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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Salt And Light And Perfection - 02/05/2017

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the light of the world, Jesus says to each of us today.

I think there's a lot of really interesting stuff in this next section of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount we have this week. And it gets interesting right off the bat. 

You are salt, you are light, Jesus says. Not, if you follow this law precisely or offer this sacrifice in this way, you will be salt and light.

And not, you will be eligible to be salt and light if you wait until this time next year, or wait until you are visited by the angel of God, or wait until you have some kind of public conversion experience.

No, Jesus tells us, straight up, no caveats or hoops of fire or anything like that … you are salt, you are light. You are these things already.

Thinking of it in this way also shows it as a gift from God. Much like our faith or God's grace, it comes to us freely and because God wants it to no matter what we have done or have not done .. no matter … what did our order of confession and forgiveness say? … no matter if we have spoken or acted too quickly or not at all; no matter if we've hurt those close to us or those we do not know, no matter if we have been puffed up in arrogance or deflated in self-loathing … no matter … you are already salt of the earth and the light of the world.

One way I like to think of our salty nature is that God has created us to enhance the flavor of and preserve this planet and all that is in it … two particularly useful properties of salt. Our saltiness enhances our experiences of love and pleasure, and it also preserves us in our experiences of loss and grief.

And as the light of the world, particularly for us followers of Jesus, God has created us to be beacons – people see this light in us, they are attracted to it and want to know more about it, how it is connected to Jesus, what he taught, how his life, death and resurrection matter to us right here and right now. We become navigational aids of sorts, and sources of illumination for the rest of the world, helping those who do not know the love of God in their lives find their way to it; helping those who do know that love but have turned away from God to come back into the warmth and safety of that light.

Light has come up in our readings repeatedly in this season after Epiphany … a time when we consider how Jesus, a light in the darkness, is revealed to be the Messiah, the anointed one, God with us. The theme is strong in our readings again today. From Isaiah we read that in our worship of God, it is when we share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses, and help cover the naked and vulnerable that our God-given “light shall break forth like the dawn.”

And the Psalmist today proclaims that when we live our lives in fear of the Lord – which remember in Bible language means to live in awe and wonder of God's power and submit ourselves to God's will – when we live like that we “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright,” our light attracts others because it shows us to be “gracious, merciful, and righteous.”

I heard another story about light this week that moved me profoundly. Patsy LaCombe was sharing some inspiration she gained from a presentation her daughter Stephanie made regarding her journey following the loss of her child. She spoke right to this passage of Matthew we have today and said if you take something like a clay jar and put a light inside it, the light pretty much stays inside that jar. But if that clay jar becomes cracked and chipped, the light can shine through.

It was a moment of epiphany for me – God's light, our light of the world – shines through our brokenness – not our perfection.

All week long I've carried with story with me, applying it to people and situations I myself have witnessed. It was in the course of that remembering that a particular experience came to mind.

A few years ago, I had an unexpected opportunity to hear the testimony of a former gang banger from Chicago named Max. Max's story is one that is unfamiliar to many of us. He is of Latino heritage and his family is one of many trapped in the cycle of poverty and racism in one of Chicago's neighborhoods.

When Max was growing up, his family became home to another boy, who I'll call Louis. Louis' family situation wasn't so great, and he found more stability and nurturing in Max's home. Max and Louis grew to be more like brothers than friends. The relationship they had was central to their lives. The way Max talked about it, these two were truly gifts from God to each other.

Now in these neighborhoods, you have to understand that gang life is often the only option these kids can see. They do not have access to schools or resources that open up the world of other possibilities to them. I didn't realize how powerful this reality was until I heard that many of the kids growing up in the neighborhoods on the west side of Chicago had never seen Lake Michigan, which is in some cases as close as five miles away. Can you imagine that? That's like someone here living up at Wandering Wheels campground never seeing this bay of Lake Superior right in their backyard.

But that's how rare it is for some of these kids in Chicago to get out of their neighborhoods, to even begin to get a tiny glimpse of the wider world. Understanding that kind of reality these kids lives in, makes it a little easier to understand the powerful forces that drive so many of them into the gang banger life. It's not really a choice, for many, according to Max, it seems like the only option you have to survive in that environment. If you're in a gang, you have some protection and, a broken as it may be, you also have a community.

Well, Max and Louis kind of stuck together and resisted a lot of the pressure to join the gang, instead leaning on each other and maybe listening a little more intently to their mothers and grandmothers warning them to stay out of the gang life.

But everything changed one day when Louis was killed in a drive-by shooting, right in front of his brother Max. Max was 16 years old. Within a week, reeling in grief and given no vision of another way, he found out which gang was responsible for the drive by and he retaliated and took the life of someone else.

Because of he severity of his crime, he was tried as an adult and sent to prison. Even though he was really just a baby, he survived that long sentence in prison. Not only did he survive, but God broke in on him while he was imprisoned.

He was a mature man when he was released and he was a man with a mission. He now spends his days seeking out young kids in Chicago's neighborhoods who are getting or already are caught up in the gang banger life and tries to get them on a different path. It's hard work, I don't know what his success rate is, but I believe it's got to be heartbreaking work at times – far too many Louises go down in the streets of Chicago every week.

But Max … as I sat there listening to his story in a quiet corner of an old church, I couldn't help but think of the reality that this man in front of me had killed someone. At the age of 16 he had seen and done things that were so utterly foreign to me and my experience as a child from a different neighborhood in Chicago not so far from his. I couldn't even begin to wrap my brain around how one comes back from something like that – comes back to society, comes back to those neighborhoods, comes back to God. But he did. I don't know what has transpired for Max in the couple of years since I heard him speak, but I pray he's still at this hard and holy work.

Max's clay pot, like Stephanie's, was broken so badly. If it were up to us instead of God, these pots were broken so badly that maybe they would have just been discarded somehow – Max a broken criminal whose roads led him only back to more prison time; Stephanie, a broken parent lost in bitterness and grief.

But that's not what happened – instead their lights in this world shine brilliantly through those cracks, through all that brokenness.

And that tells us so much about how God uses us disciples, doesn't it? Some of us have been broken in this life very badly like Stephanie and Max, but I think more often those cracks in our clay jars come in much smaller varieties – cracks left by people who have hurt us, cracks made by our own sin. Brokenness from disease and relationships that go through dark and lonely times. Chips and scratches caused by hurtful words and actions from those we trust … regrets over things we did or did not do or say our selves.

But God knows this about us, God has always known this about us – and in ingenious ways that only God can bring about, our already natures as salt and light in this world bursts through that brokenness – enhancing and preserving, navigating and illuminating the life we are all meant for in God's plan.

How powerful is that? How earth shattering and full of God's endless potential through us and our precious and broken clay pots is that?

It's almost as powerful and earth shattering and full of potential as the sacred table we will turn our attention to next – the table where we eat the bread and drink the wine that came to use through the brokenness of the cress and shows us that Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light that no darkness hall overcome.

Thanks be to God for Jesus and for our broken clay pots.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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