faith? What does our saltiness do to the world around us?

SLIDE 4 - SaltElementally, salt is about balance. It can cause harm or good.

Salt is a basic building block of life, it aids in processes of the body, directly effecting functions of the body such as blood pressure. Too much salt in the body can lead to hypertension or stroke, not enough salt can create low blood pressure. Belief in God without understanding of God’s abundant mercy, grace, and love can also cause great stress in our lives and those around us. Faith in God’s mercy, grace, and love without understanding of the breath and scope of God’s mercy, grace, and love for all around us creates a faith without flavor, a faith that just comes across as bland.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read his prayer for such a faith:

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:18-19

SLIDE 6 - PreservationIn Jesus’ time and for many years before we had the conveniences of modern refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative, helping to keep something edible over long winters or periods without fresh meat or produce. Maintaining the flavor of faith requires preservation, opening ourselves to the spiritual practices that keep us fresh over time. As the salt of the world, we are to preserve and protect God’s creation, in all of its forms among all of God’s people.

Our passage in Ephesians continues on to speak of the preservation of the church through our faithfulness to God.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Paul continues, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” – Ephesians 3:20-4:3

SLIDE 8 - Salting EarthAnother application of salt is the ancient practice of “salting the earth” or “sowing with salt” as an act of sabotage or revenge. This act would prevent water filtration and drainage and make the land unusable for farming. This was used after conquering a place in war, salting the earth so that it would not produce life for many years to come.

In Deuteronomy 29:21-25 those who have knowingly defied their promises to God are faced with such a fate. The scripture says,

‘The LORD will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the LORD has afflicted it— all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger—they and indeed all the nations will wonder, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?’ They will conclude, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.’” – Deuteronomy 29:21-25

SLIDE 12 - SaltSalt can be a dangerous thing if used incorrectly. Salt used out of spite can cause destruction. Unfortunately there are many who profess a faith in Christ who use the title of Christian as a weapon, wielding judgment and unbiblical messages of hate. If you’re not sure what this looks like in practice, here’s a hint, all messages of hate are unbiblical. Our God calls us to love others and to leave God alone as the judge, a judgment we are saved from by the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

1 John 4:20-21 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

SLIDE 14 - ChickensThis cartoon reflects humorously on the way some people unfortunately try to use their faith as a weapon.

Romans 5:6-13 affirms our confidence in our salvation through Jesus Christ. The scripture says,

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” –  Romans 5:6-13

Slide17In popular science fiction and folklore salt is used as a deterrent for evil spirits, ghosts, and vampires. In some stories it is even said that fairies and vampires must count every grain of salt if they come across it before moving on. Salt is cast in these stories as a purifying element, which we experience medicinally through saline used in cleaning and healing the body.

Scripture also speaks of importance of the purity of our faith, and how it may be an example. In 1 Timothy 4:12 we read:

“Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

SLIDE 19 - Spoon of SaltWhen we eat something with salt, salt can bring out the best of the flavors, aiding bread in rising, helping water to boil. While salt in all of its applications has quite a bit to do with balance and order, we also know, that salt in and of itself is not so exciting. In fact, I bet none of you want to go home and just eat a spoonful of salt. If Mary Poppins had suggested that I am certain her song would have far less fame. Salt causes thirst, a desire for something beyond that taste, something to wash it down, or at least compliment the flavor. Salt by itself will not satisfy.

SLIDE 20 - Baptism SaltIt is a Christian tradition to place salt on the tongue of a candidate for baptism saying, “Satisfy him [her] with the Bread of Heaven that he [she] may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.” The symbolic significance is that the truth of baptism will be preserved from error, that the baptized person will reflect the flavor of Christ in life, and that by tasting salt they will have a yearning for the sweetness of Bread of Life and the Living Water, that is to say, Jesus. [2]

SLIDE 21 - Salt of EarthSo how are you being this salt in the earth? Are you keeping your faith fresh? Are you preserving the Gospel of Christ? Are you demonstrating a purity of faith? Are you causing others to thirst for God?

Scripture tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Not we might be or we need to work to be, but we are. How will you use your saltiness for good? How will you create balance and create newness?

Slide22Certainly, we do not do these things by our own means but through Christ, our light and salvation, working together as salt and light for the goodness of all.

Next time you look at the saltiness on your shoes or coating your car, may you think about how salt and light work together to make this world whole again. Amen.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Living Bread;” John 6:51-58; October 7, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Living Bread”
John 6:51-58
October 7, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you think of “living bread,” what comes to mind? If you’ve been in the church for a while it likely conjures up images of communion and Jesus and scripture and everything you think you should be thinking about right now. But let’s try to press reset on our minds and reimagine these words as if we’ve never heard them put together before. Living bread. Sort of strange isn’t it? Bread come to life. I imagine it might be friends, or perhaps enemies with “The Brave Little Toaster,” of the Disney 1987 cartoon film.

Bread, with eyes and a smile, maybe some arms and legs. It might look something like this.

This puts a new spin on things when we hear living bread. It’s perhaps even a bit creepy. Our Gospel lesson today doesn’t make it any less creepy: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

It is sayings like this that scared some people away from Christianity in the time of the early church. These people were clearly cannibals! Why would anyone want to be a part of this? If we joined them that’d mean we’d need to eat flesh and drink blood too. That’s just wrong! In a culture currently fascinated with teenage vampires, perhaps it’d be easier to get people to go along with things these days, but still, it sounds creepy.

Setting aside these rather frightening images of living bread, we can consider another dimension of these words. When you look closely at a piece of bread there are all sorts of tiny holes; the places for our peanut butter and jelly to settle in on your sandwich. These hole-y spaces are made by tiny organisms called yeast. Yeast is activated by the warm water and flour of bread making. Once activated they make the dough grow by creating little pockets of carbon dioxide.[1]

Yeast is airborne and can be cultivated by literally pulling it from the air. When I was living in North Adams, Massachusetts this summer I was able to witness a project of Canadian artist, Eryn Foster where she did just that at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA. Eryn Foster’s projects are most often very interactive and have to do with a sense of place, including a video tour of Canada that can be viewed by walking on a treadmill. This summer I saw Eryn walking around with this wooden cart with a bowl in it and I wasn’t quite sure what on earth she could be doing until I saw a video about it.[2] Together let’s watch this video and it will tell us a bit more about her project.

[We watched the first 2:30 of the video]

I found this project pretty fascinating. At first it’s kind of strange to think about the sort of airborne cultures that are surrounding us day-to-day.  Sure we hear about germs in the air and take precautions with hand washing and cleaning products to try to get rid of them, but there are also other things that surround us that can be life giving, such as the yeast.

This got me to thinking about how are we affected by what is around us. What are the external sources that feed into our composition? What are the things in our environment that cause us to rise, or not? In the video Eryn Foster says, “There are certain areas where you’re going to find wild yeast more plentiful.”

The same could be said for these rising forces in our lives. When we surround ourselves with people living lives fueled by Christ, we in turn are fueled by their good “yeast.”

This weekend I had this sort of fueling, rising experience. I attended Women of Faith with a busload of 52 women from Jesup and Independence and about 3,000 other sisters in Christ. There was a palpable energy in the place, of stories shared, sung, painted, and danced. Three thousand-some women all fueled by the love of Christ, whose joy in worship spilled over to those around them. This was certainly a place where the “yeast” of faith was plentiful.

Particularly on this World Communion Sunday, we are made aware that that there are places in this world where this “yeast” of faith is not as plentiful. We’ve heard about “at risk” communities, the despair of war torn countries, and pain of impoverished nations.  These are places yearning for those external ingredients to help them to rise up.

In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.” [3] In our world today there are indeed famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, our living bread, Jesus Christ.

John Calvin wrote of the seed of faith. He said that this seed exists within all of us, this kernel of desire for experience with God. Like the living yeast that surrounds us and is present in our bread, this kernel is only activated when we feed it the nutrients of Biblical truths and allow for it to grow through times of contemplation and prayer.

Another line that caught me in the video was when Eryn says, “It’s this kind of funny idea of looking for something that we can’t actually see.” How often have we heard, or perhaps thought ourselves, of this a criticism of God. How can we be fueled by a God we can’t see?

Once when Billy Graham was asked to explain the existence of God he likened it to the wind saying, “I can’t see the wind, but I can see the effects of the wind.” When we look at bread that has been directly affected by yeast, the effect is holes. The effect is to create space for flavor to flourish. This hole-y place is life giving.

And how do we even know when yeast has been found? We know the yeast has been found by the bread it produces. By the same token, we know lives fueled by the seed of faith by the grace filled lives they produce.

In Luke 6:44 we read, “Each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” When we are rooted in faith, we live faith-filled lives.

On this world communion Sunday it’s also intriguing to think about Eryn Foster’s discussion about the flavor of a place.

For me I think of the description of India by Frances Hodgson Burnett in “A Little Princess.” She talks about how you can taste the perfumes of the spices in the air. Certainly our lives carry their own flavors as well. Think about it. What are the smells, sounds, and tastes of home? As this airborne yeast contributes to dough that is distinctly drawn from this community, so are we flavored by the culture that surrounds us.

What would we want the flavor of this community to be? What sort of bread are we making with our lives? Are we a complex multigrain? Are we a tough but flavorful sourdough? Are we a mixed up marble rye? And what sort of flavors do we carry out into the world with us? How do our lives flavor those with whom we interact each day?

As we come to communion today our bread is living bread both literally through the yeast culture, and sacramentally through the presence of the Holy Spirit among us as we eat this bread in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let us allow this living bread to flavor our lives so that we may in turn flavor the lives of one another. Amen.