Outside the Box
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
September 20, 2015
Matthew 5: 13-16 (CEB)
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. 14You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
These days, if I have a few minutes to enjoy a TV show, my go-to is either some sort of home improvement show the likes of which you find on HGTV, or a cooking show, like “Chopped,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” or “MasterChef.” Though, I must admit, my favorite is “MasterChef Junior.” In any case, whatever theme or direction the show takes, there’s one assessment of the contestants’ food that comes up on a pretty regular basis. Let me see if I can channel a little Gordon Ramsay here: “This is terrible!…There’s no seasoning!…Taste this, it’s bland!” This invariably means the dish doesn’t contain enough salt, and it always makes Gordon Ramsay and the other “seasoned” (I may or may not have intended that pun…) chefs incredibly angry, because salt is such a crucial component in any dish, it’s purpose to bring out the full flavor of the food being served.
We hardly consider salt, it is such an ordinary thing. There are salt shakers on nearly every dining table, and so we hardly notice it. And yet, it is so very important. In preparation for this sermon, I did a little research about salt, and I’d like to share with you some of my findings. How valuable is salt? 40 million tons are required each year to fill our needs. Homer called it divine. Plato called it a “substance dear to the gods.” Shakespeare mentioned salt 17 times in his plays. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci wanted to send a subtle message about purity lost when he painted “The Last Supper.” In that painting, an overturned salt cellar is conspicuously placed before Judas. In ancient Greece a far-flung trade involving the exchange of salt for slaves gave rise to the expression, “…not worth his salt.” Special salt rations were given to Roman soldiers and known as “Solarium Argentums”, the forerunner of the English word “salary.” Thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during his retreat from Moscow because their wounds would not heal–their bodies lacked salt. The human body contains about 4oz. of salt. Without enough of it, muscles won’t contract, blood won’t circulate, food won’t digest and the heart won’t beat a beat. Without a doubt, salt is an essential part of life. And Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”
Light is the same way, is it not? So ordinary, so commonplace, we hardly notice it. And yet, if it’s not there, especially at night, we are painfully aware of its absence. We don’t hide light. If we were going to do that, there would be no point in lighting the candle, or turning on the light. Light is made to shine. “You are the light of the world,” says Christ.
Earlier today, we read responsively the 84th Psalm. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. O Lord of hosts, my Ruler and my God, at your altars even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!…For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Indeed, dwelling in God’s house, in God’s presence is a wonderful and comforting place to be. Yet, we can get so caught up in the dwelling that we forget about the living! And part of our living is to be a light in the world!
Which brings us once again to this subject of change, which has been our focus throughout this month. We love our church, don’t we? We love coming to this place, with these people, worshipping the God who has given us such a blessed life. So why would we leave this place where we feel God’s presence, and go outside of this sanctuary to those places where God seems absent? This question really gets at the core of what it means to “be the church” today. If the church really is going to touch the lives of people with Christ’s Good News, it has to happen beyond these walls. We have to shine our lights out there, not hide them in here!
My friends, if we follow Jesus, we will go where Jesus goes. We will be in his presence and dwell with him, regardless of the location. I think we often don’t think in these terms. The church is the place where we encounter Christ, this is the place where we dwell in God’s presence, we think. But don’t we all know, somewhere, deep down inside, that God is “out there,” especially in the deepest, darkest corners of the world? The question is: are we ready to “take that leap”? Are we ready to make that change? It used to be all the church had to do to reach people with the saving love of Christ was open its doors; people flocked in. But not anymore, now the church has to go out the doors. Are we ready to leave our comfortable spaces to see where else God is dwelling? I know this is a scary proposition, but we can cling to Jesus in every place, and the Holy Spirit will go with us. When we follow Jesus, we WILL find that God dwells in places we never expected. And we need to go to those places as salt and light.
So what does it mean to live as the church today? This is where we must really consider the need for change. Notice as Jesus speaks to the disciples here in the “Sermon on the Mount,” he doesn’t say, “You should be the salt of the earth,” as if it was something we might have been doing well in the past, but are no more. Nor does he say, “You will be the light of the world,” as if this is the part of the culmination of God’s enduring promises; something that will happen way on down the road. No, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Already. Right now. The task of the church in the world today is not to try and retrieve our former “glory,” but rather to explore what it looks like to be salt and light for the world now. This invariably means we MUST think “outside the box” in every sense of the word; outside of this sanctuary, outside of our normal way of doing ministry, beyond “the way we’ve always done it.” Salt is no good if it stays in the shaker, and light is no good if it’s hidden under a basket.
Consider again the nature of salt and light. These are basic elements in nature; God-given, not man-made. The same is true of us, the faithful who follow Jesus. We are not self-made; we are created out of the pure grace and will of God. Neither salt nor light is particularly rare; not at all, actually—they hold no great value like a precious gem. And yet, and yet…both salt and light are essential to life; salt for taste, and light for finding one’s way. They are good for the world, and so their value comes in their usefulness. Again, the same is true for us followers of Jesus. Our goal is not to be valuable according to the world’s standards. Our worth is not measured by whether we have the largest budget or staff, measured like a corporation. Our goal is not to have the most popular youth program or the most professional choir, as if we were a franchise or a touring company. Like plain-old ordinary salt or ordinary light, our goal is to be beneficial, useful, life-giving elements…and here’s the key, IN THE WORLD!
This place is wonderful, but this is where we have to be ready to make a change. The church is not our parish, as John Wesley teaches, “the world is our parish”! We come here, not because this is the destination of our faith life, but so that we can be equipped and empowered to go “out there.” We tend to measure a church’s success by the prominence of the congregation, but faithful disciples can be found in any congregation. We tend to measure a church’s value by numbers at worship. But while a faithful disciple may be attending a mega-church in the suburbs, it’s just as likely that one is attending a tiny rural congregation that makes sure its elderly neighbors are regularly visited or that new immigrants have food to eat. We tend to measure a church’s worth by the power its members hold. Yet faithful disciples can be among the titans of commerce AND among the unemployed who volunteer to help homeless people or underprivileged children, serving others in just as much difficulty (if not moreso) than they are.
My friends, our effectiveness as disciples does not depend on our success according to the world’s standards. If we are working only to have the most prominent, well-attended, powerful congregation, then we are working toward the wrong goal; we are missing the point of what it is to dwell in God’s presence. The point is not to give glory to ourselves, but to give glory to God. And doing that requires no more than humbly being who we really are: salt and light.
If I may, let me be proud of my husband and the work of his church; let me lift up the congregation of East Ridge United Methodist Church again. Here is a church of humble people from East Ridge, and Ringgold, and Rossville. They are considered in United Methodist circles to be a “medium-sized” church, though with about 100 in worship attendance, they barely squeeze into that category. They are behind in their budget this year, like so many churches spending more than has been brought in, even as they skimp and save in every way possible. Still, when hundreds of poor, marginalized people found themselves unexpectedly without a home a little over a week ago, East Ridge United Methodist stepped up to the plate, in a BIG WAY. And their work, together with the support of you, and other individuals and churches around the Chattanooga area has made, and continues to make, a big difference in the lives of these people.
If we fail to be true to God’s purpose for us, then what good are we to the world? If we dwell in this place, doing it the way we always have, what good are we to the world? If we bear the name of Christ but have lost our true essence as salt, then people stop seeing us as useful for anything, and the name of Christ is squandered. If we say we are followers of Jesus but have hidden Christ’s light under buildings, bureaucracy, and budgets, then we have robbed the world of God’s good gift.
Salt and light may not be the most glamorous elements in the universe, but they are undoubtedly worth more than silver and gold. They are life-giving and useful, needed by the whole world. What good are we if we have lost our saltiness? What good are we if we hide Christ’s light in this place? We come here for one day, one or two hours a week, not simply so that we can dwell here, but so that we can spend hundreds of hours out there!
My friends, it’s time for church to change. God’s presence is everywhere, and church can happen anywhere. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that Christ’s commission is to go into the world. So this is our call to action; be the salt, be the light! Be useful! Be who God made us to be. And you know what? If we can do that, lives WILL be changed, and God’s name WILL be glorified!