United Church of Christ
an open and affirming congregation
Worshiping at Smith Chapel
on the Simpson College campus
Pastor: Rev. Julia Tipton Rendon
Jan. 9, 2020 Pat Singer
I’ve always liked these two biblical metaphors. To me, they are sentimental and uplifting. I liked them so much that when I was in graduate school, I made my sister a Christmas present using these metaphors. I remembered a picture of her when she was about 2 or 3 years old. We were on a beach somewhere and it must have been cold outside, because she was kind of bundled up. She was stretching one foot out into the oncoming wave that washed ashore. She was testing the waters totally unaware of what could have happened if the wave was too big for her. I framed that photo around the words, “you are the salt of the earth”, you are a light for the world.
But I never really considered what it means to be salt and light. And I really didn’t care, because the metaphors were still warm and fuzzy to me. Why would I want to want them to challenge my way of living? So, my assignment this week was to consider what it means to be salt and light. I started by looking at the placement of the metaphors in Matthew. They come immediately after the beatitudes. So the context for light and salt has been set up for us.
Life for Jewish people in first century Palestine was hard. The lines drawn in the sand by the prevailing world view excluded the Jews. Today, the lines drawn in the sand by the prevailing national view excludes the poor who earn an unsustainable wage and are considered lazy, the refugees and immigrants who are thought to consume our tax dollars and take our jobs, the mentally ill who just have to get their act together, people whose pre-existing conditions force them to be on social security. Jesus attracts a down-trodden crowd who want to hear a promise for relief.
You came here today for a variety of reasons. But we all are seeking something. I’m going to read the beatitudes - not to fill time and space – but to have you listen to where you fit in with the crowd that sought out Jesus. I will provide 2 versions – the version we are familiar with and the version from the message.
You are blessed when you have lost what is most dear to you.
You are blessed when you are content with who you are – no more, no less.
You are blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.
You are blessed when you care.
You are blessed when you get your inside world – mind and heart – put right.
You are blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
How many of you could identify with one of these groups of people? We are all in the same boat. We are blessed. When the going gets rough, we are reminded that God has our backs. So with that assurance that God is with us, Jesus asks us to be salt and light.
Last Sunday, I skipped church to go hear Elizabeth Warren speak on campus. Most of us stood for 2 hours waiting for Warren. That lengthy wait provided ample opportunity to “meet your neighbor”. I met a couple who had come from Canada – Edmonton, Alberta – to observe the caucus process in Iowa. It had always been on their bucket list to see what caucuses are all about. That is not my idea of a dream vacation. I met a woman from Virginia, whose daughter worked for the Warren campaign. We discovered that we had lot in common with one another. Reporters infiltrated the crowd: I got hit up by 2 students doing research – one had a 4 page questionaire that took forever to fill out, a news agency I had not heard of, the Wall Street Journal and a news agency from France. I expressed my concern about the need for living wage and affordable, quality health care for all. I didn’t need those things, but too many people in the U.S. do need those things, and this was my opportunity to support Warren on behalf of people who are not like me. The woman from France said that her country is perplexed that people in the U.S. have to pay so much for health care. It is a totally foreign concept for most of Europe. The same can be said about our high cost of college education.
While Elizabeth Warren spoke, I held up this sign whenever the spirit moved me. So, here I am with this sign going up and down and I’m thinking about “how are we to be light and salt?”. How are we to be light and salt? I just don’t get it. A couple days later, the placard smacked me in the face. Courage without cynicism. Of course. For too many days in the last 3 years, that bushel basket of cynicism has descended over my light. Our country has become so polarized that conversation and cooperation seems no longer possible. Dialog is a lose-lose proposition. But I’m also seeing people for whom that polarization energizes them to speak and act for justice despite the lack of ears to hear. A bunch of these people just left Iowa and are on to New Hampshire.
This summer, I picked up this book called “Good People in an Evil Time”. The book is a compellation of stories from the War in Bosnia. Crossroads welcomed 2 families from Bosnia during their civil war 20 years ago. The author of the book is Svetlana Broz. She is the granddaughter of Marshall Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia during WWII. Yugoslavia became an allied country despite the fact that it was communist. Svetlana is a physician. Her patients told stories about their experiences in the war. They needed to tell stories. It became obvious to Svetlana that she could serve her patients better by listening to their stories rather than meet their medical needs. So she gathered stories and these were translated into English. The translations are raw and often confusing.
I want to share one short story. But you need a bit of background. Yugoslavia splintered into 5 federal states after WWII: Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. Slobadon Milosovic became the president of Serbia. Serbians are predominantly Orthodox. During his tenure, he pressed his way into Bosnia to expand Serbian influence. He tried to eliminate two ethnic groups in Bosnia: the Croats (Roman Catholic) and the Bosniaks (Muslim). So, in Bosnia, there were 3 religious traditions: Serbs were Orthodox and they were the aggressors, Croats were Roman Catholic, and Bosniaks were Muslim.
Read the story from a Croat:
While the political and military leadership in Serbia constructed artificial boundaries between ethnic groups, everyday people in Bosnia continued to cross those boundaries with courage. They didn’t fight the boundaries, but they defied the boundaries to help one another survive in a violent world that no longer made sense. In fact, all of the stories in Broz’s book are about neighbor helping neighbor without regard to ethnic background. That is courage overcoming cynicism. That is salt.
These stories remind me that humanity and justice are meted out neighbor-to-neighbor, story by story. I’m not saying that challenging structures is not important. It certainly is. Social security for people like Denise is in danger of being cut. Already 60% of those who apply for medical social security are turned down. Trump wants to cut 2.6 billion dollars from the program and every recipient will have to get re-diagnosed every couple of years – like cerebral palsy will miraculously disappear. So yes, structures have to be addressed
What I’m saying is that all of us can be light in the darkness. There is a need for courage in every corner of our world. We need to recognize the blessedness of the people we encounter no matter what side of the line they stand on and invite them into the boat of blessed people where they can be comforted and soothed.
Former Ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, recently retired after 34 years working in the state department. She loved her job. But, on the other hand, for the first time in 34 years, she can speak freely. And she did so without an ounce of cynicism or anger or personal attacks. She wrote to the citizens of the United States. Here is an excerpt:
We need to stand up for our values, defend our institutions, participate in civil society and support a free press. Every citizen doesn’t need to do everything, but each one of us can do one thing. And every day, I see American citizens around me doing just that: reanimating the Constitution and the values it represents. We do this even when the odds seem against us, even when wrongdoers seem to be rewarded, because it is the right thing to do.
We can do one thing. We can be a light as small as a candle or we can be a single grain of salt. Every act that erases the lines drawn in the sand, feeds people, restores laughter, equips people, reveals God’s love, is an act of courage. Many small lights become a beacon and many grains of salt flavors a feast. We can do one thing.
Benediction: We are blessed. We are salt. We are light. We are courageous. When we remember those things, we can live and spread God’s love.
Sept. 15 by Mairi Winslow
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