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"Jesus Proposes a New Kind of Identity

A Sermon based upon Matthew 5:1-16

When I was away last Fall, and the Rev. Gene Bacon filled in during my Sabbatical, he preached nine sermons on the text from this morning… “the Beatitudes” from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.

Brian McLaren’s treatment of these verses (in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”[1]) asks us to imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing village called Capernaum. Flocks of seagulls circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

A small group of student-disciples circle around a young man, who appears to be about 30 years old. [But that’s just the inner circle.] Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples. In effect, they are “eavesdropping” on what Jesus is teaching them.

This is the day they have been waiting for. [Like an “inaugural” address, or a State of the Union speech] this is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the “heart” of his message. [This is his “agenda”.]

Jesus begins his sermon by using the term “blessed” to address the question of identity – the question of who we want to be.

In Jesus’ day, to say “blessed are these people” is like saying “Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.”

To be among the blessed is the opposite of being among the cursed. “Woe to those people” means “Take note: you definitely do not want to be like those people, or counted among their number.” [This dividing of “us good folks” form “them outsiders” was typical of religious and cultural thinking in Jesus’ day – as it is (unfortunately) among many people in our own day!]

Jesus’ words [that day on that hillside, however, would] no doubt have surprised everyone! [You see, that’s] because we normally play by these rules of the game:

(1) Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. [Then you can get things your way! Then you’ll be successful: rich & powerful.]

(2) Toughen up, and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. [Loss is for losers! Grief is for wimps!]

(3) Measure your success by how much of the time you are able to think only of yourself and your own happiness. [They may call it “narcissism” -- ego-centric selfishness -- but you can slough that off. Who cares what they think! It’s really all about you anyway, right?]

(4) Be independent and aggressive – be hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. [That’s what counts! Be somebody. Make a name for yourself. After all, if your name isn’t held in high regard… what do you have to show for all your effort?]

(5) Strike back quickly when others strike you… and guard your image so that you’ll always be “popular” [regardless of what you do].

In a world like that, Jesus defines “success” and “well-being” in a profoundly different way. [It was a subversive -- radical reversal -- of the conventional way of thinking.] So, according to Jesus, who are “blessed”?

What kind of people should we seek to be identified with?

(1) The poor, and those in solidarity with them.

(2) Those who mourn… who feel grief and loss.

(3) The non-violent and the gentle … [the meek & humble].

(4) Those who hunger and thirst for “the common good”, and

who are not satisfied with the Status Quo.

(5) The merciful and compassionate.

(6) Those characterized by openness & sincerity… by motives unadulterated by profit and greed, self-aggrandizement & power.

(7) Those who work for peace and reconciliation.

(8) Those who seek justice, even when they are misunderstood.

(9) Those who stand for [social] justice, as the prophets did… Those who refuse to back down, or quiet down, when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed!

Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of minutes, and he has already turned our normal “status ladders” and “social pyramids” upside down! (!) He advocates an identity that is characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and non-violence.

He [lifts up as role models] those who long for justice, embody compassion, and manifest integrity. … He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives, politicians, [or celebrities]… but brave and determined activists for peace, who are willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.

Our choice [then] is clear from the start: If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we won’t be able to simply “coast” along… and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values. [We have to be prepared to “march to the beat of a different drummer” (to use Henry David Thoreau’s metaphor) and to “take the road less travelled by” (a metaphor from poet Robert Frost).]

If we do so, Jesus is clear: we will pay a price for making that choice. (!) But he also promises that we will discover many “priceless” rewards. … We will experience the true “aliveness” of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence [among us], the honor of associating with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity Jesus invites us to seek [with him].

That new kind of identity will make each of us become “difference makers” in the world -- change agents for the good, “aliveness activists”, catalysts for change (says Brian McLaren).

Jesus then uses two “metaphors” to express the function his followers will have if they live this new kind of identity: Salt and Light. To live with the values of the Beatitudes (in contrast to the normal ways of the world), we will serve as salt and light within our society.

Now, everybody can figure out how life relies on light. I mean, it’s so visible! Constant darkness and shadow, gloom & chill, starts to give a person “cabin fever.”

I think we human animals have a sort of photosynthesis in our blood, too; or at least we’re partly solar-powered! Maybe that’s why so many Alpena church folks go South to Florida or out to Arizona for the winter (leaving us with some empty pews)! I think a lot of us are sun-worshippers who like to be warm & tan.

The point is: we all know what’s right with light! It’s an illuminating image for the in-dwelling spirit of God. Radiant.

But what’s up with salt? While light is in your face, visible, beaming bright... salt is, perhaps, the most hidden, invisible, trace material on earth.

We are fortunate to have fresh water in our Great Lakes (“unsalted, and shark-free”), but did you know that there are also huge salt mines beneath Detroit, remnant salt-fields from earlier oceans that covered Michigan. We all know that the Earth’s oceans are salty. Sea salt (collected and dried and sold in a salt grinder) is visible as irregular white chunks. But out in the ocean, it is diluted -- laced into the water. The salt can be felt on the skin as the sunlight dries it; it can be tasted on the lips like salty tears -- but salt is invisible in solution. It’s hardly seen when it’s added to food... but the good effect is experienced -- a pleasant ingredient that brings out the best in steamed veggies or a potato… on our French Fries!

Of course, a little salt goes a long way! I have been known to stop eating a pizza (or a restaurant meal) if the chef has put too much salt on it. Furthermore, as we get older, many of us are on sodium-free diets. We must reduce our intake of salt, lest it harden our arteries and increase the pressure in our blood vessels. Salt is not the kind of flavor that you can double down and still enjoy!

Salt can also be a preservative. Fishermen used to salt fish before they had refrigeration, because it would not spoil if coated in salt. After several days, when their catch made it to market, the fish could be rinsed off and cooked; it was still edible.

I suspect it is this ability of salt to preserve (moreso than just to “spice up” your French Fries) that Jesus had in mind when he said: “You are the salt of the earth.” We should add a bit of flavor, a pinch of spice, if we are taken in very small doses -- but remember that we can be toxic when forced down somebody’s throat! (I think a lot of folks have gagged on too much heavy-handed Christianity!)

But as a preservative, which keeps bacteria at bay and bodily fluids healthy, salt is essential to all living things.

George Lamsa, the Assyrian author of “Gospel Light”[2], writes: “Salt is precious . . . and in some regions very scarce. From ancient times to the present day, salt has been a medium of exchange in some eastern countries. . . . Far from seas and oceans, salt is not only precious & scarce, but also sacred. Small deposits have been discovered in mountains, but because of crude mining methods, a sufficient quantity could not be secured for human & animal consump-tion. Salt, therefore, becomes a valuable possession. Taxes are paid in salt. Salt, moreover, is necessary not only to preserve food, but also to preserve life. It is said human life cannot be sustained for any length of time without the use of this precious article.”

Just think of the hunters who put out “salt licks” for the deer during the winter. Not only does it keep the deer alive, it keeps them close to the hunting lodge for the next hunting season.

Life cannot be sustained for any length of time without this precious element; and yet, too much of a good thing is deadly. You may recall the story of a sailor lost at sea, who knew he could not quench his thirst by drinking salty seawater, who cried out those memorable words: “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!” It’s a fine line to be the salt of the Earth, yet not too salty.

Light is bright -- brilliant, in fact -- and visible for all to see. Salt, on the other hand, is plain, dull, & for the most part, entirely invisible. Let me put it this way: If light is an extrovert, salt is introvert. There are lots of Christian songs about being light in the world: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” Very few about being “salt”.

We all need a little salt -- salt for spice, for zesty flavor. Salt for blood circulation & cellular health. Salt for cleansing & preservation. And something we know far too well this winter: we throw salt on the sidewalks when they are iced over… the Highway Dept. spreads salt on our streets. You see, salt has a much lower freezing point than water. In the same way that a salt solution doesn’t boil as quickly as plain water (as anyone who’s tried to make pasta will tell you), it doesn’t freeze as easily, either. Throwing rock salt on an icy patch will thaw it.

So, let’s let our Christian witness be like salt: zesty, spicy, full of flavor. But let it also be measured (monitored) in order to be healthy for us and for all we meet. Let our “Christ-like” identity preserve the world around us, cleanse its wounds, and help to hold decay at bay.

Like salt, may your Christian identity be able to endure more cold shoulders, more cold hearts, than a human would otherwise be able to suffer -- without freezing, without turning your own heart to ice. May you assist in bringing a thaw. Like salt, may you be able to endure more heat before you boil over. May your threshold for frustration be ever higher, like a saline solution. May you bring life.

Unlike the metaphor of light, the value of salt is not at all found in its appearance, but in the effect it has on things around it. Salt has meaning because of what happens as a result of its presence, and in what measure it is mixed in.

I am glad that Jesus balanced the brilliance of light with the image of salt, when he tried to describe what a “Christian” identity is supposed to be like. Some folks naturally radiate the warmth and engaging style of “light” -- light-hearted, with a light touch, or like a ray of light in the dark of night. Some folks strike us as light-bearers, radiant, charismatic, extroverted, visible.

But there are others who, by temperament, are less visible, less brilliant, and much more introverted and easily dissolved (if we’re not careful). By using these two metaphors side-by-side in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus values the salt as much as the light -- the invisible, hidden, power of salt as much as the obvious attention-getting beam of light.

This tells me that the Church needs not just meat & potatoes disciples, but people who add spice; people who “blend-in” to the world (like salt infuses water) and not just those who stand-above it, stand out in it, and stand up for it.

Yes, we do need cities on a hill, lit up with light, which make all passers-by say “wow!” We need some “spectacle” in a visually-oriented world. We need to let our light shine, and not hide it under a bushel. (No!) But, friends, we also need a little salt, if we hope to sustain a healthy, balanced, living world.

Maybe you are more inclined to identify with “salt” than to imagine yourself as “light” -- that’s OK. Praying preserves & heals at least as much as preaching does. Unseen “angel acts,” hidden from view, may do more good for more people over a longer lifespan than any bold gesture done publicly in Jesus’ name. We need a little salt as well as light to be wholly Christ-like.

If you feel destined to be salt -- be the best salt you can be, for God’s sake! Jesus said to his followers: “You ARE the salt of the earth!” With those words, I think he intended to inspire them with the image of a scarce, valuable, precious, life-giving, life-enhancing, life-preserving, healthy and whole role to play as we dissolve ourselves outward into the world.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are supposed to share in the great “salty” purposes he has for the world. So... let’s get out of the salt-shaker and into the meal, off of the sea-shore and into the sea. Let’s not be afraid of being diluted, because greater is the God who has called us out than the world we are called to serve.

Brian McLaren says: Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a “preservative” function – opposing corruption and decay.

Like light that penetrates darkness, we will radiate health and wholeness, goodness and well-being, to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are – living this new kind of identity as “salt” and “light” – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t withdraw… losing our “saltiness” or trying to hide our light.

To “lose our saltiness” means letting ourselves be toned down, tamed of our pungent spiciness. It would be like “hiding our light” under a shade -- to lose our “saltiness” means that we might be shut down and glossed over, set aside as though we made no difference.

Brian McLaren says that Jesus means for us (as his followers) “to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” Those good works (he says) will point to God, rather than draw attention to ourselves. “Wow” people will say, “when I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe that there’s a good and kind God out there, too.”

It’s clear, writes Brian McLaren, that Jesus is starting something bigger, deeper, and more subversive than a new religion. This uprising begins with a new identity. (Not a new strategy, but a new kind of identity.) Jesus spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, and what they want to make of their lives.

As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with questions of who we are now and who we want to become in the future.

Are you ready to be the salt that Alpena needs today… to melt the ice of chilly relationships and hard hearts? To spice up people’s lives with the pungent taste of Jesus’ Gospel?

Are you ready to shine your light into the shadows and secret places that surround us… bringing brightness where lives have grown dim, providing warmth where people feel that nobody cares or understands them, and demonstrating God’s loving presence where people feel like they have been abandoned? That’s the new kind of identity (in each individual and between us here) that Jesus says will bring glory to God in heaven.

Jesus has the survival of the whole world on his mind, and that means every bit of us -- salt-&-light -- has got to get up... get out... and get on with it. Not for our glory. Not for First Congregational of Alpena. But for God ! Shine on, friends! Be salty! And do it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] McLaren, Brian D., New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, © 2014, Chapter 27, pages 127-130

[2] Lamsa, George, “Gospel Light: Comments on the Teachings of Jesus from Aramaic & Unchanged Eastern Customs” (Philadelphia: Holman Co., 1936), page 192

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