“What Are You?” Matthew 3:13-20

           “What are you?”  That’s a question often raised in casual conversation, usually having to do with occupation, vocation, identity or status.

            I’m a stay at home mom.

            I’m an IT person.

            I’m a grandparent.

            I’m a student.

            I’m happy.

            I’m angry and upset.

            Any number of things can be put into there.  We answer that question “What are you?” in a way that is descriptive of what we do, who we are, and what kind of identity we bear at the moment.

What are you?  

            In the 3rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus begins with a pronouncement of blessing.  “What are you?”  Jesus initial answer in the Sermon the mount is “Blessed.”  No matter what your circumstances may be at the moment, you are blessed.

            And now, as that Sermon on the Mount moves forward Jesus becomes just a little bit more specific with those Disciples that he has around him.  You are Salt.  You are light.  He says.  It is in the present tense, this is what you are!  

The shift in voice that we sensed last week as Jesus went from general blessings of  “Blessed are those” and “Blessed are they” to the more specific “Blessed are you..” intensifies here as Jesus becomes even more descriptive.   From general to specific, and the more specific Jesus gets, the more we sense also a movement from passive acceptance of your situation to a need to act because of what you are.

            Jesus’ illustration here is a little bit of a head scratcher.   How can salt lose its saltiness?   Sodium chloride is a very stable compound.   Technically, it can’t get “un-salty.”   

            But in ancient times getting a pure and refined form of Sodium Chloride was not such a simple process.   It was almost always mixed up with some other things as it was rendered from salt marshes or from deposits.  That complex mixture would stay “salty” so long as it wasn’t exposed to moisture.  Sodium Chloride is readily water soluble, and if your salt mixture got damp, watered down, the saltiness could be leached away.  What was left behind then may have still looked crystalline, looked like salt, but lacked the very compound that it was thought to contain.  When that happened, what is it good for?    Nothing!  It was thrown away.

That feels and sounds so harsh to our ears.  Are we really thrown underfoot?  Discarded if we lose our saltiness?

And the putting a lamp under a bushel thing, well that’s pretty straightforward.  It’s not that light ever loses its essential nature, but it can be obscured.

And this gets us to the point of the Gospel lesson.   You are salt, you are light, deal with it!   You are something in this world that is meant to make a difference, to do something, to flavor or to bring light.

Ah, but I don’t want to deal with it.   I don’t want to deal with what I am.

That is, it appears, quite often the case.

We recognize it even in the casual conversation when we are asked, “What are you?”

“Well, I am just a stay at home mom.” — as if somehow that was not a worthy vocation.

“Well, I’m an IT person, but …..”  

“Hey, I’m a grandparent, and it’s great, but….I have a hard time keeping up with those kids.”

“I’m just a student.”

“I’m happy… but…”

“I’m angry  and upset… and.. .I can’t do anything about it.”

We so often follow up our descriptive words with self-deprecating words.  “I am nothing special.”   “I’m not all that important.”  “There are a lot of other people who do this, are this, and who are much better at it than I am.”  We water ourselves down, don’t we?  We dim or cover our brightness.

Little by little when we do that, we begin to leech away or obscure who it is that we are.  We begin to believe that we really aren’t anyone special, even though God has called us “blessed.”

In our worst days we begin to question even our baptismal identity.   “Does God really love me that much?  I’m nothing special after all.”

Perhaps the reason Jesus’ words seem harsh here is because they need to be.   Stop doing this! 

The world needs salt!

The world needs light! 

The world needs your distinctiveness!   This is what you are, claim it!   Quit denying or diminishing the very thing that you are, the very thing that Jesus has identified you as being!

You are salt!

You are light!

Your work and your presence here brings glory to your father who is heaven.

I think part of the reason we water down or obscure out brightness is because we have been taught to be a little humble.   Don’t blow your own horn.  Maybe we come by that self-deprecation by habit or nature.

But I think another reason why our saltiness or brightness is diminished is because we engage in the game of comparisons.   We water down what we can accomplish because of what we once could accomplish, or because of what we see that others are able to do.  We look at our actions, our efforts, and judge ourselves lacking or wanting in comparison.

Yeah, we do a few good things, but not as many as we used to…

Yeah, we make a difference, but not like we once were able to…

We water down the good that we can do, the blessing that we can be.

We put our own basket over the light that we could shine in this neighborhood or in this world because we ourselves deem it as not what it used to be, not what it could be.

We become almost embarrassed at how puny our efforts seem against all the darkness, or all the need that out there in this world.

“Comparison is the thief of Joy” Theodore Roosevelt once said. If not joy, at least the ability to see our own giftedness.

It is calculated that the human eye can see the faint flickering of candle at a distance of 30 miles.  One candle is all it takes to drive back the darkness and give direction and hope.

We do a dis-service to ourselves, and to the God who has gifted us, has claimed and called us light and salt in this world when we diminish ourselves, and what we are able to do.

So maybe that’s why Jesus sounds a bit harsh here.  Maybe his scolding tone is meant to shake us out of our self-deprecation.

You are salt.  You are light.  A city built upon a hill that cannot be hidden!

But the other thing that I think is so important in this passage is to recognize that it does take someone else to point out who and what you are.

That’s how the conversation goes, does it not.

“I’m just a stay at home mom.” the woman says, and the person listening then has this opportunity to name and claim what he/she sees in that person. 

“I admire you for making that choice, for committing to that vocation.”

“I’m an IT person but you know how it is in IT now.”  

“No, I don’t know, but I’d like to hear, and you do things that I cannot begin to understand, and I’m so thankful for your skills and expertise.”

“Hey, I’m a grandparent, and it’s great but….I have a hard time keeping up with those kids.”

“Who said you had to keep up with them?  Your job is to love them and to bless them and to do the unconditional love thing.  You had your turn at having to keep up when you were a parent yourself, enjoy this, be this gift.”

“I’m just a student.”

“That’s great, learn all you can, never stop learning, never lose that hunger for knowledge and to better yourself, and never sell yourself short.  You’re not “just” a student.  You know more now when you graduate than I ever had to know at your age…”

“I’m happy… but…”

“Happiness is its own reward, enjoy it, revel in it, and take it for what it is worth in this moment.”  Someone has to remind us to do that, we won’t do it on our own.

“I’m angry … I’m upset… but.. .I can’t do anything about it.”

“Who said you can’t do anything about it?”  Someone from the outside sometimes has to help us focus that anger and that frustration into making a difference in this world.

It often takes someone from the outside of the situation to name, to bless, and focus us. 

It takes that eye 30 miles away to perceive the glow, and to give thanks for it.

It takes that person who has tasted a bit of life to help you see how you bring your own distinctive flavor into this world to make it better.

You are salt, you are light, … deal with it!   For others will recognize it in you and look to you to do what you are gifted, empowered and able to do in this world.   And when you do that, that, then Father in heaven may be given the proper glory for giving you these gifts and talents for just this time! 

You are Salt, You are Light, Jesus has said to you, and to me.   It’s time we dealt with it.

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“Something To Say” Matthew 5:1-12

I find it really hard to find an entry point here for a number of reasons.

First of all, a sermon on the beatitudes is a “sermon on a sermon.”  That is maybe obvious, but let me tell you what I mean by that.  Jesus said what he wanted to say here, and doing a sermon on it feels a bit like what we have ad-nausea at a sporting event.  You know, all that analysis and color commentary on what we just saw take place. “Let me walk you through the instant re-play here Joe, see the half back moves around…..”

Yeah, we just watched got it, Troy… .Yawn…..

Secondly, preaching on the Beatitudes always seems to break down into an endless explication of each and every “blessed,” what it means, what it could mean, what might be behind Jesus’ comments.   Who were the “poor in spirit?  What was the situation of mourners in the first century?  Etc.   You start working on this and you can get lost in trying to comment on everything in here, succumb to the endless “side-tracks” of scholarship.  It’s interesting, informative, it opens up nuance and meaning, but it really doesn’t transform or inspire.  It short, it isn’t proclamation.   It isn’t making the “good news” come alive with what it means for you.

So what is a person to do when confronted with this?   Let it stand on its own?  Choose another scripture to preach on?  Take a vacation Sunday and let a guest preacher sort it out?   Dear God, help!

As I stared at Jesus’ words here once again, there were two things that jumped out at me as being important for it to have some impact on us.

The first is almost a matter of envy, and it’s found in this observation.

Jesus has something to say.

Now, admittedly, that doesn’t sound terribly profound, until you take note of who it is that Jesus has assembled around him.  He’s got both his disciples, and he’s got this mixed assembly, a crowd which seems to include people that you and I often have a difficult time talking to, or maybe more accurately, people with whom we have a hard time figuring out just what to say.  The poor, or poor in spirit. Those who are mourning.  The meek.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… or in other words the people who have gotten the short stick in life, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the folks who get crap in this world.

Just the fact that Jesus has something to say to them is utterly amazing!  I often don’t have words to speak.

The people who wander into my church looking for someone to help them with their gas bill, or who can’t pay their utilities, or who tell me their stories of how much is going wrong for them right now.   I don’t have words for them really.   I give them a few groceries, a referral if that is warranted, maybe a tank of gas, or a listening ear, but really that’s about all I’ve got.  They still have to go back to the same world that has left them in this situation.

In my less kind moments, the words that I might speak may be far from blessing.   If I feel like I’m being played or scammed or someone is working the system on me.   Oh, I might have words I want to speak, but they are not “blessed are…”  I often have no words for those whose spirits are so beaten down they exist in the only way this world makes a way for them so to do.

I certainly don’t have words that encourage the meek, or the powerless, or those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness. And even if I have words I want to speak, they are seldom heard.    It’s clear that politics are broken.  My own experience with trying to help with a Ballot Initiatives on payday lending taught me that you cannot make your way through the hurdles thrown up by wealthy interest groups.  Rallying legislators is difficult in the gerrymandered districts that tend to carve up constituent groups.  Organizing people is hard when those who can afford little more than posterboard come up against the public media machine that can afford air time and slick television and radio ads.

It can get depressing. 

I have no words to say to the meek, those thirsty for justice, or caught in the machinations of this realm.

But the Sermon on the mount tells us that Jesus does have words for them.   “Blessed are …..”Blessed are those who find themselves in these very situations! 

In the Kingdom that Jesus comes to proclaim there will be a radical re-ordering of who gets what, and who is important, and who gets the final say in things.   It won’t follow the pattern of this world, where those who “have” get to keep it, and those who “have not” lose out all the more.

No, “Blessed” are those who find themselves in these very situations of being broken now, in grief now, powerless now, hungering and thirsting for righteousness now… for in this coming Kingdom they will receive something, and it isn’t what they usually get!

Matt Skinner, a New Testament scholar, remarks that the Beatitudes are important to understanding the Gospel of Matthew because they help make sense of the trajectory of the Gospel later on. When Jesus begins to talk about judgment, and separating the sheep and the goats, and how there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, you have to remember what Jesus had to say to those who we living in a bad place back in the Sermon on the Mount! 

As God’s Kingdom gets nearer, the overturning of “business as usual” of this world begins to happen, and those who were previously “left out” begin to see the Blessing that is theirs in the emerging Kingdom.

So first foremost, the Beatitudes remind us that Jesus has something to say to those with whom we quite off feel quite at a loss for words   .  

It’s not so much that we don’t want to say something, it’s that we just don’t have it within us.  And that curiously enough gets us to the second thing that jumped out at me, and that was the shift in direction of Jesus’ words.  

While Jesus speaks a blessing to those who are usually far from blessed, the voice and direction shifts from “Blessed are the” and “Blessed are those” to Blessed are YOU.   

In my mind I imagine Jesus directing these words not to the crowd, but to the disciples, and that would mean they are now directed to you and to me.

I have scratched my head over these words, because on their face, even though they are from Jesus and seem to be directed at us, I surely don’t hear them as good news.  They seem more an invitation to suffering, and hardship, and if that’s what it takes to get “blessed”… to have all these things fall upon me, then “no thank you Jesus.”  Why would I want to go there?  I don’t think we would willingly want to go there, and certainly Jesus’ words are not an invitation to go seeking out persecution or revulsion, as if suffering was somehow redemptive for us.

No, I think the key lies again in this coming Kingdom.

Listen, the world is changing as this Kingdom comes in, and those who are on the short end of the stick will soon find themselves in a new and better place.   Jesus has thrown his lot in with the poor and the oppressed and the mourners and those thirsting for Justice and Righteousness, and is proclaiming the Kingdom to them.  

Do you want to be part of that?

If so, you will experience and receive in this present age the things that those whom Jesus declares as “blessed.”

Hey, this isn’t rocket science.   If you throw your lot in the with those who mourn, you will find yourself shedding tears with them.  Blessed are you for willing to go there.

Throw your lot in with those working for justice and righteousness, and as this dying world tries to hold on to its own power, you will be persecuted and reviled for your efforts!

Stand up for those who cannot stand on their own, and you will get push back, and pushed over, and you will find yourself on the short end of the stick of this world as well, just as they do.

This is what Jesus has to say to those us of who sometimes are far more comfortable standing on the sidelines than in the fray of things.

You don’t really have a neutral place in this coming Kingdom.

You will either find yourself left out of the blessings coming because you preferred the life you have now, or you will find yourself on the receiving end of some of the resistance this world puts up as God’s Kingdom breaks in.

And if you are feeling the receiving end of that… well blessed are YOU!   They did that to the prophets who came before you.

They, (that is this perishing world,) will do that to you again and again until the Kingdom comes in full, and the sheep and goats are sorted, and the overturning of the “business as usual” of this world is complete.

That’s what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount.   It is good news, and it does have something to say to you. 

This Kingdom will change everything, and turn the world will be turned upside down.

Are you in for that?