Thursday, February 03, 2011

Saltiness -- A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 58:1-9a

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20


The question that continually emerges from our engagement with is: Who am I in God’s economy? That is, what does God want from me? Micah 6:8 seems to answer that question fairly clearly – justice, kindness/mercy, and humility. There is, of course, another question that pushes ast us: Where is God in all of this? It’s not just what does God want, but is God invested in this as well? Or, am I on my own? The conversation about spirituality and religion stems from these other questions. In this Modern/Post-Modern Age that we live in, the institution isn’t enough. It’s not enough that religion reinforces moral virtue. We want to have the sense that God is in this with us.

The critique of religion has been with us from some time, and no one was more critical of “Religion” than Karl Barth. In a recent Christian Century article, theologian Douglas John Hall reminded us of Karl Barth’s critique of religion, calling our attention Barth’s definition of religion as “grasping” after God. Religion is our Tower of Babel, our attempt to storm heaven and take control of God. Such efforts ultimately have dangerous implications. Hall writes:

In every religion, there are vulnerable points—ideas, attitudes or emphases which, under certain historical conditions, are bound to become flash points of conflict. But surely there is no point more redolent of potential violence than this kind of spiritual certitude itself. In a global village where religious disputation no longer limits itself to quarrels within the various historic religions but spills over increasingly into the unprecedented meeting of world religions, every one of them made newly insecure by their felt awareness of one another and of rampant secularity, the greatest flash point of all is inseparable from the religious impulse as such. With its clamoring for ultimacy, its frenetic triumphalism, its incapacity for existential doubt and the entertainment of alternatives, such religion inevitably courts violent opposition. The newly minted atheism of today understands this and capitalizes on it. It argues, with a kind of dogged logic, that the only way human-kind can avoid the great catastrophes to which this situation points is by dispensing altogether with "the God delusion." (Douglas John Hall, “Against Religion: The Case for Faith,” Christian Century, January 3, 2011).

If we are to live the Christian faith in a way that differs from the grasping nature of religion, as Hall describes, what will that look like?

The answer, interestingly enough, seems to emerge quite clearly in the three texts that appear in this week’s lectionary readings. Each speaks of this issue a bit differently – Isaiah focuses on living justly, Paul hails the unconventional nature of God’s wisdom, and in this excerpt from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls for the people of God to be salt and light, even as they exhibit an unconventional righteousness. Our temptation is to use religion to benefit ourselves, often at the expense of the other, but as we see from these three texts, this is not the way of God in the world.

Isaiah shouts to the people of Judah, who have returned home from exile and have returned to old habits. They delight in God and say they wish to know God’s ways, pretending, the prophet suggests, that they practiced righteousness and “delight to draw near to God” (Is. 58:2). They show their religiosity through fasting and prayer, but apparently they do so in order to be noticed – whether by God or by their neighbors! But God isn’t impressed by their religiosity, their desire to approach God on their own terms. God’s impatience, if we can call it that, is due to the fact that the people are serving their own interests, for even as they fast, they oppress their workers. Indeed, it appears that while fasting, they also engaging quarreling and fighting. The prophet responds – your fasting won’t make your voice heard by God. Bowing your head and lying in sack cloth and ashes, won’t gain God’s attention, as long as your religiosity is accompanied by injustice.

Even as we heard from the prophet Micah, Isaiah suggests that God desires that the oppressed be set free, bread be shared with the hungry, the homeless brought into one’s own homes, and the naked shall be clothed. Then, this post-exilic prophet says to the people, “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” Yes, and they your vindicator will go out before you and the glory of the Lord will serve as your rearguard. When you act justly, God will answer your cry for help. Our witness, if we can call it that, is rooted in our acts of justice.

Paul picks up a theme that relates directly to Douglas John Hall’s statements on religion. This text follows upon the previous verses that defend the message of the cross from those who would call it foolish. What we know of the Corinthian situation suggests that the “spiritualists,” the pneumatakoi, were calling for a different understanding of the Gospel, one that was more intellectual or spiritual, a perspective that had little regard for the cross and its image of weakness. That’s why Paul speaks in the first chapter of the letter of its supposed “foolishness.” But Paul isn’t afraid of taking his stand on this foolish idea. Rather than define his message and ministry in terms the “spiritualists” would find acceptable, he is willing to present his calling in terms that can be conceived as weak and fearful. Yes, he will take his stand with the crucified one, putting the wisdom of the cross up against the wisdom of the world. Once again we need to be aware of the danger of anti-intellectualism that could present itself in this text. But the point isn’t one of rejecting science or history, but recognizing that too often the conventional wisdom that puts too much regard on power and class can undermine the gospel. Then it becomes mere grasping for power. Paul will have none of this. The power of the gospel isn’t found in my (or any preacher’s) rhetorical abilities. I may be able to offer a stemwinder of a sermon, but if it only points back at me and not on to the message of Christ, then does it have any real value? As Mark Achtemeier puts it:

One would not want to use Paul’s point to excuse poor preaching, but it does point to a truth that preachers know all too well: The person in the pulpit does not have power to create faith in the hearers. Preachers bear testimony to the best of their ability, but it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit to write God’s truth upon people’s hearts and bring them to faith. (Mark Achtemeier, “1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16): Theological Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, WJK, 2010, p. 328)

Thus, bearing as we do the Spirit of God, we can bear witness to the light, we can be the salt of the earth, by making use of the gifts of the Spirit who bears witness to the Crucified One.

The Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes – what Stanley Hauerwas calls gifts to the church – now moves on to describe the nature of our existence in the economy of God. We are salt and light. As salt we act to conserve the well-being of this world that we inhabit, and as light our “good works” stand out in such a way that God receives glory.

As salt and light, we must attend to the Law of God. Now, in this section, Matthew’s Jesus takes on those who would claim that in the new order the law has been done away with. Do you hear echoes of an argument within early Christianity between those who would elevate the law and those who would rid the church of law. Paul seems, at points, to throw the Law under the bus, but here we are given a reminder that the Law has not been abandoned. Now it is possible that Jesus will redefine the Law, but he makes quite clear that not one letter or even one stroke of a letter will pass away, so there isn’t any room here for those antinomians (anti-law) folks to hang their hats. In fact, Jesus even tells the teachers that they’ll be held liable if they teach the people to disobey the law. Your righteousness, Jesus tells the people, must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. I have been reminded that as we listen for the meaning of this verse, we need to remember that this is a caricature of the Pharisees. The purpose of this passage, though, seems to be one of pointing us back to the message of Isaiah 58. It’s not our staying true to the ritual that God considers ultimate, but the way we treat one another. Justice and mercy and humility – these are the markers of Jesus’ message, a message to which we’ve been called to bear witness.

If we will act justly and humbly, then we can be salt of the earth and a light to the world.

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