Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Imagining in Prayer

Over at People for Others,  some of Vinita Hampton Wright's suggestions for making prayer imaginative are up today.  These would make wonderful foundations for many prayer encounters, including a brief one right now:

“If I could do anything I desire, it would be…”

Anything at all?  I would restore my son's life to him.

That obvious response aside, I realized this morning, in the context of helping a young woman explore questions about career and further education, that I am in fact doing exactly what I otherwise desire: pastoring a church, doing spiritual direction, giving the occasional retreat or presentation, teaching (usually), writing, and spending time with my family.

 “The most critical aspect of my life right now is…” 

My damned broken ankle!  This is one long recovery process.

“If God were a song, that song title would be. . .” 

"Blowin' in the Wind."

 “If my spiritual life were a movie, that movie title would be…”

My immediate answer was The Vikings (which is a History Channel series and not a movie), for reasons having to do with a sense of life as a series of challenges to overcome in a cold and barren land.  But maybe it would be Titanic.  The spiritual life as hope and memory in the face of doomed glamour and romance?   Or Ordinary People.  The most unexpected catastrophes ripple through the lives of the most ordinary people. 

“If I could write the perfect song about faith, it would sound a lot like the songs of [name a songwriter or recording artist]” 

Laura Nyro.

 “If I could go to the most prayer-friendly, spiritually inclined location on earth, I think that would be…”

Maybe Iona (where I've been) ?  But I'm guessing it might be the Ganges River (where I have not).


Monday, February 24, 2014

Moving Into Retreat Mode

"To go on retreat" can mean just about anything.
Corporate retreats, leadership retreats, new vision retreats, team-building retreats . . .

In much of my church life, it has meant to take a week-end's detour to a somewhat remote location for a couple of days of group worship, conversation, music, and dining, with occasional long walks tossed in.

A group from my home church made a fairly silent retreat years ago under the leadership of two women from Church of the Savior in D.C.   We did learn a lot about the inward/outward approach to the spiritual life, but my favorite parts were silently listing on the group white board the spring migrant birds I was watching, taking a solo canoe trip around and around a small pond, and walking the labyrinth under a full moon sometime past midnight.
Some years ago, making a retreat came to mean making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I did in the daily life form over the course of a year.  As the year progressed, the silence became something I sought greedily more and more.  On week-ends that spring, I would disappear for hours, walking the cemetery and the Little Lakes, immersed in my newfound contemplative life. 
Since then, I've made several solitary silent retreats at various Jesuit centers, places where I could be assured of thoughtful daily spiritual direction and surrounded by people who "get" the need for pervasive silence.  Three of those retreats stand out.  The first, my very first silent retreat, at the Jesuit center in Guelph, Ontario. A bit of an incongruous week, as I was out in late summer nature all day, every day, soaked in Ignatian prayer and preparing for seminary to start week later, and yet engaged in a bit of a struggle with a spiritual director who could not get her mind around an Ignatian Presbyterian person.  I never did figure out what bothered her so much. 
The second, at Wernersville in eastern Pennsylvania, two-plus years after Josh died.  Again, a week almost entirely out-of-doors, that time as the leaves were changing, and a week of grappling with grief in ways that made it possible to inch forward over the next months.
And the third, in between: the retreat that wasn't. The retreat in Michigan at which I got the call that Josh had died.
This year, after three or four consecutive years at Wernersville, I decided to try something different.  Feeling so isolated out in Small Rural Church, I started to wonder who I knew, or knew of, who might direct me in a retreat in a city. I started thinking my way up and down both coasts ~ and then realized that Spiritual Director Emeritus, my guide through the Exercises, is at Georgetown.  We have continued to correspond, and he knows a lot about what you might call the spirituality of leadership, which is a huge issue for me these days.  And at Georgetown there will be lots of people! And so we worked out a retreat week for the beginning of February.  Which obviously did not happen, to my most miserable disappointment.
But five weeks from today, barring further disaster, it will.  The timing could not, actually, be better.  After the isolation of the last two months, I can hardly wait for the liveliness of a university community.  I plan on a lot of silence, but there will be concerts, I'm sure, and some lectures, and lots of people out and about.  I don't have to talk to anyone, but I will be surrounded by a microcosm of The World.  And given the struggles of my new small church,  everyone stands to benefit from a pastor's week of prayer and perhaps (who knows?) even direct attentiveness to leadership matters.
I have to laugh when I think of my Guelph director: How can you possibly combine Ignatian spirituality and Presbyterian theology?  I'm going to spend a week at the Jesuit residence at Georgetown on precisely that continuing adventure.  In April.  Here's hoping for a more-rather-than-less healed ankle and for the beginnings of Spring!


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Week 8 Begins

It's hard to believe, but that swollen mess on the left, which barely moves in the outer direction, is on the verge of walking. 

I so miss my walks!  I suspect that progress back to three miles a day will be very slow, and I don't know when I will feel confident on hiking trails again, especially out by myself.  But, someday . . .

I would not want to have to give up hiking the North Carolina mountains!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Second Mile (Sermon - Matthew)

When I was a little girl, the distance of two miles had a very specific meaning for me.

You see, we lived out in the country, and the nearest small town was just about two miles away.  It was a very rural area – although we didn’t live on a farm, most people out there did, and there were maybe eight farm houses strung along that two mile stretch of road.  When my brothers and I wanted to go to town – something we often wanted to do, so that we could look around the drugstore, maybe buy a Cherry Coke or a candy bar or even a 45 record (remember those?!), we walked or rode our bikes those two miles.

At about the one mile mark, there was a house – and that one wasn’t actually a farmhouse, for Mr. Lampkey, who owned it, had only about four or five acres.  Mr. Lampkey was a scary kind of guy, at least to children.  I don’t know that he intended to be scary – if he passed us in his car, he always raised his right hand in a greeting, as country folks generally did.  But his car was an old clunker, and so was his house.  His house always looked as if it were going to slide right into the overgrown grass surrounding it.  And after he died, it pretty much did.

But the really scary thing about Mr. Lampkey, at least as far as children on foot or on bikes were concerned, was his dogs.  Mr. Lampkey always owned two or three huge German shepherds, and they lolled about in the middle of the road as if they were the road’s owners.  Which I guess they were, because what child is going to mess with an 80-pound German shepherd?  We had lots of dogs as we were growing up, and we all loved dogs, and those German shepherds never did anything except stretch out and yawn so that we could see their teeth – but they sure looked menacing to a couple of ten-year-olds trying to sneak  by them.

For us, going the second mile, going the second mile which we needed to take to get to town or, in the other direction, to get back home, meant passing those dogs.    Going the second mile meant that we needed to face a challenge.  Going the second mile meant that we needed to overcome fear.

Now, Jesus says some hard things, some difficult things, to us this morning:

Turn the other cheek.

Give your cloak as well.

Walk the second mile.



Love your enemies.

Really, Jesus?  This is what you want of us?  All of these things are counterintuitive, aren’t they?  These are not things that we do naturally.  But – is this what you mean when you say, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it”?  “To complete it”?

Jesus acknowledges that these commands of his do not come naturally to us.  In fact, the old law itself did not require them.  “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – that was the very old law.  A law that exacted justice in the sense that that wrongs done to someone had to be evened out – not ignored, and not exceeded, but evened out, at least insofar as they could be.  “An eye for an eye” – well, if someone put your eye out, the punishment imposed, the putting out of his own eye, did not return your eye to you.  But at least the wrongdoer suffered in equal measure and, more importantly – the wrongdoer doid not suffer more than you did out of some misplaced sense of revenge.  You could not kill someone who put out your eye.  Even the old law enforced a degree of restraint.

But Jesus is not talking about restraint.  Jesus does not take the position that we are creatures of such extreme limitation that the best we can do, the most we can do, is to prevent ourselves from harming someone even more than they have damaged us.  That approach is merely a starting point. 

Jesus seeks much more from us, much more for us, than merely “an eye for an eye.”

Jesus does not see us merely as creatures of limitation, as people who have to be restrained from making matters worse rather than better.

What have we been saying these past weeks about who we are?  About what God longs for from us?

We are people of justice and joy.  We are people of grace and peace.  We are people who scatter salt and light.  We are people who bring God’s love out into the open.  We are people who choose life.

We are God’s beloved.

And how do we demonstrate who we are?

We don’t hit back, or yank out another’s eye.  We turn the other cheek.

We don’t respond defensively to another’s greediness.  We hand over what they seek, and more as well – the other cloak.

We don’t turn our backs on those in need.  We give, or we lend.

We don’t merely love those whom we value as family, friends, neighbors, and allies.  We extend love to enemies – to the family member who has hurt us, to the friend who has misunderstood us, to the neighbor whose child trampled our garden, to the political opponent in the other party, or on the other side of the world.  

And: We let go of fear and we walk the second mile.

Now you might not know it, but that word ”walk” is an intriguing word in Hebrew, in the language of the Old Testament. 

Let me start explaining with a bit of a digression.  Most of you know that I used to teach in an Orthodox Jewish school.  In an Orthodox school, the students follow two curricula.  They study all the usual subjects – English, history, math, science.  But they also take a full load of Jewish subjects: Hebrew language, Jewish history, scripture, and law. 

You may know that, for the Jewish people, the law is God’s revelation of who God is and how God is in relationship with us.  For us, that revelation is Jesus Christ: he shows us who God is, and he is God in relationship with is – as friend, as companion, as guide, as teacher, as healer, as redeemer, as hope, as love, as light, as life.  But for the Jewish people, God’s law, starting with the commandments given to Moses and flowing through history as interpreted and applied to daily life – that law is revelation and relationship.  And the word for law is halacha.  I got used to hearing that word in my Jewish school teaching days, because the high school students took a course in halacha each year, and they were constantly debating halachic interpretations and applications.

Imagine my surprise when I got to my seminary course in Hebrew and learned that the Hebrew word for “walk” is halach.  Halachhalacha  in Hebrew, the root word for the word “law” and the word “walk” is the same  Of course, it makes sense: If you follow the law, you walk in the way of God.  If you walk in the way of God, you discover and follow the law.

And what does Jesus tell us?  In the Sermon on the Mount, parts of which we’ve been exploring the last couple of weeks, he tells us that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  Not to destroy the law, but to complete it.  To enlarge it.  To invite us into a law that expands and creates.

And today he tells us: Walk the second mile.  Walk the second mile in fulfillment of the law.  Walk the second mile as a follower of the one who completes the law.
Go further.  Go a longer distance.  Accept the challenge.  Walk past fear.  Cross the barriers.

To walk the second mile does not mean, not necessarily, to double the tangible distance you walk.  To walk the second mile means that you understand that you are not called to a mile, or a walk, of limitation, of scarcity.  You are called to a life of more, of abundance.  

To walk the second mile means to walk in companionship with Jesus, to walk in the way of God. 

To walk the second mile means to walk in attentiveness to the world around you.  

To walk the second mile means to walk in openness toward the needs that surround you. 

To walk the second mile means to walk with the confidence that comes with knowing that you are a beloved child of God.

To walk the second mile?  Maybe it means that as you are walking from your car into the grocery store, you stop to help the man who is struggling to manage his walker while he pulls the door open. 

Maybe it means that you open your eyes to see, to really see, the other people on the street or at the bus stop or in the airport and to say a prayer for them as you walk on. 

Maybe, on the third Sunday of the month, it means that you walk into the kitchen to help with the community meal. 

Maybe, if you are in a wheelchair or a in hospital bed, to walk the second mile means to walk into a deeper life of prayer.

To walk the second mile means to walk past fear.  To walk the second mile means to know that you are not called to a mile, or a walk, of anxiety or worry. 

To walk the second mile means that you are called to accept challenges, to cross the same barriers Jesus crossed.  To walk the second mile means that you are called to a walk, to a life, of courage, of hope, of light. 

To walk the second mile?  Maybe it means that you walk into a doctor’s office or a hospital in trust that you are held in God’s hands. 

Maybe it means that you walk into a challenging assignment or situation and cast aside the “buts” – but it will take too long, but it will be too hard, but I don’t know how to do this.

Maybe it means that you walk in a protest march, or onto a speakers’ platform, or into a school to educate kids about an issue that matters to you.

Maybe it means that on the last Saturday of the month you join the Lakeshore Ministries’ Prayer Walk through Euclid – which, by the way, we are finally hosting at the end of March – so that you can walk, or perhaps sit in the sanctuary, in prayer with your church community, your neighbors, and complete strangers, all walking and listening for God’s call to this community.
To walk the second mile?  It’s not really about walking, is it?  It’s not about feet or walking shoes, or orthopedic boots or crutches.  The second mile is about identity.  It’s about who we are and who we are called to be.  The second mile is about who walks with us and shapes us into the people we are created to be.

The apostle Paul remind us today that, “you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  To  walk the second mile means to live deeply into that knowledge – that you belong, that you are beloved, and that you are called – not to less, but to more; not to scarcity, but to abundance, not to fear, but to hope.   Know who you are, walk into the light, and walk with the one who accompanies you on the second mile!  Amen.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Choose Life! (Sermon)

I found a cartoon this week depicting a gentleman at a bookstore, standing in front of the Bible section.  “What I really need,” the customer tells the salesclerk at the counter, “is something that won’t make me feel guilty, convicted, or in need of making some kind of decision.”
                There you go:  Something that won’t make us feel guilty, convicted, or in need of making some kind of decision.
                Well, in today’s texts we hear some words that sound fairly simple and easy to understand – and yet they demand a great deal from us.  Just as they demanded a great deal from those who first heard them: Moses’ followers in the desert, and Paul’s followers in the first century church – so they ask a lot of us, here in 21st century Boulevard Church.  Maybe they even make us feel guilty, or convicted, or in need of some decision making.
                In our readings, we are presented with two preachers, two times and places, two sets of challenges.  Let’s imagine for a moment:
                In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Hebrew people, who have followed him through the desert for forty years.  FORTY YEARS.  It has been forty years since God used Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, forty years in which they have journeyed toward the land God had promised them.  Now, they are almost there, about to cross the Jordan River into the land of milk and honey.  Moses is near the end of his life, about to pass the mantle of leadership to Joshua, but he pauses to speak to his people and to give them a final message from God.  “I have set before you life and death.  Choose life that your descendants may live.”
                And how do we choose life?  Moses elaborates: Obedience to God.  Love of God.  Walking in the ways of God.  Holding fast to God.
                Let’s pause there for a moment and look at the object in each one of those sentences. Obedience to GOD.  Love of GOD.  Walking in the WAYS OF GOD.  Holding fast to GOD. 
                Always God.  The object is always God.  Not the other things which we turn into gods.  When Moses tells the people, “Don’t be led astray by other gods,” we nod in self-satisfaction, don’t we?  We aren’t misled by other gods – or are we?  What about the gods of money, or possessions, or work?  Homes, neighborhoods, even family?  Even our church congregation or building?  Do we turn those into gods? 
                I think we do, as sure as the ancient Hebrew people were tempted to worship that golden calf in the desert when Moses disappeared for awhile.  It’s difficult for us to direct our obedience, or love, or our walk consistently toward God.  It’s hard to hold fast to God when so many other things vie for our attention.  And yet Moses is clear: We choose life by always, every time, looking first and completely to God. 
                Fast forward about 1500 years.  The preacher is the apostle Paul and the congregation is the church in Corinth, in Greece. 
Paul is really, really unhappy with this little congregation.  They are such a divisive and  quarrelsome lot.  And one of their problems is that they argue about their leadership, with different internal groups among them throwing their allegiance to different individuals.  In today’s passage, it appears that some have lined up behind Paul and some behind Apollos, another important leader in the church.
Now, that never happens in our own churches, does it?  We never debate which pastor is better than another, do we?  We never say things like, “I like his sermons better” or “She does a better job of choosing the music,” do we?  Surely we don’t make our LEADERS the object of our faith, do we?  And we DEFINITELY don’t say things like, “I only want to do church the old way” or “We can’t be church without our building, or our neighborhood.”  Do we?  I’VE certainly never said anything life that! 
Well, it seems that perhaps people in Corinth have said things like that.  And what does Paul tell them?  That it’s not about him, or about Apollos.  They planted, and they watered --  but God has been giving the growth.  Wow.  Same lesson as Moses gave his people: It’s all about God.
Choose life.  To choose life means to grow – and to change. And to grow according to scripture means to receive the growth which God offers.  Not necessarily the growth we invent for ourselves.
Let’s talk for a minute about how we choose life, and about how we grow. 
Sometimes it’s easy, and fun, and delightful.  Think of a healthy baby turning into a toddler, pulling himself up and charging ahead for a few steps until he lands on his bottom.    He’s all about choosing life, choosing growth, choosing change – because life, growth, and change mean walking instead of crawling.
Later in life, it can become more challenging to choose life.  Think about a young woman applying to college.  That can be scary, yes?  Scary and exciting at the same time, especially if a move to a new location, a school in which she doesn’t know anyone, is involved.    But if she hangs on to the old instead of reaching for the new, will she grow?  It’s hard for God to give the growth if we ourselves resist choosing life.
Sometimes, God is waiting to offer growth, and we find it terribly difficult indeed to choose life.  Losing a job can feel as if there is no life left to choose – and how hard it can be if the growth, the new possibility, is offered in a different city, or requires more training or education.  Don’t many of us who bump into the wall of unemployment get stuck and have a hard time seeing where God is providing the space for growth? 
Sometimes, it’s REALLY hard.  People injured in big ways in accidents, in war, by illness.  Older folks who can no longer care for themselves.
“I have set before you life and death,” says God.  “Choose life. Receive the growth I have to offer.”   
Last year, an elderly couple I knew encountered one health problem after another.  They wanted to stay in their own home, far out in the country, although hearing and driving and even just getting from one room to another were big challenges for them.    “I have set before you life and death,” said God.  “Choose life.” It was difficult for them to see a move to assisted living as a choice for life. And yet – and yet the seeds had already been planted, seeds of resiliency of spirit and seeds of care from family and friends.  And so they chose an unexpected life – in a new place among new people – and God has provided the growth. 
Now: Let’s talk about the church.
We know that we are in a challenging time at Boulevard Church.  We are no longer the toddler church of 1960, delighting in every step forward.  We are no longer the young adult church of 1970, making all sorts of plans for the future.  We are well along into adulthood, facing choices. 
We have to face changes in our city and culture – the idea of church as something people just naturally did on Sunday is long gone.  That’s not a terrible thing – God wants people in church who are focused on God and not on “everybody’s doing it” expectations.
We have to face a decline in our membership and income – we have to ask: Can a small group pf faithful people grow into a larger group of sustaining and nurturing people?
We have to ask huge questions: How do we choose life in the face of hard and uncertain realities? 
Do we choose life by going along as we have and hoping for the best?  Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to stay in our house and things will probably be ok?”
Do we choose life by tinkering with our programming and our outreach here and there, believing that if we just do things a little bit better, God and God’s people will be served?  Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to stay in our house; we’ll just get a little help from Meals on Wheels and our neighbors”?
Or do we choose life by holding fast to God as we take big risks?  As Moses told the Hebrew people to hold fast to God as they crossed the Jordan?  Like an elderly couple saying, “We’re going to take a chance on life by holding fast to God and making big changes.”  Like that?
Do we choose life by planting and watering, as Paul and Apollos did, and recognizing that God grants the growth?  And by receiving instead of resisting what God has to offer?
At the end of today’s epistle passage, Paul says to the Corinthians: “We are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.”  How interesting!  Paul does not say: The field over there across the street is what God needs.  Paul does not say: This church building is what God needs.  Paul does not say, “The way you’ve always done things is what God needs.” 
Paul says, “YOU are God’s field.  YOU are God’s building.”  YOU.  The community of YOU.
This should sound familiar.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are the people of grace and peace.
You are the beloved.              
You are God’s field and building.

Believe it!  Choose life!  For God gives the growth.  Shalom.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Six Week Anniversary of Ankle Surgery

Off to PT today, where I was permitted to walk (with crutches) in a regular shoe for the first time.  Painful and dizzy-inducing, but it will come. I've learned to go up and down stairs on crutches, but it's exhausting.  It's all exhausting.  I've been out of the house every day for six consecutive days, and it's so tiring that I've started sleeping in the living room again ~ I'm too tired to go upstairs.
I tried to write a post on the spiritual practice of fatigue, but . . .  I was too tired to finish it!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Turning Into a Spiritual Director ~ Part I

For the past several weeks, I've been a member of a committee working on a promotional video for the program in which I trained as a spiritual director.   Spearheaded by a young MBA/Marketing student who is also training to be a director, the video will explore the program via interviews with a group of graduates.  The committee has kindly held its meetings in my living room, since getting out is such an undertaking for me. 
My own interview for the video is next Friday, and I've had a lot of fun reflecting on the questions we've developed, starting with:
What drew you to the Ignatian Spirituality Institute?
The short answer is that my spiritual director suggested it.
The longer version:  I had made the Spiritual Exercises two years earlier.  At the time, I was doing graduate work in the Humanities at John Carroll University, and I had taken two courses in literature and spirituality as a way of meeting my professional requirements for literature courses (I was teaching high school at the time) and my personal desire to further my religious education.  The courses did not cover Ignatian spirituality per se, but my professor was a Jesuit priest, a brilliant man and a gifted educator, and it was clear to me that there was something about Ignatian spirituality that I wanted to pursue.  My professor radiated a joy in his life with God that I had seldom witnessed in anyone else, and whatever that was about ~ I wanted it.
The same professor offered a course on Ignatian spirituality during that time period, but I couldn't fit it into my schedule.  One night, my own class on Islam ended early, and I wandered down the hall and sat in on the second half of his class.  I don't remember the topic under discussion, but I do recall sinking into my seat ~ as much as one can sink into a molded plastic classroom chair ~ with a grateful sense that I had found my home. 
When the course rolled around again a couple of years later, I signed up for it, and about three weeks later asked my professor if he would help me make the Exercises.  I remember the conversation very clearly; it took place in his office late at night, after class, and I was sure that he would refuse and pass me on to someone else.  I didn't know him well at all, but I was aware that he was often away traveling, and doubted that he had the time to give me the Exercises.  Imagine my surprise when he said "Sure" and pulled out his calendar so that we could set a time!  Suddenly I was launched into . . . I had no idea what.
As that incredible year rolled to an end, my director asked whether I had considered the ISI.  I had, in a vague sort of way, because I had fallen in love with Ignatian spirituality, and credited it with changing my entire life orientation.  But the Exercises, even accommodated to my Protestant sensibilities, seemed distinctly Catholic to me, and I doubted that they would be something I could put to use in any way.  Besides, I had already made the decision, part and parcel of my experience of the Exercises, to go to seminary.  How much could a person manage?  (Much more, as things were to turn out.)
Next thing I knew, I was applying to the ISI.  Once again, prior commitments got in the way, and I had to wait until the next year to enroll, the year in which I started seminary in Pittsburgh. 
A little preposterous, to be sure. 
Thank God for Holy Spirit impracticality.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Subterranean Salt? (Sermon - Matthew)

How many of you know that Cleveland is home to a huge salt mine?  Cargill owns a mine 1800 feet under Lake Erie and four miles out from downtown. This Cleveland mine and another out by Fairport Harbor combine to produce a huge portion of the salt mined in North America.

            And have any of you ever heard of the Salt Cathedral in Poland?  I wouldn’t know anything about this one [show image] but for my daughter having spent a college semester in the Czech Republic.  While she was there, she was able to travel quite a bit, and on a trip to Poland she learned about this enormous salt mine, now closed, in which the workers left quite the record of their presence, carving out rooms and sculptures and an entire chapel, which is often in use for weddings!  Imagine getting married in a salt mine!  Even those chandeliers are made of salt, salt that’s been treated until it is so fine that it looks like glass.  And the sculptures, like this one of The Last Supper [shpw], look like granite – but they, too, are salt.

            A salt mine, whether it remains in its original state, as the Cleveland mines do, or has been transformed by Polish miners, is a pretty spectacular sight.  Huge deposits of salt carved into rooms so that miners can reach their goal – huge deposits far underground, in places most of us don’t know exist.  Huge deposits of something we take completely for granted – I’m sure there are several salt shakers in your homes – but which, until about 100 years ago, was a product of great value, difficult and expensive to attain.

            I want you to think about the church for a moment.  Think about the church, this church, as salt.  At one time, it was a beacon of great value.  A tremendous amount of money, and energy, and time, went into the building of this church, starting with this Foster Hall as its first sanctuary.  Back in the 1960s, and in the 1860s, churches like ours were deemed to be of momentous importance.  They popped up in neighborhoods all over the place, and were filled with people who were called to flavor their communities with the salt of God’s love.

            Have we now reached the point where churches like ours, like salt, are taken for granted?  People expect to see them, and most of the time they walk right on by, just as we expect to find salt in our kitchens and on our tables without taking any notice of them.  When folks think they need a church, say for a funeral or for a wedding, they expect us to be here, just as we expect to find a salt shaker when we reach for one at the dinner table.

            What has happened to our sense that we are salt for the world?  Have we become more like underground deposits of salt than like salt scattered across the globe?

            Deposits of salt, by themselves, are not of much use to us.  They go unnoticed – until just a few years ago, I had no idea that Lake Erie’s waters covered salt mines – and even if they are transformed inside, as Poland’s salt mine was, very few people realize that they are there.  Salt has to be brought out into the open before it becomes a commodity useful in preserving and preparing food.   Useful in favoring the world.

            And once it’s in the open, salt plays amazing roles in human relationships.  Perhaps even in human relationships with God.  That’s what both history and the Bible tell us.

            There’s a wonderful book entitled SALT. The nonfiction story of SALT is a whirlwind tour through world history, through which the compound salt runs as a crucial, savory thread.  Salt lies at the bottom of major world events: exploration, trade, currency, revolution, warfare.  SALT could probably be turned into a smash hit television miniseries, filled with travel and adventure and danger and romance and royalty. 

            Salt, above ground and out in the open, creates transformation.  Mine salt, and people start looking for more, and start to discover new possibilities.  Sprinkle salt around, and revolutions start: people see that life can be different than it is. 

            What does that mean for us?  If we stay as we are, we are like a salt mine under the lake – no one knows that we are here.  If we create something beautiful here in our own church and keep it here, we’re like the Polish salt mine – an intriguing place for tourists and brides, but not an exciting force in the world.  BUT – if we mine our salt, if we dig deep into scripture and prayer and worship, we will start to discover possibilities that have never occurred to us.  And if we start salting our neighborhood, perhaps a revolution will begin, will begin with a vision of new life and energy on Lake Shore Boulevard. 

            Salt was a valuable commodity long before Jesus’ time, and a valuable commodity in Jesus’ time.  And it’s a commodity with a specifically Biblical history.  Did you know that in the Old Testament, in the Book of Numbers (18:19), God refers to temple sacrifices as a sign of God’s covenant with them, as a sign of the “salt covenant?”  And that in the Book of Leviticus (2:13), God instructs the people, through Moses, saying, “You shall not omit from your grain-offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Salt was from the earliest times of the life of the Hebrew people a sign of God’s promises to them and of their reverence for God; salt, that valuable and hard-won commodity, was a sign of the love of God and of relationship with God. 

            Those Biblical allusions would have been well known to the people to whom Jesus spoke, and the people to whom Matthew wrote. One of the important things to know about the writer whom we call Matthew is that he seems to have been a Jew intent upon convincing his largely Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed the messiah promised in scripture.  Matthew spends a great deal of time on Jewish customs and scriptural passages, making all sorts of connections between Jesus and earlier writings.  Some of these connections we might not recognize right away.  We know, for instance, that salt is important.  We know that while we take it for granted, not so long ago it could not be taken for granted at all.  But we may not realize that in Jewish life, salt was a  sign:  a sign of God’s covenantal relationship with God’s people, a sign of God’s presence and promise of love and care.  The word “salt” and all that it meant was probably obvious to those who listened to Jesus, and to those who listened to or read the words of Matthew, but we ourselves have to give it some thought.  

            And what is it Jesus says about salt?  In our reading today, he’s still up on the mountain, preaching the words we know as the Sermon on the Mount, and in The Message translation, which we read this morning, he says, “You’re here to be salt-seasoning.” Interestingly, in the NRSV, the translation we usually used, he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  You ARE.  Or, “you ARE here TO BE.”  Present tense.[1]  Not “you will be” or “you might be” or “you could be.”  But you ARE.  Already.

            Imagine what those words meant to Jesus’ listeners.  Matthew’s listeners.  They already knew what salt meant: God’s presence.  God’s covenant.  God’s love.  Now they know something else: They – we – are God’s presence and covenant and love to others.  We ARE the salt of the earth.

            Notice something else that Jesus tells them: “I come not to demolish the law or the prophets, but to complete them.”  More evidence that Jesus is paying attention to Jewish life – the law, those commandments God gave Moses on another mountain long before – but expanding that law.  Not throwing it out at all, but saying instead: You are the salt who will help the make the love which is the foundation of the law known.  And Jesus is paying attention to the prophets, those who proclaim God’s justice, those who clarify what we are to do: Jesus says: You are salt; bring out God-flavors in this world. 

            And how, I ask you again, will we do that?  Not by leaving God’s gift of love buried deep under the ground, like a salt mine is.  Not by allowing it to remain beautiful but hidden, like the Salt Cathedral in Poland.

            Not merely by saying, “we have all that’s needed, here in this underground church mine that we run.  We can store God’s love safely right here.”  Not by saying, “We’ve got something beautiful here, and we’ll wait for people to come and find out – as people traveling in Eastern Europe happen upon the Salt Cathedral.”

            No.  Instead, we’re going to start asking ourselves: Are we leaving the salt of God in a subterranean cavern today?  Are we forgetting that subterranean salt is for sharing with the world? 

 Our charge comes from the God who made salt a sign of promise ro God’s Old Testament people. Our charge comes from Jesus, who took that sign and said, “You are the ones!  You are the salt!”  Our charge comes from Matthew, who wrote a gospel so that Jesus’ words would echo across the centuries.  Our charge comes from the Spirit, who says to us:
 Mine the salt!  Bring it up to the surface and scatter it around a world in need of the taste of the Lord!  Remember that salt glistens with the presence and promise of God – and so do you.  For you ARE the salt of the earth and you ARE the light of the world.  Amen

[1] Amy Oden. “Preaching This Week.” workingpreacher.org, 2014.