Sermon – 02/26/2023 – Everything, but That

Genesis 2:15-17

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Sermon Text

Limits are hard to accept. We always want to push against the things imposed upon us, and sometimes do so to our detriment. As we make our way up I-79, taking that long slow slog up to Morgantown, we face a continual desire to get there just a bit quicker. The signs tell us, 65 mph, 70 mph when we are lucky. Construction that constantly stalls us slows us to 55, but we are always looking to see if work is really being done that day so we can punch that gas pedal just a little harder. We seem to ignore that, even if we go 80 the entire way up to Morgantown, we will only save 4 minutes. We want to push against any limit, because we feel it will serve us better to do what we want than what is asked of us.

American culture is founded on this kind of rejection of limits. We began as a country because taxes were imposed on import businesses, and those with money and means wanted unlimited wealth, not metered income. That is shown in the radical independence of American culture. “Who cares what benefits those around me, as long as I get what I need? Who cares what I can do for my country, when it can do so much more for me? Neighbors? Who needs them, I want a house and a lawn, all as far away from the world as I can get it.” Rugged individualism, the idea that “greed is good,” it is as American as apple pie.

We pretend that our problems are new, that they are the result of generations younger than ourselves that have poisoned the future we have worked so hard for. However, the problem is much older, as is our tendency to blame anyone but ourselves for it. It goes all the way back to a garden planted at the source of all rivers, a garden with every good fruit and vegetable you could ever want, and a single tree that was off limits.

Scripture does not tell us what kind of fruit was on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We usually think of it as an apple, just because “Evil,” in Latin is “Malus,” which is the same word for apple – a bit of a literary confusion we never quite got over. However, whether it was pomegranates or apples or even something we have never dreamt of or seen, the fruit itself is far less important than what it represents. In chasing after that fruit, humanity was gaining knowledge of everything they could ever want to know, and in chasing that fruit, humanity gave up the joys of paradise they had once known.

The Garden is one of the stories in scripture that we can easily get wrapped up in the details of and miss the point of. Countless oceans of ink have been spilt justifying why God would plant a forbidden tree in the garden, and trying to explain why humanity would be given a choice so massive and dangerous as this to begin with. I’m uninterested in that kind of exposition. In my mind, the Garden and the tree tell a story that is played out eternally all around us, there are choices that we can make and when we make them poorly there are consequences.

We talked at length about the finality of choice just a few weeks ago, and we looked at how God gives us guidance to choose life again and again. It is important to point out that God also imposes limits to prevent us from making choices that would ultimately harm us as well. Despite attaining all knowledge they could ever want, no good comes to Adam, Eve, or the Serpent who mislead them. The serpent loses its limbs and becomes a slithering thing, robbed of intellect and now a beast like any other. The primordial couple meanwhile must face the reality of life outside of Eden, a world where childbirth is dangerous and where weeds are far more common than produce.

In our own life, the limits imposed on us by God take many forms. For one thing, there are restrictive commandments – things like do not steal, lie, or kill. For another, there are the human limitations imposed by our mortality. We cannot know everything, we cannot do everything, and while most of us get our three score and ten no one ever gets more than one hundred twenty years to sort their lives out. Limits abound all around us, and they are as frustrating as can be.

The writer of Ecclesiastes spends most of the book complaining about how limited life is. The seasons of pain cannot be seasons of joy, because God has ordained both for their set purposes. The waters from the ocean race back to the rivers to race back to the oceans. Life and death are always chasing after each other, and we have no control over what anyone does to our legacy once we die. God set a knowledge of eternity in our hearts, and yet has made us limited. For Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, there are few things as miserable as that.

Yet, on the other side of those frustrations, is an acknowledgment of the good that they can produce. The hard times are made bearable because they do have an end. The waters that constantly replenish one another sustain life. The legacy we leave may be out of our control, but we can work to enjoy what we have now, and set up a future where others can continue and enhance what we have begun. The life we live is limited, and that can be frustrating, but every limit can also impose a blessing if we are open to understanding the fullness it provides.

For the first humans the choice was between expulsion and continued presence in paradise. For us today, the issues are much more layered and sometimes not obvious. The teachings of Moses, for example, make sense if you are in an ancient agrarian community, but are sometimes hard to translate to our modern life. Do the teachings of Moses, then, only cover so much of what we now face? The prophets seemed to think so, as their own proclamations augmented and clarified these teachings in a different era. Even Jesus, the one who fulfilled and preserved all of Moses’s teachings, gives us new insight into the “Yes,” and the “No,” that God has given time and time again.

For us today, we are interpreters of scripture for a new era. We cannot answer questions the same way we always have. What does it mean to bear false witness in an era where it is easy to share falsehoods accidentally? What does it mean to build fences to protect people from accidental injury, not on the roof of a house, but in the way we build the world around us? How do we leave an ox unmuzzled as it mills grain, when we are no longer dependent on animals to produce our food like we once were?

Every generation is given unique opportunities to understand what God commands. We do so as limited people, people who easily can make mistakes and misinterpret what is set before us. Yet, we do so with an understanding that everything we want to be able to do, is not always what we ought to do. We want to have freedom in every aspect of our life, but we are reigned in from that for the good of all people. We do not horde, so that others can have what they need to live. We do not say whatever we want, however we want to,  because others are worthy of fair treatment and dignity. We do not get everything we want when we want it, because to do so we would have to exploit those around us and enforce an autocracy of the self.

The Church is known today as a place that tells the world what is shouldn’t be doing. So much so, that I think we often forget to represent what we as people of faith are called to do, rather than what we seek to abstain from. However, I think that we are also guilty of telling the world “No,” and ourselves “Yes.” When we want something, it is fair and reasonable, when we are asked to give something up it is the worst thing we could ever be asked to do. Today I invite us to be honest with ourselves, about the bad habits and behavior we tolerate in ourselves and put limits upon them. We must tell ourselves no sometimes, if we ever want to be better at saying “Yes,” to what God has for us. Learn to glory in limitation as well as in freedom and find that both have their place in God’s economy of goodness. – Amen.

Sermon 02/22/2023 – Ash Wednesday 2023

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

“And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sermon Text

There is always something different to lift up in Lent. Sometimes the simple idea that we can be better than we currently are, is worth remembering. Sometimes the emphasis can sit on the reminder that this life has an end and so our decisions matter. An infinite amount of lessons to be learned, all to be lifted up in the forty days that we call “Lent.” Yet, in the modern world I think that there is a lesson that might be more important than any other – the lesson of privacy in our devotions.

It is easy to share online, in-person, or simply to the void around us, all that we embark upon in our life of faith. Maybe we hope to inspire others to follow our example, maybe to keep ourselves accountable, or sometimes even to just look good and holy. Whatever the case, there is a real benefit that can come from us not sharing anything and everything we do, a holiness and joy that can come from privacy in our life. In an era when we can share, at any moment, our thoughts and feelings with infinite numbers of people, sometimes it is enough to simply do things and let nothing mark that they were done.

How holy would our world be if we kept our opinions to ourselves sometimes, rather than fight over every little detail. How blessed would life be if our failures and successes were sometimes between us and God, and not every follower we have on Instagram. How much mor honest might we be, if we were not always projecting our best selves to a world we imagine is judging our every moment. Perhaps, for this Lenten season, we should all work to give up some of the publicity we all have accepted as normal in our life. Let us embrace the prayers Jesus taught us to pray in secret, that we might in public focus only on living a good life, and not on what people may thing of us while we do so. – Amen.

Sermon 02/19/2023 – Dazzled by Reality

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Sermon Text

Reality is a beautiful thing. Despite our ability to dream up infinite worlds, and our love of fantasy and fiction, it is often hard to surpass the beauty of what is already around us. The beauty of the natural world, the wonders of the sky at night, and even the simple complexity of the bodies we live within – all of these can wow us without any embellishment. God too, in all the complexity and beauty of the divine, needs nothing additional to wow us. When we meet God, in moments of prayer or worship, or in the face of someone else, we see something raw, unfiltered, amazing in its own right.

Scripture, the record of people throughout the ages encountering God, likewise gives us beautiful and unfiltered glimpses of God’s beauty. The stories of God’s people facing hardships, and yet overcoming reflect our own difficulties. The visions of God’s brilliant being gives us words to describe our own glimpses of the divine. The teachings passed down for ages show us what it means to live as people of God, and to create a community worth bragging about. Time and time again, we are given things to be dazzled by. Yet, dear siblings, we are not always satisfied with the simple majesty of scripture.

In seminary we would sometimes joke that the hardest part of the classes we took was not anything to do with relearning how to read scripture or how to run a church. The hardest part was actually learning that many of the sermons we heard throughout the years told stories that were made up, or used images that had no basis in reality. Harder than any challenge to our faith that came from deep diving into the history of the Church and scripture, was facing the reality that a great many ministers were  not content to let scripture stand on its own, and so dressed it up with a variety of seemingly benign pleasantries. By decorating the pages of scriptures with flowery exposition, I think many ministers felt they were doing us a favor, but I disagree on its effect.

There are mountains of books and sermons that take scripture and dress up the bits that seem a bit barren. The warning from Jesus that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter heaven was too challenging, and seemed too abstract. Therefore, someone invented the idea that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the Eye of the Needle,” that required a camel be unloaded of its cargo before it could enter.[1] The image is meant to make people think of what they must give up to become holy, but it detracts from Jesus’s message – that something as impossible as a rich man entering Heaven is possible with God.

At a funeral for a colleague of mine, the preacher told a grand story about Cyrus the Great setting up a throne in town and asking random people what they would give up if he spared their life. The story was longer than it needed to be, and was meant to illustrate God’s love for the Church – that while a man would give up any object for his children, he would give his own life for his wife. The image led me to have several questions, mainly why the story would separate out what God would do for the Church and what God would do for the people in the Church, but also why it was necessary at all. Cyrus was a real person, Isaiah calls him a “Meshiak,” or “Messiah,” and he ended the Babylonian Captivity. Why tell this story, made up whole cloth, and confuse what history and scripture has to say about a very real person?[2]

These serve purposes for instruction, sure, but they pollute our understanding of what is real and what is not. This past Christmas I was introduced to a set of teachings about how Jesus was laid in a manger because that is how unblemished lambs for sacrifice were kept safe. I saw this shared by other ministers no less, and when I spent just ten minutes looking into it, I saw it was not true. Some may say, “Who cares! It is a good story and it gets the point across.” But I care very deeply, for a multitude of reasons, and I think we all should.

You see, truth is a fragile thing. Just one word spoken improperly can destroy it in an instant. Think of the times in your life where a rumor has gone out of control. All it took was one person saying something carelessly, or intentionally to deceive. Soon you have people calling you asking about evils you never committed and things you have never said. Even when the dust settles and the truth is theoretically made known to the world, those rumors will linger in the back of people’s minds, forever mixed in and entangled with the truth. Truth is a fragile thing, because the second we start adding to it, it ceases to be a thing we can call, “true.”

We’ve talked before about my love of debunking conspiracy theories and mysteries. That love is not just because I’m weird and therefore have weird hobbies, but because I am infatuated with the preservation of truth. I was criticized by a colleague of mine for suggesting that there is no benign conspiracy theories. I believe that because the moment we deny truth in any form, we make it easier to accept the next lie we are given. Looking back, I wish I had fought harder against that criticism, because more and more everyday I stand by the idea that anything but absolute truth is a dangerous thing to hold onto.

Our scripture today shows the disciples meeting truth in a way they had not before. They climbed the mountain of transfiguration and saw Jesus take on, just for a moment, the glory that he would have in his resurrection. This was not an addition to who Jesus was, per se, but a lifting of the veil to show what Jesus had always been. The God-man who could say, “Before Abraham was, I am,” shown out in that moment as our human eyes were not yet equipped to see.[3]

I think that it is important that we study as much as we can about scripture, and understand the history the underpins the beliefs we hold about it. However, if in the pursuit of understanding, we begin to create a false scaffold around our beliefs that makes them easier to handle, then we can never really see the glory they hold for us. Like we talked about last week, God did not put scripture far away from us, but put it in front of us all to wrestle with and understand. Those who proclaim they have secret knowledge or know some obscure bit of history that “unlocks,” scripture, are probably misguided themselves or lying for clout.

The greatest wonders that come from God are seen because God is never hiding from us. God is always showing us more, always opening doors that used to be closed. There is no need for us to dress up the reality around us, because it is dazzling on its own. Peter wanted to build tents for those that appeared on the mountain that day because he had added to the story he was seeing unfold in front of. He believed Moses and Elijah were not just there to speak to and encourage Jesus, but were worthy of tabernacles to house them. He added to what was happening, He decided that this was something other than it really was. Ironically enough, by building these tents, he would have hidden the beautiful thing in front of them.

We too can decide if we will hide the beauty and glory of God. We can try and make beautiful what is already radiant, but when we do so we will just be carpeting over hardwood, hiding beauty in convenience. We must defend truth, we must preach it unfettered, and that requires us to let ourselves be dazzled by reality as it is, and not as we might invent it.

[1] This myth is very old, likely dating to or before Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. See –
Ziemińska, Agnieszka. “The Origin of the ‘Needle’s Eye Gate’ Myth: Theophylact or Anselm?” New Testament Studies 68, no. 3 (2022): 358–61. doi:10.1017/S0028688521000448.

[2] I can find no particular origin to this quote, except that it is used in too many sermons. It may be rooted in a book of Sermon illustrations from 1986, but the illustrations contained there-in are probably older.

[3] John 8:58

Sermon 02/12/2023 – Two Ways Forward

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall certainly perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

Sermon Text

One of the most common images we see in literature is that of the crossroads. There was a time when the meeting of two roads marked something profound. Down one path would be an entirely different world than another. They were places of business and of decisions. They were deeply spiritual, with spirits both good and bad lurking around their thoroughfares. Thieves could lurk here to make sure that they would meet their mark, and good Samaritans could likewise find those to help. At the nexus of one thing and another, the imminent moment of choice, it was there that magic could happen.

In life, we often look back on the choices we make with a feeling of bittersweet wonder. Did we make the right choice way back when? Were we meant to live the life we are living now, or was something better down a road we never took? Sometimes those alternate worlds we imagine are small, “What would have happened if I had gotten a Subaru instead of a Ford.” Other times they are much bigger, “What if I had never lived all those years chasing after the approval of someone who would never give it to me?” The reality of these past decisions is, of course, that they cannot be undone. Unlike the roads we drive on every day, there are no exits we can take to go back the way we came.

Recently driving to my friends in Vinton, Virginia, we crossed by a town called “Crow.” For miles, we kept getting a dire warning. “Crow, West Virginia. No Eastbound reentry.” If we were going to go to Crow, we were not going to make it back to where we came from. Life is like that, the choices we make are locked into time the second we make them. When we think of how final every decision we make really is, it is amazing that we ever go into anything without careful consideration. We can never take back the words we say. We can never undo the things we have done. Even if the damage can be repaired, the action itself will be locked in forever.

I think that reality scares us more than most things. The entire genre of time travel stories showshow much we want to have life be able to be redone. We want to be able to fix the damage of the past, to make everything better than it once was. Back to the Future despite being about fixing a timeline that has somehow gone wrong, captures the protagonist making his life better through his meddling with time. Countless episodes of Doctor Who, likewise show its titular character going through history and saving people from tragedies. We imagine for a moment that something as dire as Pompei or the Titanic could have had even a few more people saved than actually were. We want more than anything to turn back the hands of the clock, to save what is lost. Time is not our friend though, and a decision once made cannot be unmade.

The reality of this is dire, and our scripture sets a similar situation down in front of us. Israel is gathered together across the Jordan, Moses gives one final message to the people he has led for decades. The generation that suffered in the wilderness is dying away, and now their children and grandchildren are going to inherit the land promised to them so long ago it feels like an eternity. Moses summarizes the teachings he has given across their journey, and he asks them to reflect on what the wilderness has meant. Every triumph and every mistake is laid out before them, and a central truth is made plain. Choices have consequences, and what has been done cannot be undone. The people who left Egypt cannot enter Canaan because of what they did in the wilderness, and neither could Moses. The choices of the past had solidified the life that they were living now. However, the way forward could still be changed, if not for them then for their children, if they can make the right choice.

I have two stories to tell you – one a riddle and the other more philosophical – as a point of contrast for the choices we are given in this scripture. The first is a riddle. Two doors are put before you, one leads to an escape from the room you are in, the other will tumble you into a pit. Two guards stand there, one who only tells the truth and another who only tells lies. You are given a single question to determine which door is correct, and you cannot take back that question or your final choice of doors. What question would you ask?[1]

Put another way, Frank Stockton tells a story where a rich man seeks to keep his daughter from getting married. He has a gift for matchmaking, and anytime is accused of a crime, he finds their perfect match and has them stand behind a door. Behind the other door, a tiger sits. The choice is simple for the criminal, pick a door and either find perfect bliss or immediate death. One day a youth is given this choice, not for a crime, but because of something that gives him an advantage. The man’s daughter is in love with the youth, and knowing the answer to the doors, tells him which he should pick ahead of time. Stockton interrupts the story before it concludes and asks us a question of our own. Would this woman, facing the loss of her one true love, tell him to go to a door where he can live happily with another woman, or tell him to open a door that would kill him, but keep him as her love and her love only?[2]

This tends to be what we imagine when we think of crossroads. There is a right answer and a wrong one, and everything is conspiring to have us pick the wrong one. Perhaps that is out of the selfishness of the person who has given us that choice, or because of the ambiguity that life naturally carries within itself. Either way, we worry if we have made the right choice, because it is not always obvious which way we should go.

Even with good guidance, there are moments where we will not know the right way to go immediately. Sometimes what is good, best, and right are different things. Imagine that you could save someone’s life, but to do so you would have to lie. You are bearing a sort of false witness, but in preserving a life, a greater good is being accomplished than by telling the truth. Withholding help to someone who is better served by someone else can be hard, but sometimes an incomplete act of kindness is an enemy to recovery and goodness. Life can be hard, and decisions harder, but we need to be careful making them, because once we do, that is locked in, in a moment we cannot take back.

So, where does the hope come in? We now are thoroughly aware of how hard life can be, but how can we relax? The anxiety of making choices is heavy on us already, what relief can we enjoy? Siblings in Christ, we are blessed more than most in this. Moses gave this dire warning long ago, but he did not give it without hope underlying the whole thing. The past is gone, the choices we made final, but the road ahead is still open to us. It is never too late to choose life, and the choices we make are not hidden in deception in the way our riddles were. I have hidden what Moses said before this dire warning until now, but hear these words of hope from verses 10-14.

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

God, in God’s mercy, has given us all we need to make decisions we can be confident in, if only we are willing to stick to the teachings we have been given. God did not hide the truth, but brought it down to us. We do not have to fly to Heaven or dig deep into the earth to find it, it is right here with us. We have an advantage even above Moses, even above the one who met God face to face. Christ, who came and lived among us, showed us what a life of perfect choices could look like. It was not easy, it was probably harder than it would have been otherwise, but it was a good life. When Christ left us, the Spirit remained with us. It lodges in our heart, and it offers us a way to be that is better than what we could ever find on our own.

We will not always make the right choices in life, but we have to own each one that we do make. We must be confident that we did all we could to do what is right. Likewise, the choices that we made long ago have to be something we can forgive ourselves for, because we cannot change what has already transpired. What matters, in our ministries, in our relationships, in every part of our life, is that we are moving forward and choosing life now. We have the guidance of God with us, we have nothing to fear from anything or anyone, if only we can own our choices here and now.

Blessed are we, as children of God, that we can charge forward unafraid. When we come to difficult choices, we must be careful and give them the care and attention they deserve, but we do not have to be paralyzed with fear. We have the people of God around us to support us. We have the scriptures to inform us. Most of all, we have the Spirit of God within us to comfort and transform us. There are many crossroads in this life, and we must make a decision between the two ways forward we are presented with. Praise God that we are never left to make those decisions alone, and that God is always ready to help us more and more. – Amen.

[1]  Smullyan, Raymond (1978). What is the Name of this Book?. Prentice-Hall.

[2] Frank R. Stockton “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in The Century. 1882

Sermon 02/05/2023 – Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20

“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 under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sermon Text

 In the past few years, the importance of salt has stood out to me. We often talk about how the ancient world valued salt, it being necessary for food and worship and medicine, but it is not as if we stopped having a need for salt today. Food without salt is just not worth eating, we need the sodium to wake up our taste buds. Our roads are not usually coated with rock salt, instead having calcium chloride or some other tri-atomic salt, but sea salt has more than just sodium and chlorine in it, so I’ll call “salt”, “salt” in this case. We still use salt, we still need salt, the only thing that gets strange about Jesus’s metaphor here, is that salt is usually good as long as you keep it dry in a cupboard.

What can we take from this idea of “salt that has lost its saltiness,” is useless? What does it mean for a person to suddenly become “less salty.” Today, we use the term “salty,” to mean irritable or bitter, but Jesus is talking about living a good life as being “Salted,” properly. In truth, I think Jesus is a victim of the metaphor in use, the expression does not translate well from one language to another. Jesus does not say here that salt can become less salty, but that it can become “foolish.” In fact, the word he uses here is the same one as we used a few weeks ago to talk about God, “making foolish,” the wisdom of the world.[1]

Mixed metaphors are something we all accidentally run into now and again. You start out saying that the road was twisting like a snake and then somehow wrap it around to a different image of knotted rope or something and before you know it, everyone is just a little confused what you were going for. I do not know if Jesus is caught in a similar issue, where in trying to be relevant he picks salt as an image, but then realizes that does not quite work for the topic, or if Greek audiences ever used “foolish,” to talk about inanimate objects and we just do not have the records of it.

Either way, if we think of ourselves as salt, an important thing in the world, and then think of how easily we can become “foolish,” then maybe the parable can snap in a bit more concretely. Jesus too seems to understand that this parable needs to be built up a bit more. “You are like salt, if you are not salty enough, then you cannot be made more salty… Well, let me try saying it a different way, if you have a light then hiding it away wouldn’t be helpful. In the same way, if God gave us Jerusalem to be a place of goodness and life, then how can it be anything but that. Therefore, make sure you are acting like the good people of faith you claim to be.”

Light and visibility generally are easier to grapple with than saltiness. Jesus does this several times in his teachings, it is what good teachers will try to do as often as possible. By giving the same idea in three or four different ways, more people are likely to get it than if only one version of the message was attempted. I struggle with getting a good metaphor off on the first try. Grace makes fun of me for this, because in attempting to explain something I will often get more obscure than where I started. So if we are watching Doctor Who, or some other time travel story, I might say, “Oh, of course it’s like the Tralfamadorians.” And then I get blank stares as I then realize, not everyone has read Slaughterhouse-Five, so then I go to Bill and Ted, which is maybe a bit better, but only one more person knows what I meant, and then… It just degrades from there.

Jesus is a better teacher and storyteller than we are, thankfully, and so those second images make clear what Jesus is talking about. Salt, light, a city, all are things that have uses. Salt for food, light for illumination, and a city to be a place of community. If any of those things fail to be what they are meant to be, then they have no purpose. The final one makes a stronger point than the other two. Lamps that do not light a room are useless, and salt that does not salt is even more so, but one could claim to prefer bland food or a dark room. A city though, has to be a city, it cannot stop being what it is. In the same way, Christians cannot choose some days to be good and some days to be evil, we have to always be a city on the hill.

Jesus goes further. The people who teach you to be good, the scribes and pharisees, people Jesus elsewhere says to listen to, we have to be better than them. Jesus is very critical of the leadership of his day, as any prophet must be, but he does call them heirs to the “seat of Moses.”[2] It is easy for us to hear Jesus’s teaching as, “Be better than hypocrites,” but he is saying be better than the people society accepts as good. For me in my role as minister, I try to do well and be good in all things, but my hope is that you all exceed me in all goodness. As Jesus says here, the people in authority are often held up as benchmarks, things to aspire to, but Jesus says we must only aspire to be perfect, and in that aspiration overcome even those who teach us what it means to be good.

As Christians, and especially Protestants, we do not like being told to do things. Faith saves us, so why do anything else? If the transaction for my soul is complete, then why go above and beyond in being good? It is so much a concern of the Church, that our articles of religion address works of “supererogation,” that is, works above what is required. “I have my faith, I have my Church, I send my tithe. What more is required of me?” The answer, to spoiler the game, is “Everything.” Our Articles of Religion ban works of supererogation because there is no such thing.[3] When the goal is “Be thou perfect,” anything less than that is not too much, it is always lacking.[4] We are called, not to salvation by works, but as saved people to do the work before us.

Jesus says our righteousness must be exceptional because we are the visible part of Christ on earth. We are the city on the hill, the world is looking and they will judge how we act. We must act in goodness, we must do more goodness than we might thing is required of us, and we must be willing to take a few hits in the name of what is right. We are to be useful people, not as our primary existence, but as an outpouring of the grace we have been given. Jesus is very careful in his teaching, the person who fails this mission is not excluded from God’s kingdom, they still have a seat, but the joy they have will be lessened by their inability to understand what is good. They will be called, “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I always talk about this life, not as a test or a trial to be overcome, but an opportunity to learn. We can learn to love as Christ did, to serve as Christ did, and to know our limitations and need for rest as Christ did. We can engage in all goodness and joy, but only with practice. It takes time to get good at being good, sometimes a person’s entire life is spent just learning how to not be quite so fussy with the people they see every day. We have people we call Saints for a reason, they figure it out long before the rest of us do. They are the salt and light that shines a way for the rest of we wayward souls.

Whether we think of this call in terms of salt, or light, or as a visible and inescapable reminder of who God is, it is a call we all have. To excel in goodness, to exceed the lessons that were taught to us by those who came before us, and in all things to be the body of Christ to all the world until Christ returns in final victory. We do this through Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and within this Holy Church, we stand and testify as the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. – Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1; from the root μωρός where we get the modern, “Moron.”

[2] Matthew 23:2

[3] Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church. Article XI

[4] Matthew 5:48