Monday, February 7, 2011

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 6, 2011 (Matthew 5:13-20)

Moving to Virginia has deepened my appreciation for a number of things.  The amount of history, for example, that took place in this state can’t be beat.  Pivotal events at our nation’s birth and in the War Between the States happened on practically every street corner.  Jamestown, Yorktown, Monticello, Appamattox, Busch Gardens…the list goes on and on.  But it is not Virginia’s unparalleled contributions to American history for which I have developed the greatest appreciation.

Eight U.S. presidents, and four of the first five, hail from this fine Commonwealth—more than any other state—making Virginia the “Birthplace of Presidents.”  But it is not Virginia’s preeminence in producing leaders that has attracted my greatest attention.

Virginia has wonderful mix of both the mountains and the coast.  The stunning beauty of, say, the Shenandoah Valley and the rugged hills of the Cumberland Gap are matched by the pristine beaches of the Eastern Shore.  And I know beauty when I see it, because I come from North Carolina—the vale of humility—the only state in the union that outdoes Virginia in this department.  But it is not the topographical charms of my new home state that has brought about such admiration from this newcomer.

It is, rather, the preponderance of personalized license plates here.  That was, to be sure, the first thing I noticed when I moved from Pennsylvania.  In fact, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Virginia leads the nation in what they call “vanity plate penetration rate,” which is the percentage of motor vehicles that bear personalized license plates.  Slightly more than 16% of cars registered in Virginia—that’s one out of every six—have license plates that have been specifically worded by the driver.  The next highest is New Hampshire at a measly 14%.  When Melinda and I first reported to the DMV two years ago, the thought crossed our heads that perhaps we might need a personalized license plate to fit in here, but in the end a lack of creativity and a desire for anonymity held sway, and the vanity plate did not penetrate.  I opted instead for XRY-6266, the plate that just happened to be next on the desk clerk’s pile.

I like slipping through traffic and into parking spaces in my otherwise nameless titanium gray hatchback.  It’s just a car: there are plenty of us out there on the roads, and there’s nothing about my vehicle that will call attention to itself.  But in the intervening time, I’ve come to develop an admiration for those vanity plates.  In a way, they spice up the commute, make waiting at a stoplight a little more interesting.  It’s nice to show up at church and park next to a minivan named “D TRICK” and contemplate the meaning of the mysterious “NO MONET.”  Standing for something, they stand out.  They add, you may say, a little seasoning to the ordinary task of driving.

I imagine that Jesus would have liked his disciples to go about with personalized license plates.  In a way, he requested that they do, but not necessarily on their mode of transportation.  Jesus wanted their lives to be seasoning and preservation for the road of life.  His desire was that his followers would stand for something, standing out by the way that they lived.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he said, as he addressed the crowd of followers in the sermon on the Mount.  “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill could not be hid.”  No nameless titanium gray hatchback here, no random number assigned from the desk clerk!  Jesus knew that his disciples should be known, far and wide.

salt harvest, Bolivia
Like salt, which added flavor and preservative qualities to the food it touched, Jesus’ followers bore the ability to bring out the best in the human race.  Their Christ-like peacemaking and humility would be able to transform those with which they came into contact.  Like a lamp, which would never be lit and then shoved under a bushel basket, those claimed by his kingdom would shine with a righteousness that exceeded that of the law-adoring Pharisees.  Like a city on a hill, their relationships with one another would be a beacon to travelers in the wilderness.  In fact, Jerusalem, with its temple, was a city on its hill.  Jesus knows his followers will be a new mount Zion, a living, breathing Jerusalem that will be home to God’s own Spirit, blessing the world with promise of salvation. Nope, no anonymity here, like salt that has become useless, flavorless granules, or a covered-up candle.  Jesus’ followers would spice up and light up the whole planet earth with good news and good works that would signal to everyone that a Father in heaven loves and extends mercy to all.

 At each baptism, we light a candle and hand it to the baptized or the baptized’s parents and repeat part of Jesus’ words to his followers. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  It is a fitting way remind us all that those who have been claimed by Christ are to lead their lives in a way that reflects the grace of God’s kingdom.  That is, the word about Jesus’ death and resurrection has been spoken to us; we cling to that in faith and then show that in our words and actions.  It is a powerful message to convey at the beginning of a Christian’s baptismal journey.  But what has always struck me about this passage about salt and light is that it was originally addressed to a community, an assembly, not to an individual, which is how we often take it.  “You yourselves are the salt of the earth,” is closer to what Jesus said.  If he were from certain parts of Virginia, he might have said, "'Y’all' are the light of the world."

At this point, Jesus has just finished talking about those whom the world typically throws under the bus: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who practice mercy, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, of all things—and he has said, surprisingly, that, in God’s kingdom, those are the ones who are blessed.  Those who are pure in heart, those who practice peace, who are taunted and mocked and thrown in jail for the sake of God’s cause—those are the ones who most embody the righteousness God always had in mind for God’s people.  This was the essence of the entirety of God’s law and the words of the prophets.  What could not be accomplished by the countless efforts of Israel through the years was now going to be fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth and bestowed on this ramshackle group who follows him.  It is those people, gathered around him on that mountain that day, gathered in the various catacombs and underground worship places for fear of persecution, who hear, “You—you guys, y’all—you are going to embody these peculiar blessings of the kingdom—and that makes you, ramshackle following that you are, the light of the world.”

I wonder if the church still understands this about itself today?  We take it to heart as individuals, perhaps, but what about as a community?  Do we understand our light-giving qualities, our duty as earth-preservers?  Do we toil and give witness as a loose assortment of religious individuals, people who think about God and show up on Sunday mornings here and there to do it together, or do we nurture our collective witness more wholesomely, by practicing, let’s say, peace and humility among ourselves?  Do we lift up the importance of our life together, as Jesus so clearly does?

A major study in 2010 on religion in America conducted by The Barna Group, an organization considered to be the leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture in this country, reveals some interesting themes.  One of their overarching findings, in fact, was that the “influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.”   While, historically, the contributions of Christianity to society have been prevalent, people of faith in modern times seem to be unable to identify, even for themselves, the ways in which Christian faith makes a difference on the world.  The obstacles Christianity faces nowadays, the study suggested, had little to do with the content of Christian faith, or its styles of preaching or worship or public relations, but how Christians implement their faith in public and private.  The rushed, frenetic pace of the American life, the overpowering effect of busy schedules and sound-byte media have whittled to a minimum the type of reflection that faith’s integration requires.  “In a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of…exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required,” the study said.

The point of the study, I believe, was not to give people of faith more ammunition for railing against the prevailing culture, something that is all-too-easy for us to do.  Followers of Jesus do have the responsibility to call the world’s values into question from time to time, but the power of our witness is not in our ability to break apart and cut down or slash and burn.  It is in our capacity to shine—not just as lone rangers, but as a group, as a communion.  Jesus instigates us, in surroundings both harsh and inviting, to wear that personalized license plate and to touch the rest of the world with our life-saving selflessness.

St. Andrew's United Church of Cairo
I confess that I have not been able to concentrate fully this week on the witness of our community here like perhaps I should.  As the events of unrest and possible revolution unfold in Egypt, many of my thoughts and prayers have been with the people of Cairo and those in my internship congregation there, the tiny but fiercely salty St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo.  St. Andrew’s began in the late 1800’s as a Scottish church, but has been served by ELCA pastors and supported by our denomination’s offerings for most of the past  half-century.  It has survived every other major outbreak of upheaval in that country, steadily tending to its gospel tasks, and we have no reason to believe it will not survive whatever is happening now.  The ELCA staff in Egypt, including the pastor, have all been evacuated, leaving the small congregation and its vibrant outreach to Muslim and Christian refugees to fend for itself a while.  Unnamed perpetrators, armed with semi-automatic weapons entered the church compound this week and fired a round or two, demanding money from those who were there.  I have faith that, buoyed by prayer and the tenacity of a minority people who’ve learned to live in a rough and tumble city, they’ll be fine.

 I am thankful God showed me so much that year about the church’s role to be salt and light, to live by Christ’s righteousness alone.  It has helped me to be able to stand in this pulpit each week and look out at you not simply as individual flames of potential, flickering one-by one, but more as a glow, together, with the power to light up much more than an outdoor Christmas display.  For it’s not just your license plates that have won my appreciation, but your own unique saltiness in the ways you take care of and support one another and spur each other to bear the faith into a world that is different from Cairo, but no less oblivious to the message of peace you bear.

I fear that the studies and the researchers and the statisticians will continue to bring us what we will perceive as bad news.  We can hear the threat of decline and wring our hands, shuffle our feet, claim the world around us is going to hell in a bushel-basket.  We can drive around this place anonymously, as in a titanium gray hatchback, trying to slide in here and there without notice, going with the flow, all the time losing our saltiness and dimming our light.

Or we can shine.  We can shine, all of us—the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the meek, the mercy-needers as well as the mercy-givers—we can shine so brightly that others will see Christ’s great work in us and have no choice but to give glory to our Father in heaven.

Thanks be to God!                                                

 The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                                                        


  1. I believe you meant to say "the war of northern aggression". Very nice, almost as good as sitting in the congregation.

  2. Thanks for this post Phillip, great message although your opening about history made me chuckle - (My house in the UK was built 1717)! Those Guys in Cairo need our continual prayers.


    Chris (Wopods Bible Blog