“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.

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.