As many of you know, especially those of you who follow me on Facebook, I spent last week on continuing education, completing the second intensive week of the ELCA’s senior pastor training program.
So early last Tuesday morning, like 3am early, I pulled myself out of bed, grabbed two cups of coffee to go, climbed in my Jeep, and made my way to Dulles airport where I boarded a plane to San Francisco, to get to the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, California.
The program itself is made up of forty pastors from all over the country who have been selected by their bishops as those who will most likely find themselves in a lead pastor role at some point in the future. As we come together, we do so under the leadership of a program staff made up of experienced lead pastors and guest presenters who are considered to be some of the best in their field of study. For those more involved in things “church”, people like Peter Steinke, Susan Beaumont, and Don Hotchkiss.
For our time in California this past week, our focus centered on the topics of church governance, leadership, and communication and hospitality… all under the acknowledgement of the reality we are all too aware of… That today’s world, the world in which we live in, is no longer one of Christendom… That is no longer one where Christ is central…
After spending a whole lot of time on day 1 talking about things that would put most people to sleep (things like how staff and committees are structured, the role of a congregations council, constitution’s and policies, and how all of these relate to ministry and the mission of a congregation), I warned you… exciting stuff… On day 2, we drew our attention to the topic of leadership…
The session was led by Tod Bolsinger; Vice President and Chief of Leadership Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary, and published author of several books, including one of our assigned readings for the week, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.
Both in his presentation and in his book, Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the illustration of the expedition of Lewis and Clark to relate to ministry and the life of the Church in a world where church is no longer central…
So, think back to your elementary school history classes. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we could say America’s first great adventurer’s, are assigned with the task of exploring the newly acquired land of the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson. Specifically, they are to explore the Missouri river with the hopes of mapping a water source that would connect with the Pacific Ocean, outlining a direct trade and communications route.
Our historians know the story well. After over a year of dangerous and difficult travel, paddling canoes upstream under threat of wild beast and exposure to the elements, Lewis and Clark and their campaign, all expert water navigators, reach the source of the Missouri River. Thinking the hard part of their journey is over, all that remains is a downstream, relaxing lazy river of a paddle to get to their final destination… and what do they see off in the distance looking back at them? The soaring jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The truth is, as my week in sunny California made clear, we are in a post Christendom world. As the statistics show, there are less and less people in the pews, more and more identifying themselves as religious “nones”… Those who answer “none of the above” when asked which religious group they are a part of.
The question is, will we, those among the faithful, turn away from the new and likely difficult journey ahead, turning in on ourselves, doing as we have always done, until the Church ceases to exist… or will we, like Lewis and Clark, move forward into the unknown with courage, with a spirit of adventure as Bolsinger writes, and learn how to climb mountains?
Our Gospel before us this morning, in many ways, lifts up this same question. First through the use of two images, salt and light, and then through Jesus’ words on what it means to follow the law.
Jesus says; 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
So what is Salt? It preserves, gives flavor, purifies, cleans and heals wounds. At pastor Mike’s bible study this past week, he noted that it makes us thirsty. To those Jesus was speaking to, salt would have been the most commonly used seasoning, and that from a faith perspective, it was a symbol of a covenant.
So Jesus continues; 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
So, what about light? What is light? Webster’s dictionary defines light as something that makes sight possible… that allows us to see. Throughout scripture, light symbolizes God and God’s presence. In the beginning God created light to break through the darkness. The sun and even the moon and stars at night. God’s word is described as “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” Then Jesus himself is deemed as the light of the world by gospel writer John… the One who calls people out of darkness and into his light.
But what does it mean for us to be salt and light? To preserve, give flavor, purify the Church… to make people thirsty for Christ and His Gospel? To allow people to see and experience the Good News? What does this mean for us?
I gotta admit, I was gonna go in a completely different direction with this sermon. In fact, up until Wednesday evening when I talked with Christina after putting the kids to bed, I had written virtually a completely different sermon. But with the responses I have seen over the course of this past week to the presidential address to the nation, I pretty much threw most of it out.
Two weeks ago, I stood up here on Reconciling in Christ weekend and I preached a message to welcome others… to love others as you are loved by God… To be more aware of our words and actions. To extend welcome regardless of our differences (seen and unseen), not only to those who have not yet come to church but to those who are already here as well. To stop and think before opening our mouths and before posting things on social media that could potentially damage or even bring to an end relationships with each other, or worse with the Church itself.
And I gotta tell ya… this week, from what I saw on Facebook and heard people saying in person, I thought to myself, why do I even do what I do? Why do I waste my time, hours out of my week, time away from my family, all to raise my blood pressure, writing a sermon when so often it can feel as though no one is listening… I know Pastor Mike and our retired pastors gathered here this morning know all too well this feeling.
You are salt, called to be the light of Christ in our world. A world that is no longer one where Christ and the Gospel are at the center of peoples lives. The United States is currently one of the greatest mission sites on the planet. There are more un-churched people here than almost anywhere else in the world. The battle is no longer how to keep people following their confirmation, but how to get people here in the first place.
What you do matters. What you say and how you say it matters. How you act and live out your lives matters. Whether you are at work, among friends, or among enemies, whether you are sitting in the pews here at church or at your computer, you are representatives of Christ and of His Church.
Tod Bolsinger is exactly right. The Church in today’s world is called to climb mountains. Being a follower of Christ is harder today than ever before. But it’s all the more difficult when the actions of God’s people become mountains themselves.
As Jesus goes on in today’s gospel, he moves our attention to the law. He says; whoever breaks the law, even the least of these commandments, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven… For I tell you, unless you righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…
Some will hear these words from Jesus explicitly as a word of law. And quite honestly, that’s what they appear to be. But here’s the thing, and Jesus is fully aware of this as he speaks in today’s gospel, there is no amount of following the law, of following what scripture commands, that is going ensure our spot in heaven. No matter if you are Mother Teresa or Gandhi, Hitler himself, or somewhere in between, your righteousness, your being made right with God and your place in the kingdom has nothing to do with you… It has to do with Christ… with his sacrificial death on the cross and his rising from the grave.
And that’s what we are called to be salt and light for. That we have a God who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to die on a cross, that we might have life! That we would be made righteous before the law, forgiven, and be given a place in the kingdom of heaven regardless of who we are, where we come from, what we look like, what we have done or left undone, or what political party we support!
So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you be salt and light? Will you go forth from this place and share the Good News? Will you invite and invite and invite until people accept your invitation and come to church and invite those who have been here to come again? Will you learn to climb the mountains before you… will you do church and live out your faith in new and exciting ways, that those who have yet to experience the Good News of God’s endless love and grace, do?
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Place not your light under a basket, but on a lamp-stand that your light would shine before others, that they would see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Be salt. Be light. And in those moments when you feel as though you can’t, trust, that no matter how dim the light of Christ may appear to be in your lives, in the lives of others, and in the world, it can never be extinguished. For this we give thanks and praise, Amen.
~Pastor Andrew Geib