Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sermon: Salt and Light

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
The Fifth Sunday after The Epipany
(RCL Epiphany 5, Year A)
February 5, 2017

I know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 
I come to you in fear and trembling – not with plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit so that your faith might rest on the power of God.[1] Amen.

Listen here.
The other day, I was looking for a recipe.  Well, you know how one google leads to another?  Before I knew it, I was looking up uses for salt. Some of you chefs may know that salt is used to preserve foods[2], not only in packing, but also in pickling or brining. Salt is one of the oldest methods of preservation, most notably for curing fish and meats.  Salt is used because unhealthy organisms cannot survive in a highly salty environment.  Any living cell in salt will become dehydrated and die or become temporarily inactivated.

The metaphor of actually “being” salt has an old history[3].  We know that in 722 BCE, the Jews were forced into exile by the Assyrians and were scattered throughout the empire, never to return, lost to history.  Yet the Jewish faith holds that the lost people remembered the basic moral practices of their Law, their Torah. In remembering and practicing this morality, they were a preserving force for the good of the world.

When Jesus tells his audience in today’s gospel that they are “the salt of the earth,” they already know this history. Jesus reminds them that observing Torah is not just for religious reasons, but because, “Torah observance is good for the world – it makes communities gentler & more orderly, and makes human beings kinder & more tolerant.”  The long-lost Jewish relatives of that audience had preserved the world by being who they are, through the Torah observance of welcome & hospitality.

Jesus reminds them, “You are the salt of the world – the preservers of the kind world for strangers (including immigrants and refugees) who are to be viewed first as the cousins, as sisters, as grandmothers who were exiled and lost.” In today’s gospel we also hear with contemporary ears about light and being seen.

As Jesus addressed his audience, he addresses us today, here. You are the light, he says.  You cannot pretend that you are not. Everyone will see what you do because you are faithful people.  As Bob Dylan sang in 1963, “the whole world is watching.”[4] And this is a moment when our light has shown in the mission of the United States, enshrined on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

You, my sisters and brothers, are the light. 

Today’s gospel message is so full of promise. And it is notably not full of commands.  Did Jesus say “you should be” the salt & light? Did he say, “you have to be” or “you better be”…? Jesus said, you are. You are the salt. You are the light.  Even if you don’t know it. Or you knew once, but forgot. Or even if you have a hard time believing it.  You are. It’s a promise!

And in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made salt and light promises to his disciples about who they already were.  He was not commanding, or cajoling, or manipulating, or threatening.  Sadly, many people – both here and in the world – only know God as a divine law-maker and rule-enforcer and not a generous gift-giver. That gift-giver is the God that we worship, the God who loves you.

Through these gifts, Jesus promises grace about who we ARE – our very being.  Out of our being, our doing follows.  So, before we get into our response as human doings, we can reflect. Think about the ways that LAST WEEK God used you as you ARE – as salt and light in the world. You offered encouragement to a family member. You reached out to a friend who was ill.  You were faithful working at your place of employment. You volunteered and served.  You noticed. You prayed. You protested. You kept your promises. 

One time, a friend of mind volunteered, for a short three months, as a chaplain at a hospital. She did nothing remarkable, per se. She sat in the waiting room and chatted with people. She laughed with the bored ambulance drivers working the night shift.  She handed out Kleenex when families came to be with their loved one who had died.  She offered breathing lessons to a nurse, stressed about the computer system. At the end of her time, she received a note from one of her colleagues.  He wrote, “your light shines brightly.  May you always put it on a lampstand for all the world to see.”  She told me how this little note, even today, raises her spirits. He saw her light, even though she had forgotten.

However you preserve the faith, however you shine your light, remember these ways may seem small but they are not insignificant.  God most often uses “small” to change the world.  And small matters. 

Because, if ever we needed salt and light blessings it is right now.  You don’t even have to read headlines. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…any news source offers an unusually pervasive sense of dis-ease in our world.  The divisions in our country are not skipping over our congregation, either.  We do not all agree what “being salt and light” looks like.  I have pretty strong opinions on that and maybe you do, too.  The hard part is that some of the people I know who feel differently are the people I know very well and love.  Close family members, fellow 12-steppers, respected people in the community – and I find it hard to reject their opinions without rejecting them. 

Does this happen to you?

Well, what to do.  Do we offer general encouragement? Do we sit in silence the best we can so that all feel welcome?  Well, perhaps we have some options.

First, we can recognize that faith communities – and this congregation in particular – can be a place where all kinds of folks with all kinds of opinions can come together.  We might look pretty homogenous, but we are diverse in terms of our political views & intergenerationality – well, more than most spaces in our country.  Perhaps God is calling us to be a place that gathers people who might differ on “how” to be salt and light and a place committed to prayer and conversation for deeper understanding, wisdom, & courage, to speak and act in line with the gospel – with our faith, and for each other. 

In 1 Cor reading, Paul writes this wonderful line: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Isn’t that our common call? In this way, Paul addressed the deep divisions of the people of Corinth and invited them to listen to each other and to share in proclaiming the gospel.

Second, recall last week’s gospel text. Remember the first sentences of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes? Jesus called “blessed” all kinds of people that the world doesn’t usually call blessed: Those who mourn and those who are meek. Those who are poor in spirit & those who are merciful. Those who hunger & thirst for righteousness.  In those people we know the presence of God.  Those are the ones that God blesses and calls us to bless, too.[5]  Those are the ones in the Isaiah reading today.

Later in GMatt Jesus calls us to discover his presence among those who are without shelter, without adequate food and clothing, who are in prison and lonely.  That is the place we, as a congregation, are called to go and be. That is where we offer salt and light. That is our shared calling in the gospel, in our faith, here and now.  Even when we disagree “how”; we have a common gospel of love.

In this difficult time for so many people and for so many reasons, you are given these gifts.  Salt and light is exactly what the world needs, so give that away, too.  You are loved so much by God. You are blessed to be God’s hands and feet in the world, making communities gentler & more kind, making the kingdom of God come about. 

God is not done with you yet! 

You are the salt of the world. You are the light of the world. 

Jesus promises that!

Sermon: Feasting

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Candlemas Procession and Feast of the Presentation
February 2, 2017

I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Is.49:6b

Listen here.

This evening there is a lot of feasting going on!  Far as I can count, there are four, maybe five major reasons to celebrate.

First, today is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. Mary and Joseph presented their first-born son to the Temple Priest, Simeon, for a blessing, to fulfill their Jewish obligation, according to the Law of Moses, the Torah. Mary and Joseph, devout Jews, observed religious requirements and participated in rituals.  These actions defined who they were; it was their MO.

This day, at the Temple, the aged priest Simeon and widowed prophet Anna see Jesus and are moved by the Holy Spirit. Simeon utters the beautiful poem “Nunc Dimittus,” (which we say at Evening Prayer) and Simeon also prophesies the contradictions of Jesus’ future ministry.  Prophet Anna effusively utters praise to God for the redemption of Israel. Today is “The Feast of The Presentation.”

Second, today marks The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here, Mary performs a ritual as prescribed in Leviticus, that until forty days after giving birth she is considered “unclean,” so, she brings an offering to the priest (an offering that is normally a lamb, but if the woman is poor, she brings a few turtledoves or pigeons.) Once the priest makes atonement for her with these offerings, he declares her ceremonially clean. This is The Feast of The Purification.

Third, because Luke has so conflated the rituals for The Presentation and The Purification, some churches call this day the “Feast of Our Lord and Our Lady.”

Fourth, today marks for the Eastern Church, Hypapante, or the “meeting” of the five (Mary & Joseph, Anna & Simeon, and Jesus). This is the sign of a new community,[1] the Old Testament meeting the New Testament.

Fifth, today signifies “Candlemas,” which is a medieval nickname of North European origin, referring to an ancient custom of procession with lighted candles before the Mass[2] - thus, Candlemas. As we know, the ritual begins with blessing candles that are used in churches and in homes. 

This is appropriate for mid-winter, in the darkness, when we really need light. 
This ritual brings awareness to the nearly a dozen ways that candles shine in this church:
·         The Paschal candle from Easter,
·         Torch lights at Gospel procession,
·         Altar candles at Eucharist,
·         Votive candles at prayer stations,
·         Aumbry flame for the tabernacle,
·         Advent candles in the wreath, and
·         Personal candles we see here, to mention a few.

Finally (perhaps finally) today is known in the US as “Groundhog Day,” where Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow reportedly predicts how much longer winter will last. This prompted Stephen Colbert in his 2013 Comedy Central TV to bemoan the loss of the true meaning of Candle-mass, where he lamented that this Christian holiday had been “all ground-hogged up and commercialized.” (see link for a good laugh).

So much to celebrate! So much feasting!

Regardless of what we call it, this evening is about illumination, about light, about flickering flames, about the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christ Jesus, the light of the world, is carried into the Temple by Mary, the God-bearer herself. She carries the light and immediately both Simeon and Anna… man and woman … one with privilege in those days (the priest) and one of lowly estate (a widow.)  So, already in this scene, Luke tells of Christ’s expansive light and love for all people. 

But there is trouble ahead. 

For what can we make of the prophecy made to Mary?  How must it have sounded to this young mother?  First Priest Simeon praises God for the beautiful baby and then says,

“…this child is going to be great, so great that the whole world will respond to his birth, and the response will never abate. And in that greatness, he will be the focus of tremendous love. And because he is great, he will also be the object of unfathomable hatred. He will be spoken against and contradicted – forever! …”

Oh how Mary must have gasped. Such jarring words spoken about this tiny child. She surely clutched him even tighter.  Her little boy! And her God

Is this a reversal of the Garden of Eden[3]? “…Jesus is taken from her flesh, as Eve was taken from Adam’s…and while the Serpent told Eve the lie she wanted to hear; Simeon tells Mary (the New Eve) the truth she would perhaps rather not know.

I wonder …if this is the kind of heartache we feel when we begin to follow the light of Jesus. When we bathe in the light of his love, we come to realize that although it is all grace (all the time), it is not at all about comfort. 

We come to know a truth about this journey that is something we would rather not know.  The truth of:
·         The responsibility to carry that light to others, especially in dark times as these.
·         The need to admit our sins.
·         The burden of companionship with those who suffer: refugees, immigrants, those who are poor.
·         The call to feed those who are hungry.
·         The joy of speaking out when we are oppressed: we who are women or otherwise marginalized.
·         The work of grieving openly when we are harmed and working it out through confrontation.
·         The desire to experience community with who are different from us.

We come to know, through this light, that in following him, in being baptized into his life, we are also sharing in his death.  And his resurrection. Tonight’s feast day invites consideration:  what is that uncomfortable truth for you? What is the sword that pierces your heart even while you bathe in Light?

As you reflect, consider the broadest Truth being illuminated in this day, something even more dramatic. See, in 587 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy City, the Temple and The Ark of the Covenant (inside the Temple).   The Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Staff of Aaron and a vial of the Manna.  Most importantly, The Ark contained the Very Presence of God in Israel, much as our understanding of the presence of Christ in the tabernacle.

Yet after 587’s destruction, the Ark was never found again, even some eighty years later when the Temple was rebuilt and the Holy of Holies was restored. The people wondered if the presence of God could ever be found again.

So, when traveling to Jerusalem and to The Temple Mount, the people actively grieved and yearned for that Ark. Approaching the Temple Mount, the people climbed and sang the psalms of Ascent, like Psalm 121 “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?” Or Psalm 132, “Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength!”

And on the day that Mary and Joseph ascended and sang the psalms, Mary carried Jesus, the newborn baby. She made the climb, difficult as it was carrying a newborn up the stairs to the Temple Mount, through the gates and the tunnel walls, and then she emerged onto the bright Temple Platform. 

And this, perhaps, was the feast day of feast days, for in that moment, God had returned to God’s Temple; God and the Ark who carried him – Mary, the Ark, carrying Jesus, very God, True God from True God. God was once again present among God’s people. And we hear in the reading from Malachi, “…and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed he is coming, …”

What a dramatic moment! Surely there must have been trumpet blasts, thunder and lightning, and host of angels on high! 

But only an aged Simeon and widowed Anna took any note. They alone understood the presence of greatness and they alone beheld the indescribable drama.  A moment for which the Israelite people waited for centuries.  The Ark of God was found and God had returned to the Temple.  And in the ordinary completion of the religious duties, living into their daily lives, these five presented their souls to God and the world changed.  The light of Christ was lit forever.

May we, this night, share this light with others.  In this broken, suffering, confusing world, we – here – all of us – are to share the light, to hold the light, to preserve the light of hope of redemption for all of humankind.  That is our MO. When darkness begins to creep in, remember that your light shines as the moment of brightness on the Temple Mount that day. 

Share your light, this night, and forever.  For the dramatic Love of God-with-us will forever light your way. And that is more than any reason to celebrate!



[1] Paul Bradshaw, ed. The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, (First American Edition) (Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2002), page 93
[2] Ibid.,  page 93, 94