After writing about preaching last week, I had the opportunity to preach yesterday at the Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. God does move in mischievous ways—testing me to see if I could practice what I advocated. [Some of us are better on paper, you know.] Here is a portion of what I preached.
These days there is much talk about being “spiritual, but not religious.” That is an interesting self-description, and probably suggests a significant disaffection with what we are doing this morning. Diana Butler Bass says . . . this language is “both a critique of institutional religion and a longing for meaningful connection. It is a way of saying I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.” [Christianity After Religion.] We lament the departure of so many from institutional forms of religion, and we might listen to them with benefit as we consider our religious practices. They do not want the church to be invisible on the social landscape.
Our lectionary texts interrogate our patterns of faith, calling us to consider whether our religious expressions lack spiritual depth; true spirituality always leads to concern for the welfare of others. We stand at a propitious intersection in our nation, and persons of good will on both sides of the political divide wonder about national healing. I believe it is a historic moment for the church, and it requires our best thinking and action.
The Isaiah passage (58:1-9a) is hardly a mild pastoral sermon of encouragement; rather, the prophet thunders God’s righteous judgment against the covenant people for their attention to religious practices without attention to justice and mercy. The prophet outlines the way that the community is seeking God, demonstrating that they do not understand God’s ways. They are fasting, observing Sabbath, yet doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. The prophet names them: hungry, homeless, yoked to unfair systems–perhaps even relatives they are ignoring. Cultic rites directed toward God are not acceptable; the people of God are to demonstrate their love for God through concrete acts of mercy. As the Old Testament scholar Westermann puts it: “helping to restore a person’s freedom is more pleasing to God than mortifying one’s flesh.”
Their religion—of which they are proud—puts them at a distance from true expression of righteousness. Thus they feel that their fasting and prayers are ignored; and seemingly, they are. The prophet is calling them to honesty about wrongly motivated religion—and tells them why God is not listening.
The Gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-20) comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus wants them to understand what makes for a credible witness in a needy world. He uses two very common images: salt as seasoning and the single lamp that was used in the one-room house of the Palestinian peasant.
Jesus sets before them an expansive vision: they have a responsibility for all of humanity. “Salt for all humankind” certainly summons his followers to an encompassing mission. The same breadth of concern Jesus carries is to be shared by his disciples. It is for the whole world. He is beckoning them to carry more of the world in their hearts than day to day fishing expeditions or tending the home or tax collecting might require of them.
“Salt for all” suggests a great responsibility, thus the tragedy of worthless salt is all the greater. If salt loses its taste, it has no way to accomplish its purpose.
I am sure you have known some persons you would describe as “salt of the earth,” those persons who seem to bring meaning and focus to whatever they are involved in. They are not so concerned to stand out as to enhance the well-being of others. They are more geared to enriching the lives of others than parading their own gifts.
Jesus also instructs his hearers that they are to be light for the whole world. Their acts are to be a public reminder of God’s desire for human living.
There is a paradox in Jesus’ teaching about good works, isn’t there? Don’t parade your good works before others, he instructs in one teaching session. Here he suggests that our good works must be public enterprises in order that others will benefit from their witness. “Everyone in the house needs light,” Jesus says, “therefore let your light so shine before people.”
If we simply to leave this teaching there, we might be a bit confused. But the passage goes on: “so that they may see the good things you do and give praise to your God in heaven.”
Thus, our light in the world is meant to reflect the goodness of God more than it is our own goodness. We live in a world that is characterized by deep challenges to the viability of belief in God, especially in the face of enormous atrocities that nearly overwhelm.
We live as citizens of this world, but also as participants in the Reign of God—often thought foolish in the calculus of a different ethical system. The reign of God does not measure power by dominance, but rather by self-giving love.
If we do not live as salt and light, as transformed and transforming persons, how will the gospel of Christ have any credibility at all? If the Gospel has no power to change how we relate to others and the groaning brokenness of our world, why should anyone want to embrace its message? We can be religious, but not spiritually grounded, and the world knows the difference.
So, dear people of God, will we be insular in our religious practices, pious but not merciful? Will we be salt and light or tasteless and dim? More than ever, God is counting on us to live as if the Gospel is true. The mending of our fractured world depends upon it. And we may discover that we can be both spiritual and religious!
Molly T. Marshall