Salty & Bright

sermon on Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58; 1st Corinthians 2

I taught the weeping willow how to cry.*
Ken Burns did the series on country music this fall, and I haven’t gotten past it yet. I keep digging in and discovering more old music. I also keep trying to work some of it into a sermon.

For one example, back in December, there was a line from a Psalm kinda echoing lyrics, “as long as the moon shall shine,” from a great song with a really sad theme of the U.S. government breaking a treaty with the Seneca Nation that had been around since George Washington. The sermon ended up focusing on trees and not the moon, so I couldn’t quite shoehorn in the country music.

But today I thought I would: I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry.

You don’t need to know any more about that Johnny Cash song. My point is that it may be a good lyric, but J.R. sure didn’t need to teach a willow tree how to do anything. It’s instinct. It’s just what it does. You might teach a dog to sit, but you can’t teach an old willow new tricks. It weeps because that’s who it is and that’s what it does.

Martin Luther was an arborist in this way. When Jesus talks about a good tree bearing good fruit, Luther reminds us it is a simple descriptive statement, not an instruction. Horticulturally, you can’t wag your finger at an apple tree until it grows bananas.

Adapting agriculture as a human metaphor, what makes you a tree ready to bear good fruits is simply that that’s how God has made you, blessed you, filled you and nurtured you so that you do it naturally. Instinctively. As a tree, you’re not taught how to bear good fruits. You don’t need lessons or instructions. No sermon to cajole you into being a better tree, to try a bit harder to blossom really beautifully and give it a go with the best fruits you can possibly muster. God makes you a good tree; you bear good fruit. Voilà! End of story.

I know some of you are big thinkers, adversarial for argument’s sake. You want to place a certain confidence in human capability and say that even though you might not be able to teach a weeping willow, and you might not be able to teach an old dog, that you yourself are willing to learn. You want to be better. You’ll make the effort maybe to become a better tree. I’ll say no. You can try, but…

Next week in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will declare we can’t so much as force one hair of our head to turn from white to black. Again, you might quibble that Jesus hadn’t heard of hair dye. My niece can change all the hairs of her head a rainbow of colors weekly. Yeah, but…

Still later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will proclaim that we can’t, by worrying, add a single hour to the span of our lives. That one may hit fairly hard, because we remain pretty self-certain that we can follow enough doctor’s orders and exercise regimens and dietary nuances and health plans to add years and decades to our lives. Jesus says we can’t add an hour, that it’s all given by God, not our fretting.

So if it’s all God given, maybe we’d be helped best with the less animate examples from Jesus today: You are salt. You are light. What light does is shine. What salt does is…be salty.

Again, if you are still trying to teach the dog tricks and try to cultivate the tree to be better, if you change hair color or try to maximize your hours, then with these examples Jesus is point blank saying: it-is-what-it-is. Light either shines or it’s not light. You don’t need to tell it to shine. It just does it. We cannot make ourselves light. Jesus wasn’t implying we should be brighter intellectually (as Paul will show us) or that we should try to beam ourselves up.

Salt that’s not salty seems clearly to be not salt. Maybe it’s pepper. Maybe it’s bland. Whatever it is, if it’s not salty, we can pretty well define it as not-salt. And Jesus wasn’t telling you to spice it up a notch by being saltier.

You are salt. You are light.

I’ve spent all this time reiterating this because almost everything I read this week seemed to miss the point. Again, we’ve got this self-reliant tendency that wants to keep it within our own capacity. Everybody seems to want to jump in with these words from Jesus and start explaining: Okay, here’s how you should shine more, brighter, better. If you’re going to try being a light for Jesus, here’s what you need to do. Or if you’re more in the salt camp, here’s how to get salty and increase your salinity and be tastier.

Poppycock! Claptrap! Hogwash! Malarkey! Codswallop! And other funny dismissive phrases!

Jesus doesn’t say this as an instruction, a project, something you need to do. He says it as a description: You are salt. You are light.

This reading may still strike some of you with Ronald Reagan’s catchphrase making us as the United States into a “shining city on a hill.” In that case, he intended it to show off, to draw attention, to say “hey, look at us.”

I was reading last month that the use of that image in this country goes back another 350 years before Reagan.** In 1630, John Winthrop used this same passage to talk about the faith and practice of new settlers coming to this land. But for him it was a warning. You won’t be able to hide what you’re doing. Our example of that this week was the Iowa caucuses. If you want to be first in the nation, you better get it right because everyone is watching.

Whether Jesus intended the exemplary or the cautious, the world is watching. People will get a taste of you.

So if you are already salt, already light, if you’re not needing instruction to be more or to try harder, maybe you’re still wondering what these are. You recognize actual salt and light, I think, but it might be tough to offer a definition or description of light and of salt.

One starter is that these words from Jesus come right after the Beatitudes. Maybe you are salty and bright by living into your privileges of being dispirited, sad, nonviolent, merciful, hungry for justice, or persecuted peacemakers in the godly empire. Since those indicate blessings, it’s a reminder that you’re receiving your identity from God.

Jesus goes on today to assure that he isn’t trying to get rid of scripture. It seems important, that Jesus wants to connect to the Bible. Maybe in briny brightness you are connected to the Bible.

With that, we hear from Isaiah that it’s not pious fasting, but a voice raised to call out wrongs. What God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house. Remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. These may come bursting, beaming out of you.

One of my favorite phrases in the Bible is in this passage: “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” I was part of some planning for Wisconsin with a national group called Repairers of the Breach, which is working to carry on Martin Luther King’s last Poor People’s campaign now. Still more than that, though, the phrase “restorer of streets” makes me think of Tom Walsh’s career for our city’s traffic and transportation.

Or if that makes you feel like you need to try harder or be something special, someone special, then we hear from Paul that this isn’t about lofty words of wisdom. I’d personally prefer to keep striving for such words. Instead I’m supposed to keep offering foolish words. It similarly means you don’t need to worry if you don’t have it figured out. We know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It’s not our intellect that makes understanding, but a gift from the Spirit. She gives what you need.

Maybe in the end we simply observe that salt and light are necessary for life. As you are salt and light, you are blessed in your identity to sustain life. Maybe there’s something you recognize in these phrases. You may know it when you see it, even if you don’t always see it in yourself. But it’s there. There’s no avoiding it. It’s just who you are, who the Spirit is making you be, what God has blessed you to be, what you’re formed into freshly as we gather here. You are salt. You are light. You can’t be anything else. So be salty and bright.


Hymn: You are the Seed (WOV 753)





Carol Stories, week 2

All My Heart Again Rejoices (ELW #273, stanzas 1 & 2)

Last week we started with a non-favorite Christmas carol, and we’re going to again. I discovered this is one of only two carols in the Christmas section of the hymnal we hadn’t used in the 8 seasons of these carol stories. So, like the proverbial shepherd Gustav thrown with garbage to the curb, this was feeling left out.

It’s a little odd that it’s been left out, since both the author and the translator are among the most common names in our hymnals. Catherine Winkworth is listed with 19 hymns, including “Now Thank We All Our God,” “Christ the Life of All the Living,” Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” and Advent’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People.” Though Paul Gerhardt is named with only nine hymns, that actually shortchanges doing justice to the role he’s played in how we Lutherans sing. One of my professors, Dr. Paul Westermeyer, wrote the Hymnal Companion that offers explanations along with ELW. He called Paul Gerhardt “one of the most important Lutheran hymn writers” and said “he had the rare capacity to express the depth of the Christian faith in understandable yet durable ways. He moved hymnody from the public ruggedness of Martin Luther to a more introspective poetry, without losing the communal marks of faith.” Though it shouldn’t be overstated, some have observed that whereas Luther’s central theme was grace, Gerhardt focused on the love of God.

That love and joy in his words is noteworthy. This carol rejoices. One from Easter is called “Awake My Heart with Gladness.” It’s surprising because Gerhardt’s life certainly was not overly pleasant. For some reason it took him 14 years to graduate from Luther’s school, the University of Wittenberg, in 1642. That was during the Thirty Years’ War, which was utterly ravaging and decimating Europe—just awful—and so not only he did he not have a chance at a career right away, but also Swedish soldiers burned down his family home. It wasn’t until nine years later that he landed a job in a church. He was 48 years old when he finally got married, and he had five children, but four of them died in infancy. He tried to negotiate between fighting denominations, but ended up losing his job because of it, and about that time his wife died, too.

And yet his hymns still speak of joy through faith. This one not only has the sweet angel voices, but we hear the baby Jesus speaking to us, calling us beloved brothers and sisters in the original German, telling us, “You are safe from danger.” That’s the joy and love of faith. So let’s sing.


Let Our Gladness Have No End (ELW #291, stanzas 1 & 4)

Continuing with joy and wrapping up loose ends, the one other carol we haven’t heard about in all these years is #291.

I haven’t told you about it before mostly because we really don’t know much of any story to tell. The composer, the author, the translator are all unknown or anonymous to us. It first appeared in a hymnal in 1602, yet the suspicion seems to be that it was written sometime in the 15th Century. The term of “Bohemian” heritage is an old name for a region that’s now part of the Czech Republic. Speaking of which, we often presume Lutherans to be Norwegians, or to have German roots. Poor Randy Romanski weeps with joy anytime somebody with a Polish name joins the congregation (most recently Ryan Bujnowski). So it’s good that we’re getting around to this carol to honor the heritage of Don Jambura.

Perhaps as a reminder that even old favorites are not the same as they ever were, we notice that things change. The Lord’s Prayer continues to update language. Some wordings we adapt to make less gender exclusive. Some we tweak to fit more with the moods of our times. Sometimes old favorites aren’t really favorites anymore. And sometimes change just happens; so both this tune and these words have gone with other pairings over the years.

Even more interesting is that we changed the notes between the last hymnal and this one. If you look at the 4th note of the carol, you see a B-natural. In LBW, it was a B-flat. Tim will play both for us to hear. Technically, whereas the green book was a simple major scale this makes a Lydian modal scale in the new version (which is actually the older, original version—reminding us that changes aren’t always innovations but sometimes a return to truer origins). Westermeyer thinks it “gives it a festive folk color.” He also says that the excitement of the Hallelujahs interrupt the narrative with a rejoicing that cannot be delayed.

Maybe it’s good for me to stop delaying your joy, too. With this, we’ll have sung every carol in the Christmas section of our hymnal. So let’s sing.



sermon for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalsm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36)
Things are sure different these days. I know that’s cliché or even trite to say. That today is not exactly the same as yesterday should go without saying.

Yet today, for this Reformation day, for this moment in our faith life, this is an appropriate time again to note that things are different.

Partly it comes to mind because of Confirmation for our 10th graders. There are those among us who look back to this day long ago in your lives and remind the younger of us that you had to recite the Small Catechism from memory and risked the pressure of failure in front of the congregation and also that you couldn’t have communion until after you were confirmed and you feared your pastor and hated these classes at church, and—we’re sure—that you also had to walk uphill both ways miles to get to church.

So we’d have to say “good riddance” to “good old days” of that sort! We can well celebrate that church is now a place of relationships and not just rote memorization, more of nurture than fear, of reinforcing God’s blessings rather than threats. Some change is indeed good. And there’s some change that’s not as good, as we know.

For perceptions of change, let’s go back to the Old Testament, starting with our Psalm, since it describes vast changes. The early verses portray natural disasters, maybe with earthquakes or flooding like in Texas and Hurricane Patricia. Perhaps Luther’s paraphrase of this, on losing house or life itself, calls to mind recent wildfires. Or these may be words about the very earth in peril, of its foundations falling apart, as we have to confront in the reality of climate change.

The Psalm goes on to more apparently human destruction, of wars between nations, the hordes and tyrants in Luther’s wording. The Psalm’s fearfulness in Jerusalem pairs with those suffering in the Holy Land today, encountering threats of violence and intimidation and oppression. There’s a perpetual theme of access to God—the practice of religion—being cut off by those with weapons.

That’s enough parallels from ancient to modern that we might claim nothing ever changes. And yet the point is, amid the various ongoing threats to life and wellbeing that would take away what we need or count on, that God won’t be overcome. We proclaim with the Psalm, “we will not fear; God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble!”

That’s also a worthy reminder as we encounter transitions here, in the changes at St. Stephen’s. We rely on God who is with us to give us assistance and ability.

To move ahead, the Jeremiah reading also encounters change. It was written during a period of exile, far from that temple in Jerusalem, when people were without the usual comforts of life and home. Picture when you have moved someplace new and unfamiliar, or imagine what that moment will bring. That’s already enough instability and trepidation.

What made it more so for Jeremiah’s people was that they saw this dispersal from home as a punishment from God, a result of their failure to obey God’s laws and to follow God’s will for our lives and our communities. Though we may want to stop to argue about that view of punishment and consequences of disobedience, to move on to what this prophet is saying is an amazing and wonderful change.

Jeremiah says because God changed God’s mind, God will change your heart. God’s ultimately given up on lectures and to-do lists and sets of rules to try to get you to love your neighbor or to trust God’s goodness. Instead, God is just going to put a new heart in you. For those who remember Dick Mueser’s heart transplant eleven years ago and how much it changed him and gave him life, this is what God is up to in all of us, the work of faith, a faith that isn’t about forcing you into anything but about giving you a heart for service, for love, the heart of Christ.

That, then, points to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Also a time of change, this was when good news of God creating in us what we need was first understood as being also among outsiders, for categories of those who hadn’t been labeled as God’s people before. The old order was circumstantial: being born into the right genealogy, practicing the right habits, about what you had to do to be in right relationship with God.

But in an enormous change of understanding—one still causing us to expand our vision and reexamine our prejudices—this good news of the early church threw open the doors to all who had been excluded, had been excommunicated, been told that their access to God and participation in community was restricted or forbidden. This has repercussions both for our own anxieties and for how we interact with others. It says there’s nothing you can do that would make God abandon you, cut you off, give up on you. As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about a woman in her new book:

“God loves her now. Not just after she manages to start making better decisions, not after she [cleans herself up]. God loves us now, all of us, as we are. Sometimes the simple experience of knowing this, of knowing that our sin is not what defines us, can finally set us free.”*

That woman was a meth addict who had just miscarried a pregnancy and was blaming the social worker, taking no responsibility herself. God loves her.

This is how all of this expands. It’s for you when you don’t fit in with your peers, and it’s for classmates who just seem weird or like jerks. It’s for when you’ve got a bad diagnosis and treatments aren’t doing what you want. It’s for the family whose son is transitioning to become their daughter. It’s for the dead and for the killers. With what I believe has especially been heard too little, it’s good news not just for humans but all God’s creatures. It’s that God loves the world. Jesus dies with you and for you, and will redeem all of our mess by raising it out of death. None of the hurt or tragedy can separate you from God’s love. Nothing that goes wrong indicates God has forsaken you or withheld newness of life or decided not to bless you. On the flip side, no amount of what you learn or credits you’ve earned or things you try to do right get you any closer to God, because God is already with you, as close as God’s new heart living in you.

That this good news is spreading and unstoppable may take us to another mark of our historical trajectory of looking at change. We went from Old Testament times into the start of the church and its welcome of outsiders, failures, sinner, bullies, and weirdos. That radical total inclusivity of the good news of God reforming us takes us up to the Reformation, to that October day when Martin Luther posted discussion points on a town bulletin board. Those 95 theses sparked much more than a debate in setting off enormous change not only to the church but to western culture and the shape of our lives still. There’s more cultural geography lesson there than we could go into.

For our arc today, we note that although we live with Luther’s heritage, we live in a very different time. Luther got copies of the Bible into people’s hands by translating it into their language and using the new technology of the printing press. But that’s a long way from the comic book Bibles we’re giving kids today or Mari Mitchell’s Bible app she reads during breaks at school on her iPod.

Among other changes, we could also consider the different place and role of the church. In Luther’s time, the church was so central and so present in people’s lives there was almost no escaping it. There was no choosing not to be part of a church. But to be kicked out of church (like Luther was) made you exempt from society, an outlaw, literally outside-the-law, a life that had no value, where if somebody killed you they wouldn’t even be punished for it. A single hierarchy of the church controlled much of society, as opposed to so many denominations now and our very regular interactions with people of other religions or no religion.

And the problem in Luther’s time was that the church, this institution that was so constantly present, was proclaiming the wrong message, was undermining the good news from God, and so people weren’t able to hear it and get the relief and blessing they so desperately needed.

I suspect we’ve got partially the opposite problem now, that the church disappears so far into the background of busy lives filled with choices amid bustling society and all kinds of news and advertising and stresses and that we’re overwhelmed by these dominating messages from the world around us, and that is the reason we aren’t hearing the good news from God and getting the relief and blessing we so desperately need.

Which brings us to this Confirmation class today. This is a milestone in their different and changing lives, with all kinds of new experiences and exciting opportunities and developing identities and lots of pressures. Along with all that, Confirmation itself has regularly marked a big change in life. We have good reason to celebrate their completion of all kinds of requirements and the end of sermon notes and, in many families, the transition when young adults are given their own decisions on how (and sometimes even whether) to participate in church.

But it’s also a reminder from Jesus, who tells us that remaining with him is what liberates us. As this group largely understands, this isn’t a moment to escape church, to be excluded from this gathering. Rather, as so many voices bombard you by saying you’re not good enough and need to work harder and act differently and be somebody else—voices that come even amid some very good parts of life—yet that can be what confines you, enslaves you, is what you need to be set free from. And that’s why we continue repeating the good news that’s an old, old story, what we share here of a Lord who is willing to die for you—yes, you!—just because he loves you and he’ll take tender care of you and bring you through it, for today, and for whatever changes tomorrow brings, and forever.

* Accidental Saints, p135

Amid God's Flock