Love, Fear, Salt, Light

Jesus said, “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. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 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. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, Calvary Church. It’s wonderful to be with you. I’m always grateful to be in the presence of spiritual giants and I feel that way among you, the saints of Calvary Church. I feel that way in the presence of your leaders, the Reverends Peter Schell and Gayle Fischer-Stewart. I give thanks for your ministry and theirs, both here and throughout the wider community.

Last fall, in anticipation of a sermon series that he planned to deliver after Christmas entitled: Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope, a Methodist minister named Adam Hamilton asked members of his congregation to share with him, privately via email, what they feared the most. Hamilton serves a large congregation and he received several thousand responses. He organized the sermon series, which began in mid-January, according to the fears that ranked highest, addressing one fear per week. In each sermon, he describes various ways the fear in question manifests itself. He then offers coping resources from the helping professions, and finally, he speaks of the spiritual strength God longs to give us, the specific ways our relationship with God, in the person of Jesus, can help us live with courage and hope in the face of our fears.

What would you guess where the top four fears that his congregation named? Or, to ask the question a bit more courageously, what fear would you have put on that list?

The top four fears of Adam Hamilton’s congregation were:

  • Fear of loneliness, and of ending up alone in life
  • Fear of failure (the highest fear among those in his congregation under the age of 50)
  • Fear of the Other–those we do not understand, disagree with profoundly, are not at all like us, or whom we perceive will do us harm
  • Fear of the direction our country is taking

(For those interested, here’s a link to the sermon series)

I can certainly identify with all these fears. I have them all, and others I could add to the list: the fear of danger, for myself and most especially, for those I love; the fear of loss; the fear of death; the fear of missing out; of making the wrong decision when I’m torn between options. I struggle with that fear a lot.

My mother, who is 85 years young, is strong, beautiful, independent, and competent in her field of physical therapy. But at 85, she also has vulnerabilities, and right now her body is struggling with an persistent infection. Both my sister and I fear for her well being, and the danger she puts herself in by not asking for help. For her part, our mother is  afraid of losing her ability to make a meaningful contribution and she’s afraid of losing her independence, that her well-meaning but forceful daughters might come in and take over her life. Sometimes, as often happens in families, our fears collide.

When I think of my inner catalog of fears, they seem to fall into two categories: fear of things that are external and that which I fear within myself. The two are often linked: I can be afraid of things that are happening beyond my control and also of my response or lack of response to that external threat.

Now at the same time that I’ve been thinking about fear–in part because I’m listening to Adam Hamilton and in part because of things going on in my life and in the world that I’m genuinely afraid of–I’ve also been participating in a home-based spiritual retreat entitled God’s Abiding Love, which is offered twice a year by Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a Jesuit congregation in Georgetown. For this retreat, I committed to praying 30 minutes each day guided by certain Scripture readings, and meeting 30 minutes each day with a spiritual guide, who in my case, has been a wise and kind Jesuit priest.

It’s been quite an experience, holding both fear and love together. And what this juxtaposition has revealed to me is how tied up in knots I can become when I imagine that I must respond to everything I fear alone, as if, at best, God were absent, or, at worse, fully present but quick to judge my fears and how I respond to them. But as I allowed myself to imagine being in God’s presence, daring to believe that God’s gaze was one of love, not judgment, and when I dared to ask for help, something shifted. My fears didn’t disappear, but they no longer carried the same power. It’s not that I heard God say that my fears are unfounded, or that we will be spared suffering or trial. Still, as I opened myself to God’s love and mercy, made known to me in Jesus, I was less afraid. I didn’t feel judged and found wanting, but loved. And in that love, I received strength, a bit of hope, and even glimpses of joy.

We all assume that the opposite of love is hate. But some say, and I’m inclined to agree, that the opposite of isn’t hate, but fear. Because when we’re afraid, we tend to respond to the world from a fortified place inside, and we see other people in stark categories. We’re vulnerable to manipulation and catastrophic thinking, and such thinking leads to actions that are, to say the least, less than loving.

Scripture tells us that perfect love casts out fear. I wish I could say to you that when I feel the love of God all my fears are cast out, in the sense of disappearing completely, but that’s not my experience. But God’s love does give me greater capacity to carry on in the face of fear, to respond according to the goodness I have known. God’s love picks me up when I fall, encourages me to ask for help, and allows me to receive love and grace from others.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for all of us to dwell deeply in the love of God. There is so much swirling in and around us, many things we would be made of stone not to fear, and messages designed to keep us afraid when we need not be. We need grounding in Christ, so we are not tossed about by every wind; and reassurances in the face of fear that God is with us and for us.

If you were in church last Sunday, you heard as the gospel reading some of the most familiar and beloved words of the New Testament, known as the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so on. That beautiful list of blessed ones is Jesus’ introduction to his most famous sermon–the Sermon on the Mount, which we just heard more of this morning.

I hold before you the image of Jesus in our midst right now, looking at each one of us deeply and with love, and offering words of blessing. And in his blessing, he’s also calling forth the qualities and attributes that he asks us, as his followers, to cultivate within ourselves: mercy, pureness of heart, hunger and thirst for righteousness, peace–for as we do that, not only are we further blessed, we become a blessing to others.   

Today we delve into the content of the sermon itself, which we’ll do in church for the next three weeks. The sermon on the Mount is so rich in teaching that we’ll only make it through a third of it on Sundays before we move into Lent. So I urge you to read the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, Matthew 5-7. For it is the summation, the essence of Jesus’ ethical teachings, how he wanted those who follow him to live in this world.

If you’re like me, as you read Jesus’ sermon, you will feel uncomfortable and inadequate. For no sooner does he assure us of blessing, then he challenges us to become the absolute best we can be, to live according the highest human aspirations, to exceed the righteousness of even the most devout adherents of moral excellence. Held to that standard, I fall short. I don’t even come close to his high mark sometimes, and in that awareness rush in all my fears of inadequacy and judgment. Or for a change of pace, maybe I’ll get angry that the words themselves for being so uncompromisingly clear and impossible to live by.  

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll live in the tension between fear and love. And there I’ll remember that I am both blessed and incomplete, both loved and a sinner, and that it’s okay if I can’t live as fully as Jesus calls me to on my own. It’s good to remember that I need the grace of God working in and through me, that I will always be a clay jar, as St. Paul writes, in which we are blessed to hold the riches of God’s love and mercy, so that it’s clear that the power comes from God and doesn’t belong to me. It’s good for me to live with the daily reminder that I am a sinner of Jesus’ own redeeming, always standing in the need of prayer.  

If you remember nothing else from the sermon on the day when your bishop came to visit, remember this: that when Jesus looks at you, he sees you with love and blessing. He sees your strength and your brokenness and he blesses you. And then he says these words:  

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.

This is not a request that you go and be salt, that you go and be light. He states that you are these things–you are salt, you are light, and so am I. We can choose to pretend that it’s not so, or refuse to believe it, based on the lies that others have told us. Sometimes we forget that’s what we are, because of all the other things that are also true about us, or because we get tired and discouraged. That’s when the forces of darkness truly have their way with us, when we lose sight of our essence as children of God, lose sight of how much God loves us and how God longs to season the world and brighten the world through us.   

Here’s the basic truth about salt and about light: it doesn’t take much salt to flavor a meal; you only need a small light to illumine the darkness. Nor is salt the only seasoning in God’s kitchen or your light the only star in the sky. That is to say, not one of us is alone. We don’t have to provide everything that’s needed. What Jesus asks is simply to offer what we have, with as much love and kindness, humility and courage as we can.  

Most of the time in the workings of grace, we won’t even know what a difference our offerings make. Have you ever had the experience of people thanking you for something you said or did and you don’t even remember what they’re talking about? Or you made your offering fully aware of its inadequacy, and you were embarrassed  by its insignificance, but you offered it anyway, and someone responds with effusive gratitude. That’s how salt works in God’s kitchen. The same is true with light: sometimes all we have is our candle, but when we offer it and others see your little light shining, they are given courage to offer their light as well. Then more light shines. I think we’re seeing that in our country now, as people who assumed that their light didn’t matter very much are deciding it’s time to raise their light up anyway. And it’s amazing how much light there can be when a bunch of us decide that’s what we’re going to do.

So dare to offer yourselves. Be a witness to whatever goodness and love that’s inside you.

Now in closing I want to speak about the future of Calvary Church and your collective witness as Christian community. I’ll be talking to your vestry leaders later this morning, but I want to say some things now.

I know this is an important and sensitive time. I’ve read the strategic plan that your leaders spent over a year crafting; I’ve gone through the data from your parochial reports and studied leading indicators. I’ve also been driving around the neighborhood and I see the changes. And I know, according to what you tell me and what’s in the strategic report, that not many of you live in the neighborhood anymore, if you ever did. There’s no sin in that; it’s simply your reality. But we have to figure out what all this means for you. I want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re in this together. I am right here beside you as together we offer our salt and our light.  

The decisions we make in the near term have significant consequences for the future. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities before us, none of them intrinsically right or wrong. I live near the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest, and there was a small Baptist church on the corner of 9th and Upshur. Like Calvary, the majority of its members live outside the neighborhood, most live outside of DC. And do you know what they did? They moved. They moved their church. And do you know what’s going up on that corner now? Condos.

Am I recommending that Calvary move? No. Do I want that? No. I’m just saying that it was a reasonable choice for that community of people, perhaps for them the best choice. May the Lord bless them mightily wherever they have decided to go.

But in your congregation’s strategic plan, there is no mention of moving elsewhere.  Not one of your leaders recommended that. Whatever your process was, you determined that you were called, as it says in the plan, to be a beacon of light on the corner of the 6th and I. Now it’s up to us to determine how that light will shine.   

I want you to know that you don’t have to figure that out all by yourselves, that I’m here. I am going pray with you and walk beside you and do whatever I can to help. Because I believe in you, I believe that you are light and salt.

But I also know, as I was saying recently to my mom, that we’re only on this earth for a season. Part of what we’re trying to figure out is what’s going to be here after we’re gone. That’s true for all of us. It’s true for Calvary Church and it’s true for the Diocese of Washington.

So let’s not do this alone. Together let’s trust in God’s abiding love; together let’s acknowledge our fears but not let them rule the day. I am confident that God’s love and the collective power of our discernment will guide us, so that Calvary Church may be a beacon of light in our time and for years to come.

May it be so.
Let me pray for you:

Gracious God, I simply want to offer my gratitude for these faithful, beloved children of yours, for their love and witness, for the legacy of Calvary church and all the generations that came before us. I give thanks for those who grew up here as children and for all who have come in recent years. And I pray that you surround them with love and that your spirit will embolden them to offer their unique gifts. May they know that you not only ask great things of them, you desire great things for them, in their lives, and work, and families, and this community of faith. We renew our commitment, Lord, to be the salt you’ve called us to be, to allow our light to shine. We offer all we have to you, and we ask you to help us live with courage and love in the face of fear, with hope and joy, and with blessings received and offered in Jesus’ name.

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