Sermon: Getting Things Done February 9, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Creator in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.
Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Is the glass always half empty or half full? Is there always a rainbow after a storm or just more clouds? As people of faith we are also people of hope. I know I am always looking for signs – signs of God’s presence, signs of God’s love, signs of God’s mercy in our world. And that is not always easy! We live in a world of almost unrestrained violence. Children can be snatched from homes and slain at school. Bombs and missiles are exploded in public places. There is war and there are rumors of war. No community, no race, no nation is immune to nor protected from a growing culture of violence.
Blogger Steve Goodier 1 tells this story:
I like the way of Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix, two men who experienced firsthand a cloud of fear and sorrow. One deadly evening in 1995, 14-year-old Tony Hicks shot and killed a 20-year-old college student and pizza deliveryman in San Diego, California. Tony and several other gang members ordered pizza and, when it was delivered, Tony was told by his gang to shoot the young man who delivered the food, Tariq Khamisa.
Tariq’s father Azim was enraged at the senseless killing. “There’s something really wrong with a society where kids kill kids,” he spat. He was angry with the kids, but he was even more upset with a culture that breeds so much violence.
Shortly after his son’s death, Azim heard from a gentleman named Ples Felix. Ples was Tony Hick’s grandfather and guardian. Azim invited Ples to his home and the two men shared their mutual grief and heartache. But it didn’t stop there — they also decided to do something. “I realized that change had to start with me,” Azim reasoned. Therefore, though he may have wanted revenge, the grieving father chose a different way to respond to his son’s death.
What happened? The victim’s father toured the United States with the killer’s grandfather. The two men visited schools with a message of nonviolence. They told the story of Tariq and Tony — one child dead and the other in prison. And in a growing worldwide culture of violence, these two men of peace changed lives. They warmed hearts and stimulated minds of countless young people. They showed us all there is a different way to live.
This morning we installed onto our session five really remarkable people! They will be joining four other equally remarkable folk all charged with plotting and planning the future of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. They are going to be the agents of change here at St. Paul’s. They are going to be the ones that create for us a different way to live. David Orr, college professor and author, talks about this different way of living. “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people,” he says. “But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places.” I like that! The world needs “people who live well in their places.” People like Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix and Frank and Bernice and Delores and Mary and Minnie and Lois and John and Joyce and Vanita.
As children of God we are all called to be one of those people. In being light to the world or salt of the earth (and I don’t think Jesus leaves a lot of wiggle room here for this being optional) we have chosen a different way. We have chosen to be peacemakers, healers and life-bringers. To the best of our ability we try to live well in our place. And we elect leaders – elders and deacons – from among ourselves and then place our trust in them to lead us in their distinctly remarkable ways. This is indeed how we get things done.
Our Experience Expanded According to Scott Hoezee from the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, “Matthew 5 represents a paradigm shift. Jesus is turning the world on its head here.” He starts at the bottom in verse 20 which, in an upside-down world, is really the top anyway. What could Jesus have meant by holding up the Pharisees as role models–indeed, as imperfect role models at that? Did Jesus really want his disciples to adopt the tactics of the Pharisees? Did Jesus want his disciples to define their righteousness by keeping track of the number of sinners they had avoided, the number of women they had refused to look at, the number of well-meaning folks who got screamed at for accidentally breaking some fussy little Sabbath regulation? Is that the kind of “greater-than-the-Pharisees” righteousness Jesus is recommending here?!2
I certainly hope not. I think Jesus was telling us that it would be very difficult for most of us to live as purely as the Pharisees and it seems that these were not even men he liked a whole lot. So why use these men (and they were all men) to set the standard? Jesus is reminding us that righteousness – that living well in our place – is a gift. And we know that righteous living isn’t something we do by ourselves, right? God gives it to us in grace. So we don’t get there by racking up “brownie points” and once we do manage to pull this off we can’t pretend that moral decision making doesn’t matter. When Jesus talks about righteousness in Matthew 5 it is both a gift and a requirement; it is both God’s grace and our responsibility.
In our Gospel lessons from Matthew for the last few Sundays we have been following the story of the early life of Jesus. He was baptized. He moved from Galilee to Capernaum. His cousin John the Baptizer was killed. Jesus began selecting his disciples, common folk who seemed to somehow know that following Jesus was the thing to do. We studied our own characters and the first and foundational message of Jesus last Sunday with the beatitudes and now, this week, he is instructing his followers about how to be team Jesus. And what does he say: “Let your light shine before others!” Be who you were meant to be. Be what you are: light and salt. Give light. Give flavor. Those of you in worship last week took a character test. Some of you shared with me that you learned some things about yourself. I even engaged with a couple of you about whether or not there were right and wrong answers to some of the questions. There was also a strong acknowledgement about how difficult it is to live a righteous life and to be really clear all the time about what was right and what isn’t for Christians. The character test presupposes that we ultimately decide how we will behave or react or act out based on our beliefs about what is best for us and those we love and care about. Those of us with a distinctly Christian character suppose that every human being is created with a convivial and deep interior. Fighting to do “my will” no matter what is tempered to allow the Spirit of God to find a place deep within us to hold forth. This is God’s Spirit of love, respect, and forgiveness. This Spirit is identical with God and we are to be one with this presence tucked deep inside us. Becoming and being who we are (light and salt) means also becoming what we were made to be: a home in which the Spirit of Jesus and God reside. God’s love will become us. . .3
Re-mything Our Traditions
As has been the case with many others, both our contemporaries and historical figures. Harriet Tubman was both salt and light during her lifetime. She was best known for setting up the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses that helped black slaves reach freedom in the north, prior to the American Civil War. But Tubman, born into slavery as Araminta Ross, was also a spy and a battlefield leader during the Civil War. In 1862 Tubman left her home in Auburn, N.Y. and went to South Carolina to support the Union Army as a nurse, caring for black soldiers and newly liberated slaves, but that didn’t last long. The kind of information about Confederate troop locations and movements she was getting from black slaves, who knew her by reputation and trusted her, proved valuable to Union commanders. Biographers say that she would go on scouting missions behind Confederate lines. Her courage and the intelligence she was collecting led to one of her most dangerous and most famous missions. Thomas B. Allen, author of “Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent” writes that Tubman was approached by General David Hunter to lead a raid. As Allen notes, generals don’t usually ask, they give orders. But Tubman was a woman and a civilian. Yes, she was spying and scouting for the Union army, but she was doing so outside the military chain of command. Tubman agreed to the raid, but only if Col. James Montgomery, someone she knew well and trusted, would help her with it. National Geographic describes Harriet as “the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition.” Tubman and Colonel Montgomery took three gunboats up the Combahee River in South Carolina on the morning of June 1, 1863. The mission had multiple goals: Destroying bridges and attacking the plantations along the river, freeing the plantation slaves. “The raid was a key part of the Union plan to strike hard at the South’s rice crops, which provided food to the Confederates and wealth to South Carolina,” writes Mr. Allen. Tubman’s crew consisted of former black slaves who had piloted riverboats delivering cotton and other farm goods and they knew where the river had been mined. The raid was a smashing military success, and more than 700 slaves were freed. Harriet’s light did shine! And she got things done! You may recall a couple of weeks ago I mentioned how much I liked to read and learn about ordinary people who had done extra-ordinary things. Azim Khamisa, Plez Felix and Harriet Tubman have been among those studied. I have often wondered what folks like Harriet thought about their own gifts, their own passions and their sense of commitment to their people or causes? Most of us have a hard time believing that we are good enough, worthy enough, or lovable enough and therefore will perhaps nod politely when we are called salt and light, but not really believe it. Now, while I think this is true of all ages, I think it’s especially true of adults! We know ourselves too well; moreover, some of us believe our pastor is just a nice person paid to say these kinds of things! Not a chance! I see my task as actually showing people that they are, in fact, salt and light. So I am suggesting that all of you start keeping a “Salt & Light Log.” Really! I am suggesting you collect examples of where God has worked through you to help someone else or where God has worked through someone else to help you. This may be difficult for many of us who were taught serious humility or that it was a sin to boast, but that is what being salt and light is all about. We are called to get the job done! Let there be light! Let it shine! Let is shine! Let it shine!
O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen
2 Scott Hoezee (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php)
3 John Foley S. J.