A few days back I had an eye opening conversation about scripture with another parent I met at my daughter’s speech competition. He is, among other things, a doctor, a naturalized citizen from Pakistan, and a Muslim. We did not talk about politics. We did not talk about our differences. We talked about common interests, and when it came to scripture (both the Quran and the Bible) we talked about the importance of historical context. Truth is timeless, but if we forget to locate the events of scripture in their time and place we can end up missing the truth all together.
I think that is particularly important today, as we read from Isaiah about a right and wrong way to worship. The very idea that there is a wrong way to express faith might be a little offensive to some, but Isaiah is pretty clear about the fact that the people are not worshiping God correctly.
Just to set the stage a little more, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has fallen. There have been all kinds of double-crossed deals and power plays between Kings in the region, and Isaiah has given up on the King of Judah and turned to the people in the streets. He is essentially mocking them for expecting God to hear the selfish cries of people who use religion like a vending machine while other nations are plotting their downfall.
And what does he expect them to do? Does he expect them to beef up security and fortify their walls? No. He expects them to take care of the vulnerable ones in their midst. That’s the truth that flows through the words of the prophet and into our lives today.
All across the globe there are people worshiping God in a thousand different ways. Some will genuflect and hope to become one with God as they take in the embodied presence of God. Some will sing verse upon verse upon verse of praise. Some will follow scripted prayers together. Some will pray without any thought of what they will say before they begin. Some will use different forms of visual media, and some will worship in buildings that do not even have walls.
While it is good and right that there is such variety in the praise and worship of God, these are all things that only matter to us. I’m sure God likes all the praise and such, but unless hearts and minds are transformed again and again it means nothing. Unless our worship directs us to faithful action it means nothing.
No, what matters to God is the fact that there are people in poverty. What matters is that there are people who work but do not make enough money to live on without some assistance. What matters to God is that there are children in our community that eat two free meals at school but may not get a third at home, and may or may not get one over the weekend. What matters to God is that we are mostly OK with the fact that there are homeless people in our community, or at least we are rarely able to conceive of a solution beyond vagrancy laws.
Those are some harsh words, and they cut me as much as anyone. So, before we start taking these things too personally, let’s again consider the context. These words were given first to the people of Judah – a nation that had no real separation between church and state. These words were not simply pointing fingers (in fact they were a command not too), they were a call to collective action.
Now, there’s some good news! Collective action is what we are good at. Collective action gave birth to our nation. Collective action is engrained in our theology and polity as Presbyterians. This very congregation has a deep legacy of collective action in our city that spans several generations. We established a pre-school before the public school did. We were foundational partners for the United Christian Outreach. We’ve supported family promise through the years, even offering shelter to families in need. We’ve delivered countless meals to the elderly through meals on wheels, and we continue to support Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service as they serve the underserved.
Truly, as congregations go, we’re on our third lifetime of collective action. Statistics show the average life cycle of a congregation is about 70 years, and we’ve seen many in our Presbytery go into decline. Yet here we are, a little older than 140. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more faithful. In fact we are much like Judah in that there is danger in our midst.
Even as we begin to carve out a new legacy, we cannot help but think of our own survival. Even as we ask the question, “How will we be remembered and spoken of?” we can’t help but ask questions about what kind of debt we will leave and who will pay it. And in the midst of this we hear the words of Paul drop down like a lifeline to pull us out of the hole-the hole we have dug with worry and anxiety – the hole that comes from our limited perspective.
In these words, we are reminded, we are comforted, and we are held. For in these words we are told that the way to understand God’s calling and God’s activity is to look beyond ourselves. It’s not enough to be logical. Yes, God gave us the wits to figure things out, but God also gave us the capacity to love and to be open to possibilities beyond our own imagination.
But how do we do that? According to Jesus, we just have to be a little salty. Salt impacts everything it touches. Salt alters flavors, brings out the best in certain foods, and even preserves some things. Without salt we cannot survive. Now, of course salt doesn’t ever lose its flavor. It can be diluted – or it can be removed from something else – but it’s still salt. In Jesus’ day the salt they used was mixed with other minerals, and it could actually be leeched out by moisture or sunlight. So the thing that they saw as salt could eventually lose its flavor.
The same is true of you and me. The good news is that our efforts are never truly lost, but there is also an expectation for us to toss out the stuff that isn’t salt. And the stuff that isn’t salt is the stuff that doesn’t help. It’s the stuff we do to justify ourselves, instead of the stuff that demonstrates the compassion and the love of God.
And if we aren’t clear on that, Jesus goes on to tell us that we are light. As his followers, we aren’t just carrying light around like a flashlight for ourselves. We actually become light for others when we follow Jesus. We can’t hide it. It’s not something we turn on and off. It’s just who we are and what we do.
And who we are and what we do, according to Jesus, is fulfill the law through our faith in him. That doesn’t mean that our individual belief systems put us on the winning team. It means that our whole worldview is governed by grace upon grace upon grace.
Only when we allow ourselves to be transformed by grace and mercy will we be able to see the needs of others and the role that we might play. Only by recognizing the weak position that sin holds in this world will we be able to recognize that the needs of others are our needs, the care of creation is our role, and the responsibility to shine light into darkened spaces is in our hands while we – we are ever and always in God’s hands!
And we will worship God rightly today, in our decent, orderly, Presbyterian way. And while our very presence in this community is a statement of care and concern for the vulnerable, none of it matters unless our hearts and minds are renewed every day and our hands and feet are extending the grace and mercy we receive in this place. Knowing you as I do, I’m not too worried about that.
Stay salty, my friends! There’s a lot going on that needs your influence. As long as you remember to look beyond yourself, to be open to what the Spirit might show you, and act with the compassion of God you will be more than bright. You’ll be brilliant! And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!