Friday, February 24, 2017

Still Salty

Clark Retirement Community
February 5, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        Matthew 5:13-16

Thank you for having me here today.  It is a joy to be with you.  I must confess, though, that when I scheduled this day I did not realize that it was Super Bowl Sunday.  My apologies to you for your missing this hour of pre-game analysis – one of thirty-six hours I think.
However, it is a wonderful serendipity that the lectionary Scripture reading for today is about salt. What better topic on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the best snacking days of the year, than salt.  Of course, we know that salt is both an essential part of the human diet, and that our society easily overdoses on it.  Today, I am sure, is a big salt overdose day.
I don’t think Jesus was a nutritionist, however, and his use of the imagery of salt was unfailingly positive, and it is that image that I want to explore with you this afternoon.  My hope is to offer some new life to this passage of Scripture that we have heard so often.  I am humbled to try and do that among some who have preached on this passage a number of times yourselves. I guess you could say that I want to take this passage about salt and shake it up a bit!
“Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history,” this from Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History.  The psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, who wrote a three-volume biography of Freud, also wrote an essay on salt in 1912.  “In all ages salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding that inherent in its natural properties, interesting and important as these are.  Homer calls it a divine substance.  Plato describes it as especially dear to the Gods” (Kurlansky, 2-3).  Jesus is not alone in using salt as a positive image.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  To dig a little deeper into what this might mean we can explore more broadly the uses of salt.  I want to be careful here, though.  According to the salt industry, salt has some 14,000 uses (5).  I don’t want you to miss the entire Super Bowl.  So let me focus on four uses for salt and relate them back to the idea that we are the salt of the earth.
Salt adds flavor, it affects taste, it seasons.  This may be among our favorite uses for salt.  We know the difference when we taste something that we once ate with salt, but are now using the non-salt version.  To be sure, we can become quite uninspired in our cooking and eating if we rely too much on salt, and too much salt can ruin flavor, but there are somethings that simply seem just a little better with it – potato chips for instance.  Salt, used well, can also bring out flavors in the food we season.
I like to think that when Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth, he was thinking about this.  Eugene Peterson, in his rendering of The Bible, The Message translates Jesus words this way.  “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”  Jesus invites us to help bring the best out of others, to point to the places of grace and wonder in our world.  That’s part of what it means to be salt.
Salt is a preservative.  “Until modern times it provided the principle way to preserve food” (Kurlansky, 6).  Salt is not only used to preserve food, but the Egyptians used salt in the mummification process.  Salt keeps food for the future.  Salt prevents spoilage and decay.
Perhaps Jesus was also thinking about this when he called us the salt of the earth.  I think it is what people mean when they refer to someone as a “salt of the earth” type.  If we are called to bring out the God-flavors of this earth, to bring out the best in others, to point to places of grace and wonder, we are also called to help preserve grace and goodness where they are found.  This is not always easy.
      As human beings, we have a tendency to take things for granted.  We easily neglect the wonder and beauty and grace of our closest relationships.  Perhaps we even take for granted the good gift of life in ourselves, the powers we have and can develop.  We may take for granted that the church will always be there for me, even if I don’t help it along much, until it closes its doors.  I am sometimes concerned that we, Americans, take for granted the precious achievement that is our political system.  Whatever one may think of our new president, the fact that power was transferred peacefully from one person to another is a rarer human achievement than we might think.  Preserving institutions that offer opportunities for change, for channeling conflicts, is important to our world.  Preservation work is also a kind of salt work to which Jesus calls us.
I am from Minnesota and even more there than here, salt provides us some traction when the walkways and roadways are slippery.  Just a couple of winters ago, there was real concern in Minnesota when we had a lot of freezing rain and the salt supplies for our highway departments were getting dangerously low.
I would not suggest that Jesus, calling us the salt of the earth, had any idea of salt trucks on freeways.  Yet the idea that salt can keep us steady, keep us from losing our footing, seems an appropriate extension of Jesus image that we are the salt of the earth.  Perhaps one of the gifts we can offer each other is some steadiness along the way.  Perhaps we can help others keep from falling into hopelessness or despair.  We can help others keep moving forward on their journey of faith through our love and kindness and care and prayers.  Salt does its traction work by just being there, and there is a real power in simply being there for others.
Finally, salt blesses.  In both the Jewish and Islamic traditions, salt is used to seal a bargain, to bless an agreement.  Bringing bread and salt into a new home is a long-standing Jewish tradition, dating back to the Middle ages, as a sign of blessing.  The British for centuries carried salt into new homes for a blessing.
You are the salt of the earth.  Surely Jesus, among the things he may have meant using that image, meant that we are to be a blessing to others, that we are to bless the world as we work for justice, peace, reconciliation, kindness, compassion and love, as we share the good news of God’s love.
One final note on the image of salt, a note you might expect from a United Methodist Bishop.  John Wesley spoke of Christian conference, a means of grace in this way: Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?  He also used such phrases in a sermon on “The Repentance of Believers.”  To be the salt of the earth in the Wesleyan way may also mean engaging in conversation in ways that bring out the God-flavors, that preserve what is best, that provide traction for moving forward, that blesses.  In our world where so much gets said and so little gets communicated, perhaps being this kind of salt is among our urgent tasks.
You are the salt of the earth.  I think taking Jesus’ words seriously involves all these various meanings of salt – seasoning or bringing out God-flavors; preserving; providing traction; and blessing.  We might all agree on this, think this is all rather interesting, and now we are ready to move on to our final song, the benediction, and then find a tv for the Super Bowl.
There is something more to be added.  Jesus goes on.  “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  “If,” that tiny word, is quite a big word here.  “If” - - - salt does not have to lose its saltiness, and that’s also part of the challenge of Jesus’ words to us.  We are invited to still be salty all of our lives.
You are invited to still be salty.  You may be retired, you are called to still be salty.  You may be a retired clergy person, you are called to still be salty.  In fact, our salty faith can be a cornerstone in helping us navigate the various seasons of our lives.
Retirement can be a difficult season to navigate.  At my first Council of Bishops meeting I was asked to convene one of the covenant groups to which all the bishops are assigned. These are meant to be communities of support, care and prayer.  One of the bishops in my group shared about the challenge of getting to a new place in his life post-retirement.  When he retired, he found some new roles, some new tasks.  He worked with some institutions of higher education, but now these post-retirement commitments were coming to an end, and he was feeling a little bit lost.  It is something many experience.  I hope our group can be salt for him, helping him find his own saltiness again, but that’s what God would want for him – finding new ways to still be salty.
The call to still be salty is there even as our bodies change.  Three summers ago, the United Methodist churches in Duluth, MN decided to come together to field one softball team in the local church league.  I wanted to play, and signed up.  It had been twenty-five years since I last played church-league softball.  Running the bases on a cold evening in our third game that year, my quad muscles – the muscles on the front of my thighs, tightened something awful.  Part of the problem was the baseball shoes I was wearing, they had very little padding, and after twenty-five years, I needed more comfortable shoes.  I also needed to stretch out more than I needed to twenty-five years earlier.  Our bodies change and age, and we have to do some things differently.  Still we are called to be salty in whatever ways we can.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste….  Yet it does not have to.  Jesus call to be salty is an invitation that never leaves us.  It is part of the grace of God in our lives that opportunities to be salty are always there. There are always ways we can bring out the God-flavors in the world, there are always ways we can help preserve goodness in the world, there are always ways we can help others from slip-sliding away, there are always ways we can bless others.  No matter our age or stage of life, we are still salty and we are still light.
Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Jesus’ words:  Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth….  You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.  I don’t think that call ever ends, though our response changes over time.  I don’t think that invitation is ever withdrawn, though how we RSVP changes over time.
Be still salty, and if you need some more ideas about how, I invite you to hear this poem I read just this week.

What We Need    (David Budbill, The Sun, February 2017)

The Emperor,
his bullies
and henchmen,
terrorize the world
every day.

which is why
every day

we need

a little poem
of kindness,

a small song
of peace,

a brief moment
of joy.

To stay salty requires a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, brief moments of joy.  May we hear them.  To be salty can mean that we are for others a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, a brief moment of joy. 

Stay salty my friends.  Amen.

The Courage of Misfits

Albion District Day
February 4, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        I Corinthians 16:13-14
·        John 16:25-33

Thank you for coming today and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this day with you.  It is my privilege to be here.
Misfits.  We have a certain warm place in our hearts for misfits in this culture.  Maybe some of you remember the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  It was filled with endearing misfits.  Of course, there was Rudolph himself, a reindeer with the red nose.  There was the elf who aspired to be a dentist.  There was an island of misfit toys: a Charlie-in-a-box, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that squirted jelly, a bird that could not fly only swim, a boat that did not float, a cowboy who rides an ostrich.  Yes, I did watch some of this on You Tube – who says that sermon research has to be dull!
Maybe some of you remember the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  When I was a child, we had to wait a year to see the movie.  It was broadcast once a year on network television.  “The Wizard of Oz” is also filled with misfits.  There is the talking scarecrow without a brain – though he is often wise.  When asked by Dorothy how he could talk without a brain, he replied: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”  There is the tin man without a heart, who, when he gets one utters one of my favorite lines in the movie.  “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”  There is the lion with the basic fault, he lacks courage.  The Wizard of Oz himself is a misfit, all puff and smoke with little behind it.
In our culture we have a warm place in our hearts for misfits, and I could argue that this may be rooted in some residual sense of God’s grace that yet permeates our culture.  God’s grace is grace for misfits.  God often calls misfits.  Scott is right.  Think of some of the famous characters in our Scriptures: Abraham and Sarah called to conceive a child in their old age – Sarah can’t help but laugh; Jacob the scoundrel also the parent with Leah and Rachel of the tribes of Israel; Moses – he of staggering speech; David – too young and small, and then too enamored with another man’s wife; Mary – young and unmarried; James and John – sons of Thunder; Peter – impetuous; Paul – dripping with raging self-righteousness.  This unlikely cast of characters are the “heroes” of our faith.
I stand before you in this wonderful tradition, a misfit bishop.  Some can recall grandparents who nurtured them in the faith.  Two of my grandparents were marginally churched at best, one was hostile to the church, and my dad’s mom a Catholic her entire life, but not a woman who shared her faith.  My own father was unchurched.  I remember his presence at my confirmation, joking with another unchurched dad about how the building might collapse because they were both in it at the same time.  My mom got us to church often enough, but it was not a center for our life.  My journey of faith has not been a straight line.  I think questions can be as important as affirmations.  Such a background does not really fit one for the role of bishop.  Yet God called me, first by name to tell me I was loved in Jesus, and then into ordained ministry.  Continuing to follow the Spirit on this adventuresome journey has brought me here, as a bishop of the church, the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan.
I do believe I am here as part of following the call of God in Jesus Christ in my life.  I also believe God calls each of us.  God has called each of you by name to tell you that you are loved in Jesus Christ.  It is good to be reminded of that call often.  In a world that frequently beats against us, tells us that we are inadequate, reminds us of all we don’t yet have or all that we are not yet, we need to hear that call of God, speaking our name in love and care.
God also calls each of us to be about God’s work in the world, the work of sharing good news, the work of healing, the work of compassion, the work of feeding the hungry, the work of justice, the work of peace, the work of reconciliation.  God calls us to this work.  God equips us uniquely for this work – calling forth our best gifts, inviting us to develop our gifts and skills.  In a word, God “fits” us for this work.  For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:10).  Later: But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift….  Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:7, 15-16)
Yet even as God is fitting us for God’s work, we find that we remain misfits.  We are mis-fitted for so much of what is going on in our world.  I love the way Eugene Peterson renders part of the early verses in Romans 12.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  In fitting us for the work of God, the work to which God calls us, the Spirit of God is inviting us to be intentional misfits in an often strange and estranged world.
We are misfits because we are people of faith in a very cynical time.  We believe trust is possible.  We trust that God remains at work in the world, even when we hear God’s name misused and abused.  We trust that God continues to work for love, justice, peace, healing reconciliation.  We trust that persuasion is important and that conversation matters.  John Wesley believed that people coming together in holy conversation was a means of grace, and we trust that in a time when people talking at and past one another seems the current standard of communication.
We are misfits in that we are people of hope in the midst of despair.  Because we trust that God continues to be at work in the world, we do not give up.  That does not mean we do not feel discouragement or despair, but hope lets those be what they are and helps us move through them.  The poet and author David Whyte writes, Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us.  A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.  (Consolations, 57)
We are misfits in that we continue to trust in the power of love in a world that is so often fearful and cruel and unkind.  I think I will just let that statement stand.
We are misfits in that we trust in the value of humility in a time when hubris seems quite valued.  Hubris is a fancy word for pride, but I like the alliteration with humility.  Humility is not groveling or weakness or feeling lousy about yourself.  I think of humility as a gentle strength that helps us approach the world and other people with openness and curiosity – knowing that in this wonderfully complex and beautiful world there is always more to learn, and honestly acknowledging that sometimes we get it wrong.
This invitation to be intentional misfits is an invitation and a call to courage.  We need courage to be intentional misfits.  A favorite Scripture passage of mine is I Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.”  It is a verse I have carried in my heart for a long time, and it is easily remembered.  Since my election as a bishop this summer, though, I have begun to appreciate the verse that immediately precedes it and provides some additional depth.  As someone who believes passionately in reading the Scriptures in their widest context, I am embarrassed to admit that I had not paid sufficient attention to verse 13.  Here are the verses together: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.  To live in this world with gentleness, kindness and love asks of us deep courage.
Jesus asks of us deep courage.  In this exchange with the disciples in John 16, which has a bit of humor, I think – Jesus talking about coming from the Father and coming into the world and going back to the Father, that interesting “John” language – and the disciples responding, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly” – really!!.... in that exchange Jesus ends by saying, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  The courage of misfits.
If being fitted for God’s work of love means being intentional misfits in our world and being intentional misfits requires courage, what is this courage and where do we find it?  These are large questions and I am aware of the time, so I want to explore these briefly.
Writers like Parker Palmer and David Whyte have noted that our word for courage comes from the French word for heart – Coeur.  Whyte writes: Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with one another, with a community, a work; a future….  Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive. (Consolations, 39,40)  Courage has to do with hanging in there with life, even in the discomfort of being a misfit.  “Courage always includes a risk” the theologian Paul Tillich reminds us (The Courage to Be, 155)  I have been challenged recently in my thinking about courage by Gil Rendle’s monograph on courage entitled “A Call to Quiet Courage.”  It is a document being read by the Bishop’s Commission on the Way Forward.  Rendle talks about the courage we need in the church right now as a quiet courage, a steady purposefulness.  Leaders, and I would say intentional misfits, need to be able to focus on our purpose, the mission God gives us, and remind ourselves and others to keep moving.  This kind of courage is characterized by thoughtfulness – we recognize risks and challenges, and resolve -  we focus on moving forward.  This kind of courage risks disturbing others in purposeful ways.
Courage is having our hearts committed to the work of God in Jesus Christ, focusing on that work, taking thoughtful risks for that work, being willing to be intentional misfits for that work.
So where does such courage come from?
It comes from staying connected to God in Jesus Christ.  In his unique way, Paul Tillich affirms that by saying that “courage needs the power of being” (155).  In fact, Tillich argues, to know courage is to know something of the very heart of God.  “Courage has revealing power, the courage to be is the key to being-itself” (181)  When we know we are loved by God, we know courage.  We need not be afraid to trust in a cynical time, to hope in the midst of despair, to love in an unkind world, to be humble when hubris is so often rewarded.
Courage also comes from connecting with the deep places in our hearts.  I love these words from Parker Palmer from his essay “Leading From Within.”  We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to lead from one of those places to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. (94)  If there is something of the nature of courage in the very nature of God, and we are created in the image of God, then there is courage in our hearts, including the courage to look deep within and see those other realities – fear, despair, anxiety – to see them, to know them and to know that we do not have to live them.
Courage also comes from connecting with each other in our communities of faith.  You are here today to learn, and that is wonderful.  I hope you have also come to be “encouraged” by each other, literally to get some courage from each other.
A number of years ago I was driving between appointments as a pastor on Minnesota’s Iron Range.  On public radio that day was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney speaking from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – reading poems and sharing a bit in-between.  After reading a poem dedicated to his brother called “Keeping Going,” Heaney commented: “Keeping going in art and in life are what it is all about, getting started, keeping going and getting started again.”  It is a word about courage that I’ve never forgotten.

Imagine, God calls each of us by name, and then calls us to share in God’s work in the world, as misfit as we are.  God fits us for God’s work, but in the process we are often misfits in this world of ours.  God grant us the courage to be God’s intentional misfits, to get started, to keep going, and to get started again.  God’s Spirit nurture within us with the courage of misfits.  Amen.