Servants with a Purpose

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

I serve a congregation dedicated to good works. Our list of ministries is long: community garden, covenant with a local Title 1 school, prayer shawl ministry, Stephen ministry, communion to our beloveds, choir, Sunday school, handbells, crockpot and sack lunches once a month for the homeless shelter. We open our doors to a number of groups–a group of Christians seeking to offer club level volleyball to middle and lower income families, a cheerleading group that does the same, a quilting group, a home-schooling consortium, boy scouts, and a Spanish speaking congregation. These things–and the list is actually much longer–constitute our service as a church.

The question that confronts me on a regular basis however is this: how do people know that all that our congregation does it does in order to point people toward God. This is our witness. Our witness is the testimony that links our good works to the God who is the source of every good and perfect act of generosity.

A few years ago, we held a retreat to look at what we do. Our retreat leader used the analogy of witness and service as the two blades of a pair of scissors. A pair of scissors works when there are two blades working in tandem. What we discerned at that retreat was this–our scissors have one really long blade–our service–and one really small blade–our witness.

Some people might applaud that. However, the danger in being a church that is big on service and small on witness is that people get the wrong idea. They assume that we are the significant ones, we deserve praise, and that we are an endless store of energy for good works. This is not the case. We know that God is the one of greatest significance, God deserves the praise, and that all good works originate with God.

This part of the Sermon on the Mount like all the rest, is determined to seek God’s agenda first knowing that when we seek to bolster ourselves, we fail. When we praise God, we succeed.

Salt and Ashes

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Salt formation at the Dead Sea

Today is Ash Wednesday.  I had thought to say something about “Salt and Ashes.”  I thought that was a poetic phrase.  However, the symbols of ash and salt really aren’t compatible.  Ashes remind us of our mortality. The traditional statement used when imposing ashes is something like, “from ashes you were made and to ashes you shall return.” Salt symbolize permanence.  As my study of the salt imagery unfolded, I saw even more striking contrasts.

The Power of Salt

Salt in the Old Testament represents preservation and destruction. Salt is necessary for life and so is among the tithes that priests and Levites received. A covenant of salt is regarded a permanent because salt is stable and preserves (see Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5).

Salt may have also been used to represent the break from the past and with the possible new beginning. When the city of Jericho was destroyed by Joshua it was not to be rebuilt. But it was rebuilt and centuries later, Elisha used salt to cleanse its water (2 Kings 2:19-22). Salt could be a symbol of breaking with the past and starting anew.

Salt could also be destructive (Deuteronomy 29:23; Jeremiah 17:6; Ezekiel 47:11).  Chemically the same quality that makes salt a preservative also makes it destructive. Salt draws water out of cells. It removes the moisture bacteria needs to thrive and draws the moisture out of the bacteria itself—that’s its purification quality. Yet, in high enough concentrations in soil it prevents plants from growing (see Luke 14:34-35). When Jesus spoke of the Disciples as the Salt of the Earth he was speaking of their capacity (our capacity) to preserve and purify. He was also speaking of our power.  One way we lose our saltiness is by diminishing the power and seriousness of purpose that Jesus has bestowed on us.

Of the Earth

The context of the metaphor emphasizes its role in mission.  Both Mark (Mark 9:50) and Luke (Luke 14:34-35) have a version of this passage.  However, only Matthew applies the metaphor to Disciples–you are Salt.  And only Matthew adds “of the earth.”  The context both in Mark suggests the more familiar interpretation of salt being pure and avoiding temptation.  In Luke it is a more straightforward challenge to recognize power.  Matthew’s framing of the parable, makes it clear that salt is not just pure it is missional.  Robert Guelich wrote, “One becomes ‘useless’ for the mission when one fails to take the role of discipleship seriously.  Indeed, one ceases to be a disciple and stands under judgment (‘cast out and walked on’).  Matthew, for whom the judgment motif is very prominent sets the warning here in the context of mission.  To fail in mission is to fail in discipleship” (Sermon on the Mount, 127).

This seems to be the strongest contrast with Ash Wednesday’s traditional focus on “giving things up” and examining our own lives for sin and trying to avoid temptation.  The call to be salt is more than the call to avoid sin and temptation.  It is the call to be purposeful and active in the world for the sake of the gospel.

The Loss of Purpose

“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Technically, salt can’t really lose it’s saltiness. It’s a very stable compound. In likelihood, salt would become unusable by becoming polluted with dirt or non-salt chemicals and additives. It’s unlikely that Jesus’s first hearers would have understood a metaphor dependent on a complex understanding of salt’s chemicals. Jesus gave a straightforward warning that people should remain pure, purposeful, committed. Salt has to fulfill the purpose of its creation.

Where Mark uses a Greek word that more clearly indicates the loss of a salty quality, both Matthew and Luke use a word that literally means, “becomes foolish” (mōrainō).  Robert Guelich explains, “The Greek renderings to become foolish might then reflect an early interpretation of the parable as a warning for the disciples to take their role seriously rather than waste it foolishly” (The Sermon on the Mount: Foundation for Understanding, p. 121).  The adjectival form of this word (mōros) shows up in the closing parable of the Sermon on the Mount with the foolish man.  So the opening and closing parables of the Sermon on the Mount are linked.

“It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” The metaphor ends with a warning that there can be a judgment for failing fulfill the call. It is not unlike the warnings that conclude the Sermon on the Mount about bad trees being cut down and burned up (Matthew 7:19) or that homes built on sand are destroyed (Matthew 7:26-27).

As Ash Wednesday unfolds then, I pray that you have a reflection on salt as much as on ashes.  You were made from ashes you shall return.  Yet Christ has called you salt–a symbol of that which endures.  May Ash Wednesday be more than just a day to repent.  May it also be a day to renew your identity, strength, purpose and mission in the world.

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Blessed Persecution

Activist Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells Barnett

The final beatitude (Matthew 5:11-12) like all the rest of the beatitude takes what we would regard as a negative–persecution for the sake of righteousness–and reveals that in the economy of God it is a good thing.

Persecuted or Annoying?

It’s important to emphasize, especially with this beatitude, that the Beatitudes name the experience and effect of Discipleship.  They do not offer a legalistic set of standards that we should strive after.  In other words, we all know people who go looking for persecution.  It’s not godly.  It’s just annoying.

Persecution for the Kingdom

Even so, the Gospels were written on the other side of the resurrection and after the ascension.  They were written with a clear awareness that missionaries get arrested, apostles get beheaded, and saviors get crucified. As the Kingdom of God advances into the world it confronts the Kingdoms of the Earth.  And the Kingdoms of the Earth rebel.  That rebellion takes the form of persecution.  So Jesus answered encouraged the Disciples to interpret the suffering of persecution as blessing.

Certainly as we reflect on this Beatitude we could think of the persecuted saints through the centuries.  Among my favorite heroes of the faith are Watchman Nee, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King–all of whom suffered persecution for their stands.  In the name of Jesus Christ, they spoke truth to power and they suffered because of it.  If we are to faithfully follow Christ in this world, we too must be willing to speak truth to power.  Even if the power to which we speak has the power to do us harm.

Blessed Merciful: Mercy received means mercy given

“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Most biblical scholars today do not believe that Matthew wrote Matthew.  It’s possible that he did.  The gospel text itself never identifies the author.  That was done later by tradition.  The knowledge the author of the Gospel shows of Hebrew scripture does not seem to be the kind of knowledge a tax collector would have.  That said, Matthew the Gospel tells the story of Matthew the Disciple in Matthew 9:9-13.

Jesus saw Matthew collecting taxes and called him with the familiar words “Follow Me.”  Both Luke 5:27-32 and Mark 2:13-17 say, “Levi.”  So, Matthew left his tax collecting booth and followed Jesus immediately. This is also a familiar pattern with the calling of Disciples (see Matthew 4:18-22).  In Luke’s version of this story, it’s Levi/Matthew himself who throws a great banquet for Jesus; in Matthew the text just says “at dinner.”  Either way, Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and good people saw this and grumbled about it.  Jesus responded with the words of Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice; knowledge of God not burnt offerings.”  He made reference to the same passage again later in the gospel (Matthew 12:7).

Mercy through Matthew

Indeed mercy was a central theme in the ministry of Jesus.  The New Testament offers us at least two understandings of what it means to be merciful.  One acts of mercy are acts of kindness shown to those who have experienced hardship.  Mercy is the cup of cold water, the healing touch, and the gracious visit.  Mercy also means forgiveness.  To be merciful is to acknowledge wrong-doing and choose not to punish it.  And I believe that it is this second use that comes into focus here in this beatitude.

Matthew 6:14-15 provides one key piece of additional teaching.  “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” expands on the part of the Lord’s prayer in which we pray, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  The words used in Matthew’s version of the prayer does say “debt” and “debtors”.  However, the expansion makes “sins” and “those who’ve sinned against us” appropriate replacements.

Matthew 18:21-35 includes the dialogue between Jesus and Peter concerning the amount of times a person should forgive another.  Thinking that he was being incredibly magnanimous Peter suggested “seven times.”  Jesus multiplied that by eleven (Matthew 18:22).  The point wasn’t really to give a concrete number but to emphasize the limitless nature of mercy.  Jesus then went on to tell the story of the unmerciful servant who was shown mercy.

Forgiving in Forgiveness

All of this is rooted in the grace we have received from God.  The beatitude sounds a bit like quid pro quo–you have to forgive first and then God will forgive.  However, the future showing of mercy is a promise.  Robert A. Guelich in his incredibly helpful commentary The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding wrote that in SOTM, “the present does not condition the future as much as the future conditions the present.  The display of mercy shown by the merciful is already the mercy that will be expressed ultimately in the consummation.  What God has done and is doing for one through the accepting and forgiving ministry of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Kingdom now will be expressed openly and with clarity at the consummation of the Kingdom, the last judgment.  In other words, those who will receive mercy are those who now have experience it and practice it in view of God’s work through Jesus Christ” (p. 105).

Pastoral Word

A pastoral word should be spoken here.  Forgiving another person of their sins is not the same as putting one’s self in a position to be repeatedly hurt, abused or taken advantage of.  We do not do anyone a favor by dismissing their actions.  Matthew 18:15-20 makes it clear that we are to seek people’s repentance not tolerate people’s abuse.  This passage should never be used to coerce someone to tolerate an abusive marriage or repeatedly disregard an abusive relationship.  Tough love parenting also understands the needs to put limitations and boundaries for the sake of self-preservation and for the moral growth of children who have developed destructive habits or aggressive actions.  Mercy and forgiveness means that we are choosing not to retaliate against those who have hurt us.  Discipline, accountability and boundaries do not amount to retaliation.  They tools we often need to use to keep our selves whole and work toward the wholeness of others.



Blessed Hungry: Disciples Seek God’s Way Like People Seek Food and Water

If I were permitted to speak on behalf of the whole church, I would ask to have certain words returned to us.  Words like awesome, fellowship, grace, and blessed have been stretched to the point where they would not be recognizable by the biblical authors.  Admittedly, in some cases, we’ve done this to our words ourselves.  Two words that people here, instantly make meaning of, but may misunderstand in their biblical context are “righteous” and “justice.”

Matthew has added the “and thirst for righteousness” to the original beatitude which said simply, “Blessed are you when you hunger” (Luke 6:21). This does not mean that Matthew is unconcerned with the literally hungry.  It does matter.  Matthew’s understanding of righteousness and justice both begin with God’s activity.  They are not human achievements.  They have implications for human behavior, but they are not principally things that people achieve for themselves.  They are gifts of God.  Righteousness is the restoration of a right relationship between God and humanity.

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to desperately want that fulfillment. It is to want it as badly as we need food and water.  It’s fulfillment is realized in small ways throughout our lives as we participate with God in reconciling the world to God.  We ritualize this reality each week through in the sharing of bread and cup of communion.  And it will be ultimately realized in the final establishment of the Kingdom of God that is symbolized in a great feast (Matthew 26:29).

Blessed are the Meek

I searched for “meek” in a graphics library I subscribe to and got back images of tiny chickens. I got the result pictured here when I searched the “humble”:  You search returned no results.

Like the other Beatitudes, our culture does not value meekness.  As Mordred sings in the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot, “It’s not the earth the meek inherit; it’s the dirt.”

Our world values pride and dresses it in morally upright terms.  Our world values elitism and calls it gravitas.  Our world values arrogance and calls it swagger.  Our world values self-promotion and calls is branding.  Our values build us up rather than lifting high the cross.  The beatitudes confront our values when we shake them from of their familiar poetry.

Meekness As Discipleship

In his classical work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer interprets each of the Beatitudes as applying to the Disciples whom Jesus had called (see Matthew 5:1-2).  Having responded to Jesus’s call and left the crowd, they participate in God’s work.  God reclaims and remakes the world.  Discipleship participates in God’s agenda.  Christ does not require meekness of Disciples. Christ’s call brings meekness about.  The inheritance of the earth is not a reward for meekness; it is the consequence of joining God’s renewal of all creation.  Bonhoeffer wrote, “The renewal of the earth begins at Golgotha, where the meek One died, and from thence it will spread.”

Meekness cannot be converted into one of a series of virtues which Disciples of Jesus Christ are meant to exemplify. We cannot turn the Beatitudes into a new set of Ten Commandments.  The Beatitude on meekness, like the whole Sermon on the Mount, is rooted in God’s grace.  The words are spoken to Disciples who have been chosen by Christ and have been encircled as among Christ’s own.

Meekness and Obedience

The whole Sermon on the Mount calls for undivided obedience to the will of God.  It’s parts are not meant to become ticks on a to-do list.  Rather, the Sermon on the Mount catalogues the various parts of ourselves that must be submitted to God.  The parts are emblematic of the whole.  Here, Jesus stresses the submission of our egos to the call of God.  This is not accomplished through the willful suppression of a person’s pride.  It is accomplished through the constant acknowledgment of God’s gracious act.

Finally, the Beatitude on meekness is both good news and challenge.  It is Good News to know that what Disciples gain when they submit their egos to God far outweighs what they have lost.  Yet, when we recognize just how often we reassert our wills and our pride, we recognize our constant need to repent.

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