Once again this week, I had an experience that seems unique to this strange time of pandemic. I had planned to work on my sermon Monday and Wednesday; Friday I would make a recording for our Sunday worship video, and Sunday morning I would preach that sermon again for outdoor worship. On each of those days, we were likely to be at a different level of understanding with reference to Election Day. That was initially troubling to me, but I came around to thinking that regardless of the election outcome, my message to you would be the same.
I don’t have to tell you that we live in a time of great division. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait for all the yard signs to be removed this week so that we could stop identifying our neighbors by their party affiliation.
No matter who is elected, there will be a lot of people who are very unhappy, and among some of them, there will be the risk of angry and violent reactions. Sadly, there will also be the risk of verbal and physical violence perpetrated by people who have won.
I heard a friend say this week that elections are not a shortcut to justice. Which is one way of saying that we cannot rely upon any election outcome or political official to repair the brokenness of our country. We cannot expect any person or party to do this for us. We must do this work ourselves.
In light of this, people of faith need to put our trust not in the politicians, but in God. The wisdom from the Gospel that we’ll focus on today is Jesus’ words about salt and light. Jesus says:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?… “You are the light of the world… No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand… …let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Salt and light. Salt gives flavor and light shows the way. Jesus says people of faith do these things. His was not speaking to kings and priests, or presidents and senators, but to the regular people who gathered to hear his Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world,” he said. He knew they might be tempted to lose their saltiness or hide their light, and he warned them not to do that.
The same warning is a good one for us. The church feels to many like a small and shrinking institution, with less public influence than we once had. So, in the face of a divided culture, we sometimes find ourselves feeling powerless to help. But I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that we are uniquely positioned, here on a busy street corner in a regular neighborhood, to make a real difference in healing the divisions in our communities. So today, I’m going to encourage us to think about how, in the days ahead, how can we be the salt and light Jesus calls us to be as people who claim to follow him.
For preachers, there has been a lot of handwringing about what needs to be said this Sunday. Two weeks ago, I found myself on a call with three other local pastors talking about it. We were a reasonably diverse group. We serve congregations in Finneytown, Price Hill, Mason, and here in Hyde Park. Our congregations have varying levels of political diversity. But there were things we all agreed upon. One of them was a sense that this is not a week for us to preach at you—to tell you all about what we think or to share too much of our point of view. Maybe instead it’s a good week to invite you to think about some of the things we’ve been thinking about, and count on you to make some prayerful determinations of your own. So, for a part of the sermon today, I’m going to share three words—three ideas—that you might think about. These ideas can be applied in a variety of situations and they mean different things to different people. At some point, you might find that talking about these ideas helps to build a relationship with someone whose perspective is different from yours. But for today, I simply want to invite you to think about what these ideas mean to you.
The first idea is safety. Safety.
Pollsters ask people if their votes and preferences are driven by the economy, or the pandemic, or racial injustice. But I wonder if beneath each of those things and many others, is a basic desire we all have, for safety. Often, we think about “public safety” as something that is provided exclusively by law enforcement. But as a number of people, including police officers, have pointed out to me, the police are often not on the scene until something unsafe has already taken place. So, the creation of safe communities depends upon many other factors. Do people have jobs and the opportunity to secure and build wealth? Do they have a good place to educate themselves and their children, with the hope of improving their situation? Is there access to housing, and to physical and mental wellbeing? Do we know our neighbors, well enough to expect that they are looking out for us, and us for them? These are the kind of things that create a sense of safety in the midst of an uncertain world. I’d like to suggest to you that the church and its people can contribute to this sense of community safety. This is a way we can be salt and light.
The second idea I’d like to talk about is value. Value.
One of the things I notice is how much our culture tends to treat people like commodities, and not like children of God. Value is assigned these days based on how much you can contribute to the campaign. The stock market often seems to be the primary public indicator of whether or not people are thriving. The pandemic has highlighted the ways we often value our own preferences and pleasures over the safety of other people. And the pandemic has shown the great disregard we often have for people who we have started to call essential, but still aren’t really treating that way. And, so many of us, myself included, are tempted to write off and assign less value to people whose opinions are different than our own.
The church is home to a different story; a story that is better than the one I’ve been describing. It is introduced in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: every human person is created in the image of God. Every human person is created in the image of God, so there is nothing more valuable in the world than each other. Yet the culture in which we live says that so many other things are of more value than other people. The church can be a witness to the value of all human beings; regardless of their race or age, stock portfolio or lack of employment, or access to power. We can witness to this story together, and we can do it each of us in our own lives. This is a way we can be salt and light.
The third and final idea I’d like to invite you to think about is peace. Peace.
The Bible calls it shalom. We all want some more of that! As we talked about shalom on that call I had with my pastor friends, one of us remarked that shalom does not exist without struggle. The Hebrews had to wander through the wilderness in order to find their Promised Land. Jesus had his own wilderness journey as he prepared for his ministry and was still challenged and tested and opposed all the way to his death for his desire to share a better way of life. Even though many of us know these stories, when we talk about peace these days, so much of the time, we expect to get it by removing the struggles of life. We wish the people we disagree with would just go away. We imagine that there’s some fantasy land in which everyone will finally come to see that I’ve been right all along. We choose not to engage in the problems of the world because wouldn’t it be easier if everyone would just leave me be? God does want shalom for us, but not in the ways we might imagine at first. What does peace really look like, and how might you find it? What struggle might be necessary in order to get there? The church has a story to share about what shalom really looks like. This is a way we can be salt and light.
Safety. Value. Peace. These are ideas to think about—maybe in a way that could help us not to feel so helpless or powerless in the challenging days that lie ahead.
I said I would try not to preach at you, but I will suggest a few things that I believe may help us all in these difficult days.
Pray for our nation and its future, for days ahead that will certainly include struggle but that we hope will not turn to violence. Pray for people you may perceive to be your enemies, and for our church, and the ways we can be salt and light. Pray in the expectation that God may change something in you.
Keep in touch with one another, and with me, in these days when we are often apart. Write to me and call me and tell me what you need for me to know. Tell me how I can help our church to be salt and light in these days; and remember that I too am living through this pandemic with four little children and I’ll get in touch with you as soon as I can.
Value difference in our community. Remember to be gracious towards one another, especially when someone’s opinions might be different than your own. If our churches can only be blue or red, there’s little hope for the rest of the culture. Specifically: please be thoughtful in the ways you use social media. Teenagers are not the only ones who use it irresponsibly.
Last week a friend encouraged me to read a powerful short story by an author named Raymond Carver. It’s called A Small, Good Thing. In the story, a mother and father lose their young son, when he is hit by a car, walking to school on his birthday. Just three days before, the mother placed an order for his birthday cake, from a baker who struck her as a curt, unpleasant man.
When the mother and father come home from their marathon at the hospital, stricken by grief, they get countless calls from the baker, complaining about the cake they haven’t picked up. They owe him $16, and it is going stale. Are they going to pick it up? Filled with rage, they drive to the bakery in the wee hours of the morning and pound on the back doors, where they find the baker preparing goods for the day. They unleash all of their fresh grief upon him.
The baker slowly puts down his rolling pin he is holding in defense and asks them if they will please sit down. Clearing a spot for them, he begins to say how sorry he is, that God only knows how sorry he is. They sit together for a time, and the baker offers coffee and rolls he takes from the oven. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls,” he says. “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” They sit a while longer, and the mother and father listen as the baker begins to speak of “loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him…”, spending his life baking for the celebrations of others. (Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” in Cathedral, 1989)
In this story, three people make an unexpected connection, each out of their anger and grief. They feel something, together. It does not remove the deep sadness over what was, or the struggles that would come in the days ahead. But it is a small, good thing. And that is often how journeys toward healing begin.
In the days ahead, I pray that we will be honest about our own feelings, and aware of the feelings of others, and that we will find small, good things we can do to begin healing—to be salt of the earth, and light to the world. Amen.
New Revised Standard Version
Salt and Light
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 under foot.
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 lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.