Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Jay’s Final Sermon at Holy Trinity.

Today we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus teaches his followers shortly after beginning his public ministry. The Gospel according to Matthew, the 5th chapter.

Jesus said, “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 reign of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the reign of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.

I’ve been asked a few times what I will miss most about being pastor here at Holy Trinity. The list to choose from is long. I’ll miss worship on Sunday mornings, the feeling of community as we gather around Word and Sacrament, and especially the strong hymn singing I hear behind me from my spot in the front row. I’ll miss connecting with each of you after worship and the wide variety of conversation topics we’ve covered in the narthex and Community Room, from commiserating about a Twins baseball game to hearing about a serious health concern. Thank you for sharing your lives with me. I’ll miss the people I have had the privilege of working with on a daily basis—Pastor Ingrid, David, Ann, Meghan, Vicki, Nolan—and the laughter, the prayerful reflection, and the creative planning we have shared while sitting around that old, green, office workroom table. In fact, I’ll miss that table itself and how it seems to magically produce cookies, doughnuts, and other treats on an almost daily basis—though my cholesterol may be better off now. I’ll miss spending time with the youth, including thoughtful confirmation discussion and winter retreats and summer trips and listening to the kids talk in the back of the van when they didn’t think I could hear them. I could hear you guys. I’ll miss the stories I hear in the neighborhood when people find out I’m a pastor here and they tell me how they have been touched by Holy Trinity’s ministry. There are many things I’ll miss.

But as I’ve thought long and hard about the question, I think what I’ll miss most about being a pastor here is how this community of faith has consistently—week after week and even day by day—helped to orient me toward the needs of others. That has really been a great gift. As people of faith, we are set free by the good news of God’s grace to serve others and all of creation, but we need each other to do it. We need reminders from one another about what we’re to be about. We need the support and encouragement from one another to persist in faithful service. You are a community that persists in the search for justice, inclusion, and peace for all of God’s children, without exception. And I am grateful.

You’ve challenged me to grow in my own awareness and understanding of matters of social and environmental justice. You’ve influenced my preaching and teaching through the conversations we’ve had at Bible studies or dialogue events. And your faithfulness in this way has been with love—for God, for one another, for our neighbors beyond these four walls, and for me. Even as I prepare to leave this congregation, I have been touched by your support and love for me and my family. Thank you. Kristen and I will always treasure what we have shared together with you these past nine years.

I find it especially appropriate that we have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks in worship because it is such an important description of the kind of community that Jesus forms among his followers. It even serves as a kind of mission statement for congregations like ours. (The lectionary often has a way of providing what I need to hear.) In this crucial chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has called his followers together. Before anything else he blessed them, each one of them, no matter the circumstances of their lives. Some were mourning, some were meek, some were hungry and longed for justice. They may have felt insignificant, but Jesus said that in God’s eyes they were indeed blessed. They were valued and deeply loved. This is a message that I hope you, too, have heard weekly as you’ve come to worship in this place. You are loved. You are a treasured child of God, each one of you. You are set free from any messages the world gives you that you do not measure up because in Christ God says that you are enough.

With divine love and grace, Jesus blessed his followers. Then, like Moses, he went up the mountain. He invited them to come up the mountain with him away from the rest of the crowd to teach them about what that blessing will mean for them. He reminded them that God had a purpose for them, a dream for what they would be and do in the world, not only for their sakes for their neighbors, too. He reminded them to keep the commandments of God, even exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now, despite the criticisms we hear in the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees were good and well-intentioned people. We shouldn’t make caricatures out of them. They did their best to follow God’s commands, and it wasn’t just so that they could puff themselves up and assert their superiority over others. That’s not their motivation. We need to understand the context in which they lived. Their primary question was how they could remain as God’s faithful people even when living in exile or occupied by a foreign power. How do you keep your spiritual identity in the context of a powerful empire? This was a valid, very real concern. So they studied and discussed and debated with one another faithfully in order to preserve their identity as God’s people.

This was the right question for them to be asking, it seems to me. Let’s give them some credit. In fact, I think it is wise for us to ask the question of ourselves, too.

No, as God’s church today in this society, we do not live in exile or under foreign occupation, but we do live with the influence of a whole host of powers. How do we live as God’s faithful people in the face of consumerism, nationalism, and militarism? How do we follow Christ when institutional racism is in the air we breathe, when a fear of other cultures and religions is broadcasted every day, when misogyny seeks to silence women’s voices? In such a context, we need to turn to God’s word for us and study, discuss, and debate with one another faithfully. Not every word of scripture is relevant for our day and age, but God has intentions for this world God loves so much. God’s commands are a gift for us, helping us to follow the path that leads toward life for all people, without exception. At root of these commandments is love of God and love of neighbor. That’s our guiding principle in our discernment of God’s call to us today.

Jesus calls us to reclaim the intention of God’s commands for us, as the prophets taught it: to love God and to love our neighbors. Where the scribes and Pharisees may have gone wrong is that they stopped with just trying to preserve personal holiness, but Jesus asks us to go beyond that. There may be a natural tendency in all of us to try to remain faithful and righteous without disrupting those powers that exist around us and seek to influence daily life. We might try to keep to ourselves and just work on our personal piety. However, the reign of God cannot avoid being subversive. The light of Christ cannot be hid under a bushel basket but is intended to be visible to all. It’s going to catch the attention of others, and Jesus is honest with his followers about that from the very beginning.

I have seen you exceed the scribes and Pharisees in this way by publically proclaiming and living the gospel in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others. You do not hide your light under a bushel. You make it visible for all to see.

There’s an Old Testament scholar I like a lot by the name of Walter Brueggemann. You may have heard me quote him once or twice. In a sermon at Central Lutheran years ago, he described the gospel message in a way that has stuck with me ever since. The gospel, he said, the treasure of the Church, which is meant to be visible to all and shared with the world is

forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;

generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;

hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;

justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.

It is the old, old story, he said, of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!

And then he went on. Brueggemann said, “this is the truth about the gospel: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one!”

This is why I am grateful you, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. And though I’m leaving, I won’t really miss it because you will continue to share this treasure with the world. You are a congregation of disciples—along with many throughout Christ’s church on earth—committed to proclaiming God’s liberating love, without excluding anyone. Thanks be to God for you and for God’s ongoing, life-giving mission for the world. Amen.

Advertisements

You Are salt. You Are Light. (Jay’s sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany)

 

Matthew 5:13-20

 

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. 16 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.

 

 

 

I learned something about baptism this week. A friend of mine, another Lutheran pastor, told me that when infants are baptized at his church, someone presents the child with a lit candle and quotes Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world,” or “Let your light so shine before others,” just as we do. But then there’s another part of the baptismal rite in his church. Near the font they keep a small shell filled with salt. And after the baptism, my friend dips his finger in the salt and touches it to the baby’s tongue. Accompanying that act is the reminder to the newly baptized, “you are the salt of the earth.”

 

My friend’s congregation did not invent that little ritual; it has existed in certain Christian baptismal liturgies for centuries. It also has some precedent, I understand, in Jewish blessing ceremonies for infants, which Jesus may have been familiar with. It makes sense that salt would be part of religious ceremonies. Salt is precious. It is valuable for its taste and its preserving properties. It is essential for our bodies and adds to the enjoyment of our food. Like light, the other image that Jesus uses today to describe his followers, salt serves an important function on this planet for the flourishing of life. These two metaphors together—salt and light—remind us that the mission of the church, the mission into which we baptize, serves the whole world.

 

You are salt. You are light. This is a promise from Christ. We do not say to children at the font, and Jesus doesn’t say to us today, “You should be salt and light.” For all you English majors out there, the tense is indicative, not imperative. It describes what already exists, not just what we ought to become. By the promise spoken to you at baptism, you are salt and light. By your presence here today, you are salt and light. You are already like the disciples who left the crowd and followed Jesus up the mountain. You have heard his teaching and his description of God’s reign in the world. You are part of his community of followers.

 

Just remember, however, that the point of salt and light isn’t just in its being but in its use, the purpose for which it exists. Sure, salt will still be salt if it just stays in the kitchen cupboard. Light is light even if covered by a bushel basket. But neither is meant to be kept there. And like salt and light, you too are meant to be visible.

 

For some of us, this idea goes against our sensibilities. Some of us have lived since childhood with the strong influence of either culture or personality to be humble, unassuming, and not to toot our own horns. Part of this mentality is theological, too. We keep our good works to ourselves and would never boast in them.

 

But while God does not need our good works, our neighbors most certainly do. And this is why faith must be a living and active thing, serving others and proclaiming the justice of God. As followers of Christ, we are meant to be visible. So maybe we should tell one another more often how we see each other being salt for others and letting our lights shine. Maybe we can do more to encourage one another.

 

As pastor here, I have gotten a unique perspective for seeing how you are salt and light. I have seen you participate in Bible studies and book studies. I have seen you serve funeral luncheons and dinners for choir kids. I have seen you bring communion to homebound members and visit friends in hospitals. I have seen you deliberate about becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation and take a public stand for welcoming immigrants to our communities. Those are just a few examples of what I see in you. I also, from time to time, hear about the ways you are salt and light that I don’t get to see—in your workplaces or schools, at home and in the neighborhood. You are living your faith; keep encouraging one another to do so.

 

Our humility might get in the way from time to time in our letting our lights shine. More than that, an obstacle for us might also be fear. That’s because we know that lights that shine in the midst of darkness tend to get attacked. It can be dangerous; we need to be honest about that. Have you ever tried to be positive and compassionate in some situation and found that it made others angry or defensive? We shouldn’t be surprised, not if the one leading the way for us is Jesus.

 

That’s even more reason to let our lights shine together in community, not just on our own. We need one another for the mission to which we are called.

 

            Some of you, especially those of you who traveled to Germany this fall, may know the story of the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, a community that refused to keep its light under a bushel. Thirty-five years ago, a small group in the East German church decided to gather for weekly prayer services every Monday evening. They were upset about the Berlin Wall and the repressive East German regime, so they came together to pray for peace. Often there were fewer than a dozen people in the pews, which is why the government allowed it to continue. It seemed to them harmless. But the worshippers kept meeting, week after week.

 

            After a few years of these regular services, their pastor put a sign outside the church that read “open to all.” That wouldn’t be surprising for us, but such a gesture was loaded with symbolism in a context where the church provided the only space where people could openly talk about certain subjects. Those prayer gatherings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians, and atheists all sought refuge there, and then the attendance quickly began to grow.

 

            This continued for another few years. Authorities started putting pressure on the church leaders to stop the services, but they persisted. In the spring of 1989, authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to deter people from the service. But just the opposite happened, and the gathering grew even more. Eventually, they became more public. The prayer services led to peaceful protests in Leipzig, which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. As a result of those actions, later that year the church was ordered to be closed.

 

Still, Monday Demonstrations continued outside the church, and many protestors were arrested and even beaten. On October 9, 1989, an article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that on the following Monday the protest would be stopped—quote–“by any means necessary.” The church leaders were terrified. Still, as many as 8,000 people crowded into St Nicholas Church. And not only that but other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters, about 70,000 in total across the city.

 

When the service was over, people went outside, each one carrying a lit candle. They were joined by other protesters, and the tension in that city grew. It was a dangerous moment. They chanted. They prayed. And when they marched past the headquarters of the East German secret police holding their candles and saying their prayers, the helmeted riot police let the protesters march by without intervening.

 

Later East German officials would say they were very well prepared to stop the demonstration by force. They were ready for anything…except for candles and prayer.

 

The news of that event spread and more demonstrations were held. Exactly one month later, the Berlin Wall came down.

 

            Letting one’s light shine may seem like a small thing, but when joined with others, it can change the world. It’s part of why we gather on Sunday mornings, in this congregation and others throughout the whole church. I’ve learned that there are some Christians from throughout the Metro who have committed to gathering monthly on Sunday afternoons to pray for peace and to have conversation with each other on how God is calling us to work together for peace in our world, not unlike the people of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. The next service will be at Ascension Catholic Church in two weeks, on February 19.

 

These gatherings are just another way, one among so many, where followers of Jesus are putting faith into action. Where else do you see it? How can you encourage others to be what Christ has made us? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.