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Salt & Light

Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20

On my recent trip to Israel and Palestine, one of those most transcendent and grounded moments was a short hike we undertook along the Abraham trail. This is a trail developed by Palestinian leaders and others in the region that, like the Appalachian trail, connects together a long route that can take you from present day Turkey to Egypt, tracing the path that Abraham might have taken in the Book of Genesis when God said, “Get up and go to a land that I will show you.” This leg was what travelers for thousands of years would have walked going between Jericho and Jerusalem.

For some of us, we know of this path because of Jesus’ famous - if not most famous - parable called the Good Samaritan. Responding to a question about who is my neighbor, Jesus told them about a man who left Jerusalem and started on his way to Jericho when bandits ambushed him, assaulted him, and left him for dead. A priest and Levite both walk by - religious men who knew God’s law - and leave the man for dead. But it is a Samaritan, an ethnic and religious group at odds with Jews in Jesus day, who stops, cares for the man, and takes him to an inn. Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor to the injured man in the story?”

As I took steps with my classmates along the route, enjoying a warm and bright day, I imagined how this story might have been heard to Jesus’ disciples - who knew this route well - had likely walked it in their lives several times, even with Jesus.

Our guide told us that the story wasn’t meant to imply that this route was unsafe - in fact, it was a path of high traffic with many merchants, people, and soldiers using it on a daily basis in Jesus’ time. The Romans had built and maintained it with , which you can see in our image, and develop an aqueduct system on the opposite side that carried water down to one of King Herod’s palaces outside of Jericho. The scandal of the story was not that this route was dangerous, although as I walked it I noticed how easy it would be for someone up to no good to hide among the rocks or watch from the top of the hill for someone to pick out an easy target. No, the scandal of the story was that a man was left for dead, and the first two people who passed by didn’t stop to help.

And the one who did stop was a supposed enemy.

I want you to hold this image as the backdrop to think about Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew this morning.

Jesus, continuing in this Sermon on the Mount, tells his followers and the gathered crowds on the Mount of Beatitudes, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt is one of the most important ingredients to a good meal. When I cook a steak or veggies on the grill at home, salt and pepper is often a good place to start. It accentuates and brings out the flavors already there. Salt does something chemically too - it preserves the moisture in your food, so even as it is grilled into deliciousness, your meal stays moist.

So, imagine salt that doesn’t do that - that doesn’t bring out flavors, that doesn’t keep the moisture in.

What would it even be good for? You’d toss it out with the trash, right?

Jesus calls his followers and the community of God to be salt, to bring flavor to their communities and to this world, to keep the good stuff in.

Then, Jesus continues- “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.”

As I spent time in Israel and Palestine, this mountainous landscape seemed just one vast series of valleys and hills. Even on the short hike we did, I became intensely aware of why hills are so often looked to for hope. Psalm 121 says:

“I look to the hills for help.
Where does my help come from?
It comes from the Lord.”

If you were a traveler and maybe in a part of the country you didn’t know, maybe lost, maybe running out of water, maybe getting deeper into the night, your hope would be to cross the next hill and see in the distance a light - the lanterns and fires of a city atop a hill, a destination, a place of sanctuary and safety.

But the “not so subtle” message of Jesus is the ludicrous idea that one could hide an entire city on a hill. It’s impossible. By its very nature, a city on a hilltop is vulnerable. It is visible to all.

Jesus asks the crowd to shine their lights in the same way - to glorify God through their actions, their love, their compassion for all to see.

For Jesus, this is the fulfillment of the law. He tells his curious crowds - he did not come to abolish God’s tradition; he came to fulfill it. Fulfill is the key word - to fill it with fullness. The Torah, the acts of divine power, the movement of God through history - Jesus’ ministry was the embodiment, a continuation of all that God has done and is doing and will do. His life - his passion for justice, his compassion for the wounded travelers, and his pronouncement of God’s favor - would reflect and amplify God’s law, not get rid of it.

Disciples then are not called to be less religious and less spiritual - we are called to be even more deeply connected to the fulfilling source of God’s love. More faithful than the Pharisees and scribes - who were intense and passionate and ready to argue about their faith.

- Are we ready to argue about our faith?
- Are we willing to stop on the Jericho road and help the wounded traveler?
- Are we willing to be salt and light?

What does this mean for us? What might this look like for us?

Today, we begin hosting a week of Warm Nights. We will provide meals, a safe place to sleep, showers, and support for over 30 neighbors who have probably experienced a good amount of getting beaten up by life and passed on by. I’m so proud of our church for our participation - along with other faith communities - in this powerful mission - and for our continued investment in the Day Center, Safe Haven, and Bridge of Hope. But I want to tell the truth - too many people don’t know about this, too many people in our county and in our communities, too many of our neighbors don’t see our lights shining with this work to care for wounded neighbors.

I’ve had at least four conversations this week where I got to tell other people about my faith journey and what my church is doing to make a difference.

Some of them have said, “Hmmm… I wish I had grown up in a church like that.”

What would happen to our neighborhoods and our communities if we all went out this week and let our light shine - telling others what God was doing, what we were doing, how our faith in Jesus leads us to care for our neighbors? What if we invited them to join in?

Jesus’ invitation to be salt and light isn’t to be salt and light over and against others - it’s not a competition. It’s not trying to be saltier than the church down the street nor is it shining in such a way that we blind those around us. But it is being visible - it is living in such a way that those around us will miss us deeply when we are gone… That our neighbors will know we stand for something. That we know the way to sanctuary, and we will walk with them and even stop to care for them when life leaves them shattered.

So, I ask two things of you this week:

- Tell someone - a co-worker, a neighbor, a family member, a stranger - about Warm Nights, about what we are doing as a church, about what God is doing in your life. Find out what they are doing, and if they aren’t doing anything, invite them to help with us.
- Stop for someone you find on the road this week. They don’t have to be broke down on the actual road to need help. But God will put someone in your path. Stop. Notice them. Be a neighbor. Be a light.

Right now, our country is a mess. Impeachment hearings ended. We are in the full swing of another bruising election campaign. There is uncertainty. There is normalization of awful behavior. There is deep, deep division. There is so much anger. I don’t have a solution, except this:

The world does not need more Christians who retreat from the mess around us - we need more Christians who live deeply and committed as peacemakers, bridge builders, and lovers of their enemies.

Hannah Jones, editor of the recent 1619 Project from the New York Times, reflected in an interview on the Stephen Colbert show this week that when the Founders penned the Declaration of Independence, they began with this phrase - “All men are created equal.” Unfortunately, those beautiful and challenging words were not fully embodied in that time with the enslavement of African people, at the very least. And yet, Hannah says, so many black leaders read those words, that all men are created equal, and believed it was true and began the long and continued struggle to push our country into the fulfillment of those words. They dared ask more of this country - asked whether our salt was really salt and our light was really light. We Christians are being asked to work toward the same fulfillment of those words... today.

Jesus asks more of us. Are we really salt? Are we really light?

I know you. I know me. Even on our worst days, I believe we are. So, let’s share it.

Thanks be to God.

(posted February 9, 2020)

Praying in the New Year

Download the attached file to guide your prayer in this New Year. And let us know if you have any questions or feedback about this simple resource.

(posted January 29, 2020)

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Draw Close to God's Heart

Scripture: John 1:10-18

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


My kids and I love to talk about the movies we see, and a few months ago, I told them this bit of wisdom I had learned somewhere that all movies and stories ever made have two basic plots:

  • Someone goes on a journey.

OR

  • A stranger comes to town.

And when you think about it, it kind of holds up.

Sometimes, the kids and I sit around and talk about our favorite movies and classify them in one of those two categories:

  • A movie like Rise of the Skywalker about Rey, a Jedi Warrior, who goes on a journey to find the hidden base of the evil bad guy. (No Spoilers)
     
  • Or a movie like Knives Out about a detective, a stranger, who steps into the lives of a dysfunctional family to solve a misdemeanor mystery.

Now there might be movies that break the mold, but we probably don’t have one that comes to mind right away. Who would want to watch a movie about a hero who stays at home watching TV all day?

Both plots suggest something happens - change unfolds, either from the outside or from characters going to a place they have never been before.

One of our favorites captures both - Princess Bride. A masked man who goes on a journey to rescue his true love. His refrain is as you wish - which really means I love you.

But to shift gears a little bit, I’m curious - what plot fits your life right now in this New Year? Are you prepared to embark on a journey into the unknown, or has a stranger showed up and knocked your world upside down?


Today on this Epiphany Sunday, we transition from Christmas and celebrate God’s light in this New Year. This is a day when we sometimes think about the wise ones, magi, astrologers, who go on a journey, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to pay homage to the King of the Jews, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. But this is also day when we think about and sit with the incredible gift that is the Light of God come into our midst through Jesus, a child who came like a stranger into an insignificant family’s life in a tiny remote village far away from the thrones of power, and by doing so brought upheaval to his world and our world.

In some way, both of those basic kinds of stories line up with the gospel story about Jesus.

The Gospel tells us God says to us - as you wish!

In our scripture from John 1, verse 10 and 11, Jesus is described like a stranger who shows up out of the blue:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

Especially in the light of recent events among anti-semitic violence against Jewish neighbors, I recognize this scripture passage is confusing. For far too long, Christians used verses like these to justify harassment and violence against Jews - that our Jewish neighbors rejected Jesus or were responsible for Jesus’ death. But let me be clear - we sin when we use and abuse scripture to justify any kind of harm against anyone.

A better understanding of this scripture is that Jesus was rejected just like so many prophets are - rejected especially by those who are powerful, those who prefer status quo, those who only later begun to understand the what his life meant.

Jesus was the stranger - and only after the people thought they had lost him, even some of his own disciples, did they realize who he truly was.

In verse 14, John describes the most epic of journey stories:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Numerous theologians remind us that the Greek words could literally be translated to “pitched a tent among us”. God came and walked the earth in human form, just like we walk it. Most religions - and lots of Christian conversation - is about getting to heaven, getting to where God is. And yet, God’s movement through Jesus appears to be in the opposite way. While we want to get up there, God is risking everything to go on an adventure to be among us, to walk through a beloved Creation.

That’s a divine journey!

Both of these movements, God as pilgrim and stranger in our midst, are grounded in grace - and it’s why we look forward to Christmas, why we celebrate the presence of God in our midst on Epiphany, why we journey with Jesus to the cross, and why we are perplexed and confused by the Risen Lord among us on Easter.

  • Jesus is that stranger waiting to be discovered by us - through prayer, worship, and reflection - through our service among those who are suffering, our care of our neighbors and family. When we find Jesus, our world changes. Our lives change. We might experience a complete 180 in our life, like Saul who was even given a new name and vocation after meeting Jesus. Or like the Canaanite woman who cries out for Jesus to hear her pleading, experiencing a sudden, unexplainable healing for our family and a generous welcome into the abundant grace of God.
     
  • Jesus is also that one who invites us to get up and go to a land we may not know, to do something different and new, to let ourselves be stretched and vulnerable. Even as a church, Jesus says, come and follow me. And that journey, if we dare risk it, will transform us. We are like those disciples, scattered to the ends of the earth after Jesus gives the Great Commission. According to church legend, some, like St. Thomas, even went as far as India to proclaim Jesus as Lord.

What’s clear and I affirm powerfully from our scripture is that when people met Jesus, they felt close to God’s heart. Jesus was not a stranger who brought misery to those he met, except perhaps those set on causing harm to God’s beloved - when people saw Jesus, they felt close to the very presence of God. And out of that experience, they sought to share this light to others.

And Jesus encouraged it, saying - “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”


This has only become more real to me as I prepare to board a plane to Israel and Palestine for the next 11 days. I will join a group of clergy and colleagues to visit Holy Sites, be in deep conversation, seek to understand the conflict, and tread on the ground where Jesus and his disciples walked. Please pray for us!

And we go right now as it seems like our country is poised to extend and deepen existing conflict, already when we have been at wars for years in Afghanistan so much so that we sort of stop thinking about it, when even here in the US anti-semitic attacks remind certain groups of people that they are not safe, when our polarization and distrust are as high as they have ever been…

I shared in my blog post on the website this week that I was hopeful that this New Year would bring a change, and so far, I am not impressed.

And yet, as one who has experienced the Light of Christ, I am asking myself - how can I let my light shine before others?

I am going on this trip in hopes that I will find Jesus over there - to walk those ancient paths where he and his disciples walked - to find hope buried in the midst of conflict, walls, oppression, and fear. To find Jesus in the eyes and stories of strangers, who are in all things trying to be faithful. And maybe bring back some clues to share with you all…

But in truth, we are all on that journey in this New Year - we are all being asked, how will you let your light shine before others?

How will we, University Christian Church, let our lights shine in a time of division and anger and injustice?

How will we let our lights shine in opposition to more conflict and more war?

How will we let our lights shine among our Jewish neighbors and Muslim neighbors and our non-religious neighbors, revealing the grace and love of God?

How will we let our lights shine enough that this community, our families, each of us will experience the fullness of God’s grace and glory, right here and now?

In one of our readings for the trip, Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker leader, shared about her own experience of walking with Jesus and finding Jesus even in her enemies. She suggests that “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” are not that dissimilar, quoting GK Chesteron who wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” For Jean, who struggles to advocate for freedom and justice for her Palestinian people and the Palestinian Christian community, it is agonizing and challenging to try to love those who seem intent on disrupting your lives for the worse. And yet - it is the journey that reveals our light - and God’s light. When we find the courage to listen, when we find the strength to resist the pessimism and war-mongering of our time, when we dare reach across boundaries, when we seek each day to honor the light of God in every stranger we met along this journey, we too draw close to God’s heart. We radiate with the light of our Risen Lord.

Maybe you need to go on a journey this year with God - into a new place, following Jesus and being stretched and transformed.

Maybe you need God to show up in flesh in your life - to walk with you, to disrupt your status quo, to shake things up.

May you be blessed in that new beginning today!

As a signal to begin this journey, I have a small gift for you to take with you. Your very own nugget of Frankincense. The wise ones journeyed from long distance to worship Jesus. This gift of Frankincense is a gift of fragrance. You can place it in your fireplace or in your grill - and the smoke will rise up like our prayers for each other and our world. I invite you to take it with you - hold it til you are ready - and then use it. As the smoke rises, as the fragrance fills your home, experience God’s presence. Welcome Jesus.

(posted January 5, 2020)

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