Salt and Light

Sermon for 2/5/2011
Text: Matthew 5:13-16

My son Matthew has given each member of our family “train names” from the Thomas the Train video series. His little brother Isaiah is Thomas’ best friend “Percy”; Mommy is “Emily,” a main female steam engine; and I’m “Salty,” an old diesel engine who works down at the docks and has a thick blue-collar British accent. I guess I can be a bit salty at times, but probably not in the way that Jesus had in mind. As for being a light to others, my former high school students might say that I was, but again not in the way Jesus was talking. They used to say, “Mr. Guyton! You should let us wear sunglasses ‘cause the way that light reflects off your head, it’s brighter than the sun in here!”

Salt and light. That’s what Jesus says that we are. But what did he have in mind? In our world of fast food French fries and electricity, there are few things that we take for granted more than salt and light. In fact, we’ve got too much salt and light. Doctors tell us to take the salt out of our diets to get our blood pressure down. We take camping trips to get out of the city where it’s dark enough to actually see the stars. Back in Jesus’ day, they didn’t have refrigerators, so one of the few ways they could keep their food from going bad was to cover it in salt. And they didn’t have light-switches, so you had to keep a steady supply of oil for your lamp or you wouldn’t be able to see what you were doing.

So what did salt and light represent to Jesus? Nobody can say for sure because Jesus never explained these symbols like he did with some of his parables. We do know that Jesus is telling His disciples that we have been given something to share with the world. I think that salt and light describe two ways that the gospel of God’s loving mercy transforms our lives. Just like salt gives food flavor and had the original purpose of preserving food in the time before refrigerators, salt can describe the meaning that our lives receive from the gospel, without which they go bad like a slab of meat covered in flies. Just like light shines in the darkness to show us our true surroundings, light could describe the truth revealed to us by the gospel, without which we remain lost in the darkness of sin.

Jesus lived in a simpler time, without the same kinds of distractions of our over-salted world. The world throws plenty of salt at us through the many options we are given to pack meaning into our lives. We have self-help books, yoga classes, and motivational speakers. We can sign our kids up for karate, sports teams, or art programs, all of which are supposed to help build their character. Of course, none of these activities are harmful unless we see them as a substitute for the flavor that God has given to our lives through the salt of His gospel.

How many of you are cooks? One of the errors that I always make as a cook is to add too many spices thinking that more is always better. The irony of flavoring food is that more is often less. If you put cumin and thyme and dill and rosemary and saffron and coriander and cilantro and basil all into the same dish in heaping amounts, you’re not going to end up with something very edible. Our lives lose God’s “saltiness” when the seasoning of His Word is overwhelmed by the clumps of worldly spices that we think we need to give our lives meaning. Salt is supposed to be the one ingredient that gives flavor to all the other flavors. If you make a soup or a dip of some kind and put all sorts of herbs into it but leave out the salt completely, it’s going to be bland.

God’s Word plays the same central role in our lives that salt plays in food. If our weekly routines and activities are rooted in a life of Christian discipleship shaped by God’s Word, then God will use even the most trivial parts of our daily routines to teach us lessons and give our lives meaning. If God’s salt is there, even something like washing dishes can become a prayerful activity rich in flavor. The way to stay “salty” means is to spend enough time in God’s Word that we recognize when God speaks to us in everyday moments.

When we are well-salted, then what would otherwise be unmeaningful, unrelated daily experiences are woven together into an ongoing conversation with God. Without God’s salt, we quickly overwhelm ourselves in a sea of busy-ness, adding events and commitments to compensate for a fundamental absence of flavor to our lives that we don’t recognize. Stepping out of the world’s confusing clutter of meanings and into the meaningful rhythm of God-centeredness is what the journey of Christian discipleship is about. God is not stingy with His salt but we’ve got to ask Him for it and keep on coming back for more!

As with salt, the world confuses us with a variety of lights that compete with the light of Christ. Some people get taken in by the neon lights like the rapper Jay-Z sings about in his song “New York.” They think that life’s truth is measured in the bling and extravagance of big city life. Other people take pleasure in the light that exposes hypocrisy and scandal among our society’s public figures. They think that the only purpose of bringing things into the light is to revel in the cynicism that nobody lives up to their ideals.

We live in a world where light is the default. We’ve got electricity in our houses (usually). Our cars have headlights. Places where people walk have streetlights. In this kind of world, darkness is something we choose when it’s time to sleep or watch a movie. If light is the norm, the only type of light we really notice is a spotlight, which highlights one person to the exclusion of others. The spotlight is good when you feel like you’re special and other people need to know about it; and it’s bad when you’ve got something shameful to hide. When we understand God’s light to be a spotlight, we either run away from it, fearing its judgment, or we run into it for the wrong reason, thinking that Jesus’ command to “let your light shine before others” is his invitation to be a diva superstar.

For Jesus’ audience, stepping into the light would have meant neither being the center of attention nor facing public embarrassment. They lived in a time when darkness was the default. How often have you had to walk through a place that was pitch black in which you feared for your safety? Some of us have been in neighborhoods where safety was a legitimate fear, but I imagine for most of us, this experience is the exception rather than the norm. In places and times where darkness is a real danger, light means safety. Ironically, in our time, the bright lights that our world offers are themselves the place of danger. Stepping into the light of Jesus’ safety means stepping out of the world’s spotlights where we hide our shame and put on our best smiles for the cameras.

There are painful truths about our lives that can make us fear God’s light. As John 3:19 says, “[God’s] light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” But the primary truth that Jesus’ light exists to reveal is not the ugliness about ourselves that we try to hide but the beauty of God’s infinitely merciful love for us. It is through the light of that beautiful mercy that we are made into the light of the world, the fires in our hearts lit by the heart of the One who gave up His body to the world’s cross to make the world safe for us. When Jesus calls us the “light of the world,” he is not telling us to be bright or flashy. We are simply the windows through which Jesus can shine in what we do and how we love so that others will find their way to safety in God’s holy sanctuary. Letting our light shine is not about jumping into the spotlight but simply remembering that everything we do either invites other people into the light of God’s safety or pushes them away.

As metaphors, salt and light share one important thing in common – they exist for the sake of others. We don’t eat salt by itself any more than we stare at fluorescent light bulbs. Salt flavors other food; light helps us to see other things. In the same way, as salt and light, we do not exist to bring attention to ourselves. We point the way to the One who has seasoned our souls and fired up our hearts for the sake of sharing His mercy with the world, so that all might live in the intimacy with God that fills our lives with meaning and truth.

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What (Not) to Worry About

Sermon for 2/27/2011
Text: Matthew 6:25-34

Not to make anyone jealous, but last weekend my family went to Florida. I was actually on the beach as I was looking at the sermon text for this week on not worrying. And it made sense, down there where the temperature is so perfect that you can leave your windows open at night. Nobody is in too great a hurry or too big a worry. Except for one thing! If there’s perfect weather almost the entire year, you can’t just let your lawn go in the winter because it’s supposed to stay lush and green all year long. At least that’s what the radio said on half a dozen ads for a lawn care company offering “therapy” for homeowners frantic about their lawns.

Those advertisements reminded me how essential worrying is to our economy. If people weren’t worried, they wouldn’t buy insurance or service protection plans or antivirus software or burglar alarms or a thousand other products that depend on our worries to get sold. We worry about our health, about the stock market, about our children’s self-confidence; and there are entire industries built off of each of these worries. Even beer is a product of worry, because despite however many people say they drink beer for the taste, its primary function is to douse out the worry that we don’t have anything interesting to say at the parties that we go to.

So when Jesus says not to worry, he’s really cutting against the grain of our culture. Now some of you might be saying, “I don’t really worry that much, what’s this got to do with me?” I guess I’m biased because I have a type-A personality, which means I have a lot of nervous energy to use up. How many of y’all are type A like me? How many of y’all are more laid back? I can understand how laid back people might see Jesus’ advice as a no-brainer, like that song from the 80’s – Don’t worry, be happy. Is Jesus saying that we can just put some beach music in your ipods and we’re done?

Not quite. There are actually two things that Jesus is telling us in this passage. On the one hand, he is telling those of us who bite our nails too much to take a chill pill. There’s a difference between being worried and being concerned.

Everyone has legitimate concerns, whether it’s searching for a job, finding a significant other, staying healthy, or raising a family. These concerns turn into worries when we dwell on them to the point that we can’t let go. So part of what Jesus is saying is stop stressing out so much because your Daddy in heaven loves you just like He loves the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

And this is an important message. Our lives are in God’s hands. Trusting in God won’t keep the trouble away, but it will make the trouble less troubling. But there’s another layer to Jesus’ message. If all we hear in this passage is not to worry, then it’s easy to go a step further and say that it’s okay not to care. Is Jesus giving us permission to become lilies of the field and sit around like hippies blossoming in the sunshine? Or to put it differently, since this world is not our true home as Christians, is it okay not to care about the world and focus on raising our families right and keeping them out of other peoples’ way? Jesus isn’t telling us not to care; he’s saying not to worry about worldly things so we can care about Godly things.

At the beginning of the passage, Jesus talks about the way that we have to choose between two masters – God and success. Now any Bible nerds out there know that wealth is the standard translation of the Aramaic term mammon that Jesus used. Mammon does mean a person’s wealth or property but it also means might or strength in more ancient usage, so I figure it means literally the evidence of your might, which in the ancient world meant how many sheep are in your herd, but in our world includes not just your bank account, but your social standing, how civilized your children behave, or even how green your grass looks in the wintertime if you live in Florida – in other words, your overall success in life.

Here’s why this translation makes a difference. We can have wealth and be true Christians as long as we know that God is the true Owner of our wealth, which means letting God tell us how to spend it. What is incompatible with being a servant of God, no matter how much money you have, is to be a slave to your own success. Living for your own success whether it’s spiritual, material, or otherwise is completely incompatible with living for God’s kingdom. I might do all the things that Christians are supposed to do – praying, reading my Bible every day, volunteering to help the homeless – but as long as I am doing these things for the sake of my own glory rather than God’s glory, I gain nothing from them.

The problem is that most of us come to church as part of our plan for leading successful lives rather than taking church out into the world in allegiance to God’s plan for establishing His kingdom. A church that exists for our personal success rather than God’s kingdom is not really a church at all; it’s a self-help club. It’s true that we all start out coming here for our own success: to meet friends, to learn how to cope with stress, to teach our children good values so they can have good careers. The reason I went to church in 2004 was to find me a wife, and I did! But as my brother Bryson Smith used to say: “Come for the girls, but stay for God.”

God knows that we all start out with selfish reasons for coming to church so He reshapes us through the Holy Spirit into Christian disciples and kingdom-seekers when we do His will with open hearts. When we allow ourselves to be converted from slaves of our own success into God’s servants, then we stop worrying about things related to our own success, like how green our grass is, and worry instead about the things that God worries about, which are all the obstacles in our world – like sin, poverty, injustice, or addiction – that keep people from experiencing God’s love and knowing their place in God’s kingdom.

Three years ago, I went on a mission trip to Peru where we met a woman named Soledad who lived in a shanty on the beach. Soledad is one of the least worried people I’ve ever met, despite the fact that several months before we came, a tidal wave knocked over her shanty and swept away the family pig which was the most valuable property they had. Somehow through God’s grace, the pig survived the ordeal and Soledad found it about three blocks away. Like many people in Peru, Soledad doesn’t have a regular job. Instead, she spends her days cleaning, cooking, and teaching at her neighborhood Methodist church. Soledad was totally at peace in sharing her confidence that God would continue to provide for her.

Soledad lives for God’s kingdom, and God provides for her through the body of people who seek God’s kingdom first. Soledad doesn’t have to worry because other people with more means than she has have put aside their worries to offer their wealth to the kingdom in which she lives. And yet it’s not as though Soledad needs people like me to visit her or even buy her things. Because she’s poor, she will probably get to heaven long before I do. The question is how much time God will have to use people like Soledad in the lives of people like me who need freedom from worrying about our success so that we too can enter God’s kingdom.

It’s pretty hard for us to live like Soledad in our world here. But there are things we can do to wean ourselves away from the worldly worries that keep us from putting God’s kingdom first. This weekend, about 14 youth and 4 adults from our church fasted for 30 hours. It was more than just a fundraiser or an awareness-building stunt. Fasting is a practice that Christians have always used to learn how to depend on God and free ourselves from worrying about food. As a form of prayer, fasting forces us to slow down and listen to what God has to show us about how we can give our lives more fully to His kingdom.

We are approaching a time in the Christian year called Lent in which we will all be invited to a form of fasting. For those of you who are unfamiliar, during Lent, we give up something we like, such as chocolate, in order to break ourselves of our worldly worries and addictions so that we can turn our attention completely to God’s kingdom. Giving up chocolate for a few weeks is not going to save the world, but God can use it to make us better disciples. To be a Christian disciple is to be someone who wants to live all the way in God’s kingdom and longs to be liberated from worrying about things that don’t matter. We can’t save the world; that’s God’s job. But He does it by gathering disciples who seek His kingdom first.

Beatitudes (The Original Prosperity Gospel)

Sermon for 1/29/2011
Text: Matthew 5:3-12

When I was in middle school, my dad got season tickets to see the Houston Rockets at the Summit where they played in Houston. It was an amazing experience to go and see my hero Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shake” and juke his opponents around the basket. When I finally returned to Houston a few years ago, I drove by where the Summit had been and Hakeem’s face had been replaced on the billboard by a guy named Joel Osteen. The Summit was no longer a basketball arena but an enormous megachurch called Lakewood. I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of the prosperity gospel, but Joel Osteen is one of its major proponents. I’m not sure I understand it exactly but it seems based on this concept that the more money you put in the plate, the more God is gonna give you, and if you’ve got lots of money, it’s because God is happy with you. This gospel works great, when you’re the preacher. You’re welcome to try it out next time we pass the plate around. I’m a little biased against the prosperity gospel though, because I miss Hakeem the Dream and I resent his home court turning into a megachurch.

In Jesus’ day, the prosperity gospel looked different than today. They didn’t have self-help books written by millionaire megachurch pastors. What they did have were self-help proverbs that got circulated around in the ancient wisdom tradition, usually starting out with the phrase “Happy are those who…” The way to be happy was to follow the proverb and try to cultivate the habits or personality traits of those it described as being happy. So Jesus probably turned a few heads when he shared his Beatitudes: “Happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I imagine you’re used to hearing the Beatitudes start off with the word “blessed” rather than “happy.” Well, the word used in Greek is makarios, which means to be privileged or fortunate. The Greek word for blessing in a religious sense is eulogos, the basis for our word “eulogy.” The reason that makarios usually gets translated ‘blessed’ rather than ‘happy’ in English is because it refers to someone’s fortunate life circumstances rather than just a positive emotional state. To be makarios is to be prosperous, whether or not you’re smiling about it. So what Jesus is saying is not simply that if you’re poor and meek, you should put on a happy face and try to make the best of it. It’s more radical than that: he’s saying that poverty is prosperity. In other words, the original prosperity gospel of Jesus said the opposite of what today’s prosperity gospel says.

Now I suspect you noticed that Jesus doesn’t just say “happy are the poor.” In Matthew, he says “poor in spirit,” though in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus does just say “poor.” Some people get up in arms about the way that Matthew added the phrase “in spirit,” suspecting him of trying to spiritualize Jesus’ words and take away Luke’s social justice message that God uniquely favors the poor. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suspect that Jesus probably said it more than one way on different occasions. In any case, being “poor in spirit” isn’t necessarily less serious than being “poor.” On the mission trips I’ve been on, I’ve met many people who were materially poor but spiritually rich. It often gave me the naïve impression that if only I didn’t have money, I could be spiritually rich too. There seems to be little excuse for being spiritually poor when you’ve got money. Doesn’t that make you an ungrateful brat? If you’re poor in spirit, then you’re depressed no matter how your life appears from the outside. Yet Jesus says that the “poor in spirit” are actually blessed.

So how in the world is it blessed to be “poor in spirit”? Christians have wrestled with this question throughout the centuries. There is a prevailing tendency, begun by ancient theologian Gregory of Nyssa, to turn the Beatitudes into a progression of eight steps in your spiritual journey. Your spiritual journey begins with a stage of humility when you realize that you’re poor in spirit and need God. You then enter into a stage of mourning over your sins. After this, you arrive at a state of meekness, in which you are able to submit to the will of God, who then instills in you a hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and the yearning to make peace. Ultimately the zenith of the Christian’s spiritual journey is to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake and martyred, thus following Jesus all the way to the cross.

Many Christian theologians have taken this allegorical interpretation of the Beatitudes as representing stages of Christian life. I respect this interpretation, and I think it has value, but I’m hesitant to let it be the only interpretation of these words of Jesus. What happens if you feel “poor in spirit” (which is stage 1) because you’re “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (which is stage 8)? Is that like when you spin the wrong number in Chutes and Ladders and you have to move your piece back to the beginning of the game? I also struggle with the assertion spoken by no less than the founder of Methodism, John Wesley himself, that “those who mourn” are not grieving “on account of some worldly trouble,” but are “they that mourn after God” and the gap that remains between God’s perfection and our sinful nature. I think Jesus wanted to comfort everybody who mourns, whether it’s over our sinfulness, the loss of a loved one, or any other life circumstance that has us feeling sad. The Beatitudes can be both a comfort to those who need comforting and a challenge to those who need challenging.

Whether they are stages of Christian life or just words of comfort to hurting people, the heart of the Beatitudes is the basic Christian truth that our utter inadequacy is paradoxically what empowers us to do God’s work. To use the words of Paul, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. When you feel helpless and poor in spirit, whether it’s because you’re overworked, you’re missing someone you love, you’re taking care of everyone except yourself, or if you just feel like you’re worthless, then you are in a better position to receive the Holy Spirit and be moved by God than people who think they have mastered the art of living. John Wesley preached that “the foundation of all [Christianity] is poverty of spirit.” If you’re feeling weak right now, you’re actually in a state of higher spiritual prosperity than the people who are pretending to be strong, because God can actually do something with you.

People who aren’t poor in spirit aren’t much use to God because they don’t feel like they need God even if they throw God’s name around a lot. If I’m self-righteous, then I’m not going to hunger or thirst for righteousness. If I don’t feel like I need God’s mercy, I’ll have a harder time showing mercy to others. If I think that I’m right all the time, chances are I’m not going to be a peacemaker when disagreements arise and I might feel persecuted but I won’t really be suffering for righteousness’ sake. This is the way that the false prosperity gospel of our world shapes us to be – people who think their personal success is life’s ultimate goal and who trust in the power of their own positive thinking to get there. Of course, the secret is that we aren’t actually surrounded by the more successful, confident competitors we think we are; it’s a masquerade ball where everyone is trying to hide from each other how scared and meek they really feel.

So for those of us who want to be liberated from this world of fake prosperity, here is Jesus’ prosperity gospel: you’re better off when you’re empty because only those who are empty can be filled by God. The reason the meek will inherit the earth is because only those of us who are unsure enough of ourselves to depend on God can come together to become the perfect form of human society – the body of Christ. There can be only one head of Christ’s body. We are called to be empty vessels who receive our entire existence from God. This doesn’t mean that we need to abandon the resources God has given us to be beggars in the street. It does mean that we need to reorient how we understand our lives and possessions, considering everything that we have to be a gift from God. It’s okay to be confident in God’s power to work through us, but being cocky about our own abilities is profoundly ungrateful for the gifts that God keeps giving. Our hearts are purified as we are emptied of our delusions of self-sufficiency that this world, and our nation in particular, preaches as its prosperity gospel. The purity of heart that we receive from being poor in spirit, surrendering in meekness to God’s will, granting to others the mercy that we have received from God, and hungering for God’s righteousness and peace in all our relationships – this purity of heart is the truly prosperous state of being able to see God.

So if you’re feeling poor in spirit, if you’re grieving something or someone, if you have a hard time being tough and assertive, then you are exactly the kind of person Jesus is looking for. He’s not saying in these Beatitudes that you need to slap on a fake smile and pretend to be happy. He’s simply inviting you to be part of his broken body made up of people who confess their brokenness and, as a result, are made whole in communion with God. If you’re thirsting for the true prosperity that is the kingdom of heaven, then come let us be poor in spirit together.