A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, February 5, 2017
I can see him now. I can see Jesus on the mountaintop, preaching. I can see and imagine and hear his unadorned, naked voice speaking into the wind. There’s no sound system. There’s no cell phone, there’s no video. It’s just a voice, speaking. And the crowds are gathered. There may be disciples sitting at his feet, and there’s a crowd nearby. They’re cupping their ears, trying to hear. A baby cries.
Jesus is talking about God’s dream for the world. A radical dream. A dream where, well, He put it this way: “Blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the kingdom of God. And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
It’s a radical sermon, and it keeps getting more radical as the sermon goes on. He then gets to a point in the sermon where He says, “You’ve heard it said before, but I say to you. You’ve heard it said before, but I say to you: Love your enemies. You’ve heard it said before, but I say to you: Turn the other cheek.” And I can imagine being a preacher now and looking out at all of you and wondering what’s going on in your minds and in your hearts. He must’ve been wondering the same thing. He must have been looking out and seeing some quizzical looks on their faces, and maybe a raised eyebrow or two. Maybe arms folded at the chest. “Really? Seriously? The meek are going to inherit the earth? Those who mourn will be comforted? How can this be?”
And he must’ve thought about the crowd and wondered, how could he motivate them? How could he help the people he’s speaking to be able to not just hear it, but to grasp it and run with it? And so, he does something to put backbone up their spines. Here’s what he does: He reminds the disciples who they are. He says, “You are salt of the earth. You are the light. Let your light shine! Don’t hide it under a bushel.” He tells them who they are.
Even this morning, the fact that you’re here, the fact that you’re listening on the radio or the Internet or wherever you are, suggests to me that you too are looking for that sense of why are you here. “What does my life mean? What is the reason, the purpose of my life on this earth?”
Saw a great musical on Thursday night. Did anyone go see Pippin Thursday night at the Lied Center? Great music, circus acrobatics, and a whole bunch of shenanigans I can’t repeat to you here in the general audience. But, it tells a great story. It’s a story about King Charlemagne and his son, Pippin. Pippin is trying to find the meaning of his life. What does my life mean? I can’t find meaning, something that fulfills me in my life. He tries going to battle, and it just doesn’t do it for him. He falls into sensuality and sexuality and debauchery, and that just leaves him empty inside. Finally, he gets so desperate that he ends up – actually, it’s pretty gory – putting a knife through his father, the king’s, heart so he can be king himself. But guess what? He gets to be king and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not fulfilling the deepest desire of his heart. It is a universal story, my friends. A universal story about all of us trying to find and figure out what is our purpose in life. What is our light that we want to shine? What is the salt that we are supposed to spread throughout the world?
I love Eugene Peterson’s translation that Alex White just read to us. He said, let me tell you why you are here. You are to be salt seasoning that brings out the God flavors of this earth. You are here to be salt seasoning to bring out the God flavors of this earth. You are here to be light, and let your light shine. We’ve all known times in our lives when we felt our light was shining, when our sense of who we are and why we’re here was in perfect alignment with our actions. We could feel our light shining, that we were seasoning the world with our salt and everything was clicking, and there was no burden too heavy to bear. No challenge too insurmountable that it could not be overcome. And, at our best, we recognize we were vessels for God’s light to shine through us. And yet, the truth is, we’re not always at our best.
We’re not always instruments of God’s grace. We’re not always able to be salt to season the God flavors of this earth. We’re not always able to do that. There are times in our lives when we just can’t. Moments when we feel our spirits flag, when we feel our zeal wane. When life is not sharp and tangy, but our lives are dull and flat. Sometimes it’s a major setback – disappointments of all kinds – suffering and grief and real physical pain that incapacitates us and makes it so difficult to shine our light. But friends, sometimes it doesn’t have to be something major and calamitous. Sometimes it’s just life. It’s everyday living that can weigh us down and burden us and keep us from being God’s light in the world. And sometimes, the truth to tell is, there are days where we don’t want to be God’s light. We don’t want to be salt to season the world. And there are many days when we too have excuses and alibis of why we shouldn’t have to do this.
Friends, it was about a year ago, and maybe I’ve told you this story before. It was Sunday morning and I was in a hurry. I was getting ready and putting on my robe and getting my microphone ready, and you know we start at 9:30 on the dot. But I needed some more coffee, and I needed a cinnamon roll, and there’s Wheatfield’s across the street. I thought I could just dart over there and get what I need. I’ll be back on time. I was really pressed for time. And then there’s this fellow on the other side of Vermont Street who starts waving his hand at me. I knew he wanted something, maybe he needed to talk. I didn’t know what it was he wanted. But he started waving his hand at me. I was trying to pretend I didn’t know he was waving at me. He was obviously looking for someone else. But no, he’s looking for me. He said, “You. You.” Yeah, me. “You, are you associated with that church over there, that red brick building?” If I had time to think about it, I would’ve been truthful. But I just flat out said no. And then I felt so guilty because I lied. And I said, sometimes. You know, I thought of the other Peter, the Peter in the Bible. Remember when he denied Jesus three times? Remember that night when Jesus was arrested and he was there in the courtyard. They came up to that Peter, and they said, “I saw you with him. Do you know Jesus?” Peter said no, never met him. So, this is part of who we are. Finding excuses and alibis to not let our light shine. The Bible’s full of stories of people who make excuses, right? I mean, we can take comfort in knowing Jeremiah was called by God to preach the word and be a prophet, and Jeremiah complained openly to God and said, “Hey, look. I’m just a young person. I’m not up for this job.” Remember, Jonah was tapped by God to go to Ninevah to preach a message of repentance. Remember what Jonah did? He got on a boat and went in the opposite direction. It’s so very human to recognize in ourselves times we did not let our lights shine for whatever excuse we had. And God’s people have been coming up with alibis for why they do not have to do what God wants them to do for as long as human beings have walked this earth.
But I’ll tell you this: Jesus is not laying a guilt trip on us. He’s not here to scold us and tell us we should be somebody we’re not. Notice the tense. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light. Jesus is not calling us to be somebody we’re not. He’s calling us to be who we already are. All we have to do is open ourselves to our true selves and let that light shine. And the strength that we find in us is waiting to be discovered. It’s there already. What I want to suggest to you this morning – and this is really, really important – is we discover a strength in ourselves that we did not know we had, an inner strength. We discover that when we are willing to reach outside our comfort zone and stretch ourselves in acts of compassion and mercy and justice for others. When we are salt seasoning for the God flavors of this world and bringing out the God flavors of this world, we discover a strength inside of us that we did not know we had. Which is to say, sometimes it’s not that we try to think ourselves into a new way of being, but we act our way into a new way of thinking. Sometimes we have to fake it ‘til we make it.
Dr. Earnest Gordon was the chaplain at Princeton University for many years. He was a captive POW on the River Kwai during World War II. I want to take a moment to shout out to Dick Schiefelbusch, who had 16,000 people giving him a standing ovation at the Fieldhouse yesterday. Dick Schiefelbusch, POW in World War II. Dick, we honor you today. Dr. Earnest Gordon was a POW in World War II in a Japanese prison camp on the River Kwai. In that Japanese prison camp, Earnest Gordon said he and his fellow prisoners were initially very religious. They were reading their Bibles. They were singing hymns. They were praying. They were hoping and expecting that God would reward them and fortify their faith by freeing them. So, they started out so religious, engaged in prayer and Bible study, hoping God would deliver them. God did not. God did not come and deliver Earnest Gordon and his fellow captives in the prison camp. The men became very disillusioned and angry. Some even became faithless. They lost their faith. They gave up their outward display of their faith, but after a while, Earnest Gordon says, the men started responding to the needs of their fellow prisoners by caring for them, by protecting the weaker ones. As they began to reach out and care for each other and protect the weakest among them in the prison camp, they discovered there was the spirit of God in their midst. What they discovered, my friends, was their compassion gave them strength.
So our strength gives us the power to be compassionate, but also it is in being compassionate that we discover our strength. I want to suggest to you this morning, friends, at this moment in history, this moment in which we (you and I) have been called to live, this moment that’s been given to us, the destiny that’s been handed to us this year, 2017, in the life of our country, we are called to be light. We are called to be salt to flavor the God flavors of this world. We need it more than ever. In a time where every day we don’t know if refugees are going to be allowed to come into our country or not, when people who have green cards are worried about if they leave the United States, can they ever get back in, when families are in danger of being separated, loved ones pulled apart. When the night before last a synagogue in Chicago was vandalized with swastikas. When hatred and enmity is on the rise and people’s lives are at stake, dreams are being dashed, and suffering is imposed by the powerful upon the powerless, we are called to double down on compassion. Called to be the lighthouse in the storm, to be beacons of hope in the dark and sometimes stormy night. Friends, never underestimate the inner strength that’s inside all of us. Never underestimate the salt and the light that we have, that God has given us. We don’t have to be something we’re not. We already are, because we’re created that way. All we have to do is claim the gift we have been given by God. Amen.