Seasoned and Enlightened (Sermon)

Seasoned and Enlightened

Isaiah 58:1-9a and Matthew 5:13-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Shout out; do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they want God on their side. 
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day
    and oppress all your workers.
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?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the straps 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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

(Isaiah 58:1-9 – NRSV)

         Prompted by Brian McLaren’s book The Great Spiritual Migration, our Monday night group is having energetic, challenging, and often cathartic conversations. We’re talking about what it has meant, and what it’s now beginning to mean to follow Jesus in this world generally, and, particularly, in a society experiencing the turmoil of cultural ferment.1

McLaren starts by addressing the Church’s centuries-long slide into an institution built more on rigid doctrine about Jesus than on an empowering invitation to follow Jesus. McLaren asks his readers to consider a theological and spiritual “migration” from a religion that has become tolerant of certainty, safety, and even injustice toward a “movement” of following Jesus in his ways of radical and open-ended grace.

Now, I am deeply grateful for and committed to our religious tradition. I see great work and potential in this congregation—in you. I see great work and potential in our denomination and in our ecumenical and interfaith efforts. I also feel like I am mostly realistic about the church’s limitations and failures. Still, I think McLaren asks compelling questions: Did Jesus come to found a religion, or to begin a movement? Didn’t he come to set the Creation on a trajectory of proactive love through which all things draw closer together, and, thus, closer to God? Isn’t union with God, here and now as well as in the life to come, our ultimate goal? And doesn’t that goal require movement—movement that involves constant openness to God and to what God is doing in the world, through love, to draw all things closer to God’s Self?

Last Sunday, we read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes—the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today we’ll read the next eight verses of that famous sermon. Here, Jesus calls us to a movement of love, compassion, and justice—a movement toward Jesus’ actions which are all-too-easily anesthetized into talking points when the faith community replaces kinship with creeds, prayer with programs, and mission with maintenance.

I’m going to read from The Message because, to me, this version seems to capture the spirit of Jesus’ call to his expansive and enduring movement of grace.

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

17-18 “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.

19-20 “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom. (Matthew 5:13-20 — The Message)

A literal translation from the Greek won’t render the text as we just heard it. Eugene Peterson, though, a now-deceased Presbyterian pastor and scholar, worked for years, seeking input from his peers, to paraphrase scripture in a way that sought faithfulness to the spirit of the ancient texts.

Consider the opening line of today’s reading: “Let me tell you why you are here.” While that statement is not in the Greek text, it’s not just Peterson trying to be hip. It’s holistically faithful to the story. In it, Jesus is saying, Look, you’ve been taught many things about God, about your neighbors, and yourselves. And while I don’t want you to forget any of that, in following me, you’ll discover that what you’ve learned has barely scratched the surface. It helped to prepare you for this moment; and I’m going to take you much further than the Law can. We’re going start an adventure where only grace dares to go.

Then Jesus calls his followers salt and light. Salt enhances the flavor of food. That is to say, salt is used not for its own sake but for the sake of the vegetables, or the meat, or the bread dough to which it is added. So, what Jesus wants to avoid isn’t salt simply losing its taste, but the problem of salt losing its capacity to bring out “the God-flavors of this earth.”

As salt, followers of Jesus look for and enhance the “flavors” of holiness that God has infused into all people and all things. To lose one’s saltiness, then, is to lose not only awareness of all that God has created, but to lose reverence for and relationship with the holiness within God’s Creation.

         Jesus uses the metaphor of light in a similar way. “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”

While we can look at a star or a light bulb and see its brightness, looking atlight can do more harm than good. Light is not meant to be seen but to be that by which we see ourselves, our neighbors, mountains, bluebirds, starfish. In the NRSV, Jesus calls his followers “the light of the world.” As light, we are ones by whose bright love the image of God is seen and known within us and around us.

The last verse of today’s reading suggests that the Pharisees have lost their saltiness and their brightness. No longer looking for relationship, and no longer expecting holiness, they focus on rules and doctrine, on sin and sacrificial atonement, on who’s in and who’s out. And while those tactics can keep people afraid and compliant, they create and depend on an image of God that is angry, vengeful, and violent. So, thank God Jesus announces a fresh and ongoingmigration.

When Jesus says, “God is not a secret…We’re going public with this,” he’s calling us to live our individual and corporate lives from the new point of view of grace. While we may still struggle with all of the same anxieties and fears, Jesus empowers us to live in those struggles as salt in a casserole or as light in basement. He calls us, as salt and light, to recognize and evoke the holiness, the possibility, and the joy in the world—even in the realities of blandness, darkness, and chaos, because even there, God is actively present. And God’s presence is, far more often than not, manifest through limited, imperfect human beings just like us.

         When I was 24 years old, two years married, a seminary drop-out, and green as a January daffodil, I backed into teaching middle school. The first months almost did me in. I didn’t know the material, but the kids knew me. They saw, and some of them exploited, my rattled nerves and my desperate need to be liked.

         Two of my faculty colleagues, Mr. Buie and Ms. Benton, saw those same things, I’m sure. And, yet, they saw something more. In addition to being a teacher, Mr. Buie was a pastor and a farmer. He knew people, seasons, and patience. Ms. Benton, having been recently widowed, had a newly-unvarnished and yet good-humored understanding of what was important and what was fluff. Those two veteran teachers never tried to tell me who I was. They never tried to meddle or make decisions for me. They befriended me, encouraged me, challenged me, supported me, celebrated with me.

Whether they knew it or not, Mr. Buie and Ms. Benton were salt and light to me. Seasoned and enlightened, they taught me to recognize my own worth and to claim it as a gift from God. And that allowed me to start becoming, slowly, salt and light for my students.

Now, all of that was something I realized in hindsight more than in the moment. And isn’t that how God seasons and enlightens us? Isn’t that how God uses us to bring out “the God-flavors…[and] the God-colors in the world”? Through relationship, struggle, and blessed surprise?

1All references to Brian McLaren come from his book: The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016.

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