Salt of the Earth: Faith in a Post-Christian World
A God We Can Love and Believe In
Nov 01, 2020
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Hi, there, friends. Happy November. It’s two days before election day. I decided not to preach about anything related to the election. But if you can vote and haven’t yet, I trust you will. And you heard during the announcements that there are ways to be together with others this week if you’d appreciate that. I’ll pray for mercy for us all in a moment.
Today is also All Saints’ Day, a day churches have traditionally remembered those that have gone before us and have passed away. That will find its way into my sermon, so I’ll pray for God’s blessing on all those we love who have passed, and God’s continued blessing to us through their memory as well. Let’s pray.
The last two months, in our community groups, in our services, in our Sunday retreat on the streets of our city, we have explored Beloved Community. This phrase popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one way to talk about Jesus’ vision for the whole human family, that all of us will be part of communities of love and belonging, and that together we will affirm all human dignity and ensure all people access a hopeful and just present and future on this earth.
We believe beloved community is what church is meant to be as well, a place to safely know and be known, to care and be cared for, to learn to love and grow and flourish and do good for one another and for our neighbor and for this world. Reservoir Church believes we are called to be the beloved community, and we ask everyone to aspire and work toward this together.
We grounded the past two months in the little bit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 known as The Beatitudes, or The Blessings, where Jesus widens the circle of who can be called happy and blessed. Where Jesus gives texture to the costs and rewards of making beloved community and living in beloved community.
This month of November, we’ll stew in a phrase Jesus uses just after these blessings, when he tells his community what they are to do in the world. Jesus tells his followers: You are the salt of the earth. Make this earth healthy and useful. Preserve things we value and need. Draw out flavor. Not just through what you do, but who you are.
In English, that phrase “salt of the earth” has this other meaning of being earthy, grounded – not too fancy, keeping it real. In Watertown, where I was a high school principal, this was a compliment. We wanted teachers and leaders who were real, who could relate to people. And we wanted good people, decent people, people who’d be healthy and useful, who’d help draw out the best in others. Salt of the earth.
Followers of Jesus have often not been salt of the earth, often not been good and decent people, often not healthy and useful. But we want to be. We want to be salt of the earth people, a salt of the earth church. We want our faith to be healthy and useful for us and for others.
So this month, we’ll get into that. Every November, we spend 4 or 5 weeks talking about what this church believes, who we are. We invite our long-time members to remember what this church is supposed to be and to do your part in making it so. And we invite people who are newer in the past year or two to consider saying: this is my church. I belong here. And we tell you how to do that.
Today, for all of us, we’re going to start big and talk about the God we believe in, a little bit about who that God is and isn’t, what that God is and isn’t like.
I’m going to read a passage from the final book of the Bible, called Revelation. It’s often read on this All Saints’ Day. I heard it read early this week at an online gathering for leaders in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We were remembering a long-time volunteer organizer, a backbone of our work, named Fran Early, who died suddenly last week. And as we did, a pastor friend of mine read this passage from Revelation 7 that I’ll read to you now.
Revelation 7:9-17 (NRSV)
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This, friends, is poetry from our future in the life to come. Hunger and thirst, gone from our memories, the loving, gentle presence of God as near as a friend. Tears wiped away; bodies, minds, hearts refreshed.
This pain is not forever. All the many pains of this long, hard year are not forever. The pains of injustice, the pain of heartache, the pain of death is not forever. God will make all things new.
The poetry of Revelation dares us to believe in a better future, in this life and in the life to come.
But it doesn’t just tell us things about us, it gives us visions into the nature of God as well.
There’s a bit of fuzzy counting going on here, as there often is when Christians talk about God. Is God one being, or two, or three? Is God present as one person, two, or three? This mystery of the unity and the trinity of God, one God – known to us as Father, Son, Spirit; God, Jesus, Presence; Creator, Savior, Sanctifier.
Here we have that. God is seated on the throne, and the Lamb. In this vision, there is what is called a throne of God, but at the center of the throne is the one called the Lamb. It’s intentionally not clear if there is one or if there are two. But what is clear is that the Lamb is God. The Lamb is praised and honored. Everyone loves the Lamb. In this joyful irony, the Lamb is also the Shepherd, guiding all people to springs of water, water of life, and the Shepherd-Lamb is also wiping away our tears.
The Lamb is poetic language for Jesus, who though innocent, was killed, whose death was part of God’s healing of humanity, and who – though very powerful, was like us, very vulnerable.
What I want us to notice in all this today is that God still looks like Jesus. The Almighty God is still a Lamb. Whatever God’s power is or isn’t, God is still gentle. God is still vulnerable.
Revelation insists that this is part of what we will always love about God. Whatever else God in all God’s power is, God is still a lamb.
Tonight I’m finishing a four-week class I’ve been teaching on church history. As we’ve unpacked some of the worst Christianity has become, we’ve looked at ways that Christians have had problematic or downright abusive views of God’s power.
We looked at when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the very empire that Revelation denounces again and again in coded language. When this happened, the church got a sword, which it used repeatedly – against people that believed differently, people they called heretics, against Jews, against Muslims, and in the second millenium, against colonized and enslaved peoples of the earth. The church with a sword thought God was a powerful conqueror, and that they were on God’s side, helping to get that conquering done. But no matter how many times Christians thought or did this, this is not what God is like.
In our class, we’ve looked at other views of God’s power that haven’t been so out and out violent, but still were not were not healthy, true, or useful. We looked at how some Christians came to teach that God controls all things that are on earth, that God chooses and wills all things. God who chooses to permit all things, even the really awful things, for some greater, mysterious purpose we can’t understand.
This idea of an all powerful, controlling God, that God that predestines all that is, that lets us say “Everything happens for a reason,” this is a familiar view of God. But it is also a God that lots of us have stopped believing in. Because when our prayers aren’t answered – not the little prayers like for parking spaces or good days, but the big ones, the prayers our lives and our loved ones depend on – when those prayers aren’t answered, we wonder why it is God is allowing such bad things to happen. When we – or others we care about – are neglected, abused, overlooked, mistreated, we wonder: did God choose that? When diseases spread, when injustice runs rampant, when leaders fail us, we wonder what it means that God is allowing all this. And we find that a belief in a God that is controlling history is not a belief in God that salts the earth. This vision of God’s power isn’t healthy or useful to us.
One of the best books I’ve read this year is a new one, by a professor I know named David Gushee. He was going to speak with us this spring, back when people got on planes and spoke places. His book is called After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity.
I’ll say a bit more about it next week, but for today, I’ll just say that Gushee is admitting that a lot of Christian faith in America has gotten worse and worse over the years, and shown itself to be, well, not healthy and useful to anybody. And he’s looking for a path forward as the title says. He’s looking with us for salt of the earth, healthy and useful faith.
And in his chapter about God, he shares about his work with Holocuast theology. Holocaust theology is where Jews ask what it is they can believe and say about God after the attempted elimination of their people. After baptized Christians killed six million Jews in the late 30s and early 40s. After children were sometimes thrown into fires to be burned alive.
What is left to say about God in the wake of such suffering?
Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a working principle. No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.
Don’t say things about God you couldn’t say in front of the burning children. It needn’t just be burning children in the Holocaust, of course.
We could talk of the Middle Passage, of other genocides, and war brutalities, and acts of violence and abuse.
But in this case, Rabbi Greenberg offers the burning children test for our views of God.
There are things you cannot say about God in the presence of burning children.
You can not say: God is in control. You can not say: This is part of God’s plan. You can not say: God cares about prayer and private morality, but stay out of politics. What does God care about public justice? You can not say: God would have done this, or changed this, or healed this, if we had just prayed more.
It is an offense to God and to the people who have suffered to say or believe any of these things.
So what can you say about God in the presence of burning children? In the face of all the suffering we learn about in our history books and we see protested on the streets and we know in our own experience, what can we say and believe about God?
Well, we have to say something.
Burning children tell us not to believe violent or controlling things about God. Bad religion kills. But burning children also demand that we not be silent. Because silent complicity kills too. The presence of evil in the world calls out to us to speak and to respond.
In the case of faith, and what we believe and say and practice when it comes to God, the problem of evil calls for salt of the earth faith, it calls for a faith that is determined to be healthy and useful in whatever we believe or say about God.
This is why salt of the earth faith starts by saying: God is love.
God is patient. God is kind. God does not insist on God’s own way. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things.
There is nothing in God that isn’t absolutely dedicated to the well-being and flourishing of all God has made, and of all human life, all God’s special children, in particular.
The very reason that God is not controlling us all right now is because God is love. And love doesn’t control. Love celebrates the agency of the other. Love waits to be welcomed.
And our God who is love looks like Jesus. God is a Lamb.
God suffers with those who suffer. God is always with us, wiping tears from our eyes. God is always present in healing power, always present for the good and the true and beautiful.
This God is with us in all things, and this God gently nudges us to do as God does, encouraging us to also become love and to grow, to nurture, to heal, to act for the common good, working together with our God who wills this.
Friends, it’s been a hard year. I’m sure your heart aches sometimes, like mine so often does. We’ve learned and seen horrible things.
What we don’t need is to compound that hardness by wondering why God has done it or why God allowed it to happen, for this is not what God is like. And if we have nothing other than that in our faith, we’ll have to close our eyes and play pretend to protect our faith, or our faith will soon die on us.
Let me encourage you today by saying God has not done or willed this pain. God is still the love God has always been. God is still the healing presence God has always been. God is still on the throne, so to speak, but not with a scepter to rule or a sword to harm. God is on the throne as a Shepherd-Lamb, with a staff to point the way, with a voice to call our names and sing over us, and with steady arms to hold us all.