Preached February 2014. Scripture was Isaiah 58:1-9 and Matthew 5:13-20
Once upon a time I used to think that there was no way I could ever be a minister. Because to be a minister I would have to be holy. I’m not sure what exactly I meant by “holy”, I’m not sure I could give you an exact definition. But I was pretty sure it wasn’t me. Because if I was holy I would certainly be able to be calm and not get stressed out in almost every situation. If I was holy, I would surely have all my stuff together. If I was holy, I probably wouldn’t ever curse. If I was holy, praying would come easy for me. If I was holy I would never have impure thoughts of jealousy or judgment. If I was holy, I wouldn’t have to confess so much so often. In other words, if I was holy I would be a heck of a lot closer to perfect then I am right now. Frankly, the chasm between holy Holly and me seemed pretty insurmountable. And in my heart of hearts if I was honest, holy Holly actually sounded pretty boring to me.
So how then am I still on my way to ordained ministry? Did I become holy? Sort of, but not at all in the way I imagined. You see, over the years it seems God has faith-washed me. And by that I mean God has brought me to understand that what I understood as holy, focused on purity and perfection, actually isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure, lots of people claim to be holy, because they think that’s what God wants. They pray loudly and they live the “perfect” life and they fast and they proclaim allegiance to right doctrine and put on a big show to convince themselves, and apparently God, that they are worthy. This isn’t news to God. All we have to do is read Isaiah 58: 1-9 to see God has been dealing with people playing at being holy for thousands of years. And God isn’t all that impressed by them.
In Isaiah’s passage the people are getting annoyed with God it seems. Jeez, they say, we are holy people. We fast. We humble ourselves. We follow all the rules. Why don’t you notice us? Why aren’t you proud of us? And God lays down a different kind of law. God says despite your holy trappings, you oppress. Despite your wanting to look holy, you fight. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” In other words, your holy trappings do not stand up as all that useful if you aren’t backing them up with holy action. Holy action isn’t about how perfect you look or how great your spiritual practice is or how beautiful your prayers are or how much or often you fast. Holy action is about justice, it is about feeding people, it is about taking care of the lost and least, it is about being true to who you are, who God made you to be.
When you do that, God says, you are holy, no matter how pure and perfect you are. When you do holy actions your light shall break forth like the dawn and healing will spring up. You won’t even need God’s glory to go before you. Your light will shine so brightly that all God will have to do is bring up the rear guard. God will feed you and strengthen you and listen to my favorite part of this passage, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
You shall be called repairer of the breach, restorers of the streets. Wow. If only. What an amazing thing to be called. But because it sounds so amazing, then the doubt starts to creep in. Oh that sounds wonderful, but I can’t really do that. That is too hard for me. Wouldn’t I need to be more special in order to really make that work? Wouldn’t I would need to be more holy before I could do that? Repairer of the breach? I still don’t have it all together. How could I possibly repair and restore when I am still a mess? Which is why, when these questions come up for me, I turn to the gospel.
I don’t think it’s an accident that this week’s lectionary set of readings pairs Isaiah’s passage with Jesus talking about our being light and salt. I want you to notice something about what Jesus says here. This is a continuation of last week’s sermon on the mount. It follows on the heels of the Beatitudes. But while sometimes these passages are seen as instructional, I also want you to see them as a blessing. To see how Jesus is turning conventional wisdom of who and what is holy and blessed upside down. Jesus says to the crowd, You are the salt of the earth. Not, one day when you are holy enough you will be the salt of the earth. Not, if you do these following things you will be salt. Not, if only you were different you would be salt. You ARE the salt of the earth, right now. In the same way, you are also the light of the world. Not, you will be worthy light when you are bright enough. Not, oh your light shines blue and not white so maybe you’re not so important. Not, your light will be worth something when you can light up the whole room. You ARE the light of the world. Right now.
Jesus warns us not to lose our seasoning power and not to hide our light because who we are right now IS salt and light. And that light and that salt is not for us to keep to ourselves but to share with the world. That is how our salt stays useful. That is how our light, no matter how perfectly it shines, lights the way for others. All that we need is within us right now to be repairers of the breach in all our imperfect glory.
We are salt and light people. We add flavor to the world. We add zest to the world. Think of how boring the world would be if everything we ate tasted the same. We need different seasonings, different blends of seasonings to enliven our food. Why then do we not think the same about our world in general? You right now are the salt of the earth. God has given you your unique flavor to share with the world. God has given you unique gifts that you can bring to bear on our work in the world. God’s work of justice and feeding and peacemaking. You are special. When we bring all these flavors and use them together, amazing things happen. We don’t need to taste like false holiness in order to do God’s work. We don’t need to try to be like everyone else. We are salt right now, just as God created us to be.
We are salt and light people. We light up the world. It doesn’t matter if our lights are small flames barely visible or out of control fires that are hard to tame. It doesn’t matter if our light is at the top of a gorgeous silver candelabra or if it is at the top of a primitive torch. Who we are, what we do, lights up the world. Don’t hide your light because you think it isn’t good enough. Don’t be afraid of your light if it burns brightly. Don’t judge if others burn differently from you. Use your light to show you the way. Use your light to light the way for others. We shine so that others can find hope.
One of the commentaries I read this week said, “Salt and light people are those who bring flavor and color, integrity and insight, healing and compassion into the world by the way they live, love and interact. Their influence is felt not through judgment or legalism, but through a life lived with a completely different quality, that touches others with grace and truth and compassion and calls out to the best in them, leaving them longing to live better lives themselves.” So I don’t have to be falsely holy. My worth is already present because I already am salt and light. My work then is to season the world around me. To be authentic to who God made me to be, to have integrity in my life and my dealings with others, to offer healing to those in need and even to myself, to be compassionate, to offer grace, to feed others, to fight for those who are oppressed, to shine a light so that others can see.
Jesus ends this section of the sermon on the mount saying that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven, the afterlife? No, I think Jesus means God’s hope for a renewed world right here, right now. And we know that to Jesus the scribes and Pharisees always thought they got it right through following every rule and being holy enough. Jesus echoes God’s prophecies in Isaiah, which also was echoed in Micah’s passage that we read last week. You can have all the “holy worship” you would like, do all the “right” things in order to worship, follow all the rules to the letter of the law. But that doesn’t make you holy. God has told you what you need to do. Love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, free the oppressed, do not hide yourself. You already are salt and light. God wants you to take that and use it. God made you salt and light for your benefit and for the benefit of the world, for the restoration of the world. You don’t have to wait until you are holy, or until you get it right, or until everyone in your life sees you are worthy, or until you get the right job, or have enough money, or can pray the right prayers, or do the perfect spiritual practice, until you lose enough weight, or get healthy, or whatever it is you are waiting for or feel badly about.
You are salt and light right now. And the world desperately needs your flavor and your brightness so that our streets are restored and the kingdom of God is realized here on earth, just as it is in heaven. In my faith-washing I have come to realize that I actually am holy Holly. But not in the way I always thought I needed to be. I am holy Holly in all my mess because God says, “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. Now go out and get busy.” And I am confident that if God can say that to me, God is saying it just as surely to you. Let’s go light up the world.