Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13-16)

Salt, for us in the 21st century, represents anything from a flavorful additive to our food to the veriest poison that will kill us all to something that's not all that harmful, depending on which cooking show or medical study revision you happen to be reading at the time. But no matter what role it plays, we never associate it with any kind of hardship in getting it -- it's there on the table or in a paper packet or in a blue cardboard canister on the store shelves, always ready to hand.

In Jesus' day, salt had almost only a positive role to play in food preparation. It was one of the few seasonings that poorer people could afford, and it was one of the very few ways to preserve meat for later eating. Even so, it was tough to acquire. "Working in the salt mines" is an old cliché meaning hard labor, referring to the fact that the mineral processed into salt for cooking had to be dug from the ground. People who lived around the extremely salty Dead Sea could gather mineral chunks from the shore and carefully process them to separate the salt from the other substances in the chunks, but if they did it wrong then they had a bunch of useless sludge they had to throw away. This was the kind of salt that poorer people most often used, since the Dead Sea could always produce more mineral chunks and all you had to do was pick one up.

That's probably what Jesus meant by salt losing its taste or its saltiness: Making a mistake with one of those chunks of minerals and ending up with sludge. His listeners would have quickly understood the metaphor.

The metaphor comes to my mind when I reflect on what kind of a relationship I should have between my identity as a Christian and a citizen of my country. As a United States citizen, I live in a nation whose founders chose to reject the idea of a state religion. No governmental agency can act in a way that prefers one religion -- or any religion at all -- to any other. That's the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. Neither can government make laws that tell me how to practice my religion, unless that practice conflicts with the basic rights of others. This is why I can't move into your house and claim you can't evict me because my religious practice mandates I live in strangers' homes -- it conflicts with your rights to enjoy and safeguard your own property. This is the "free exercise" clause.

Today, one of the most common ways of expressing the First Amendment protections is to use Thomas Jefferson's phrase "separation of church and state." And what it seems like most people mean when they say that is that I, as a religious person, should keep my religion to myself. I can pray, practice, preach and believe whatever I want while I'm in my own home or with like-minded people, but I need to leave all of that at the door whenever I exercise my duties as a citizen.

So in order to honor this understanding of the First Amendment, I need to vote without respect to my religious beliefs and allow them little or no influence on such decisions. If I participate in some program to help other people, I need to do it without any reference to my Christian faith and practice.

You can see how this breaks down. There are plenty of non-Christian folks who do pretty well at helping others and plenty of Christian folks who do pretty badly, but I know that I wouldn't help people nearly as often as I do if I wasn't a Christian. Jesus' call to me underlies my understanding of how I relate to everyone, people in need or otherwise.

If I believe that a free-market economy with as little government regulation as practical is the best way to help poor people rise from poverty, then I should vote for a candidate who follows those policies too. If I believe a social-democratic welfare state is the best way to do that, then I should vote accordingly also. If I do anything else, I've lost my saltiness -- and what good am I?

Paul offered us several pieces of advice on what kind of citizens Christians should be, and most of them center on doing exactly that -- being good citizens until or unless that conflicted with their faith. In a representative democracy that's based on the rule of law and respect for private property rights, we have opportunity after opportunity to properly exercise our responsibilities within the context of our faith. The only boundary is the one that would cross the line to some privilege our faith over other people's and work to impose it on people who don't share it, which is something God doesn't want us doing anyway.

Sometimes folks who don't want religious people, including Christians, to base political decisions on faith understandings and beliefs, say things like "You should leave your God outside the voting booth." But the problem with that idea is that I believe God's already in the voting booth.

The only question is whether or not I'll listen.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wellness (Luke 17:11-19)

I have preached on this passage earlier, with a different title but many of the same thoughts, so I'm re-posting the same manuscript. The original can be found here.

We spend a lot of time talking about how Christians should and shouldn’t act. We should tithe. We shouldn’t lie. We should help others. We shouldn’t hurt people. We should read our Bibles. We shouldn’t…etc., etc.

When I look at how much of that we sometimes focus on, I can understand why some non-Christians folks don’t have much interest in our faith. Of course, our faith in Christ should have consequences in how we live our lives. We claim to be different people, changed into something new by the grace of God. But if the new people act just like the old people, what’s the difference?

On the other hand, we’ve compiled an impressive list of thou-shalt-nots for people whose religion was founded on the concept of removing barriers between people and God. We have met the Pharisees, and sometimes they are us.

Jesus pointed out in one conversation what the law boiled down to, and we call the greatest commandment. We’re to love God with all we have, and then as a corollary, we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In the story of the ten lepers, we see Jesus boiling down the right relationship between God and human beings to its essentials. Later, the Apostle Paul will flesh this idea out in the first chapters of Romans, but Luke tells us a story of Jesus that gives us the essence.

Jesus meets ten lepers before he enters a village. They stay far away, like the law required them to do. People with leprosy couldn’t live with others, and often grouped together in bands of outcasts like this. Their former lives are meaningless, as we’ll see.

They call out to Jesus for mercy, and he directs them to go to show the priest they are clean. Even while they head back to town, their disease disappears. One man, a Samaritan who would ordinarily never have been with a group of Jews, runs back to Jesus when he sees his disease vanish. He praises God and falls to his knees.

Jesus notes that only one of the ten he healed offer thanksgiving for the mercy they sought, and tells him, “Go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Now this is interesting. “Your faith has made you well.” Do the other nine lose their cure? Probably not. The word translated “clean” in v. 14 is not the same as the word translated “well” in v. 19. So Jesus doesn’t say the man is cured because of his faith. He’s already been cured, and that’s because Jesus did what the men asked: He had mercy on them and healed them.

What did the man’s faith do, then? It made him return to his healer and thank God for his healing. And that, Jesus said, made him well. The other men may have been cured, but at this time, at least, they haven’t been made well. Think of it like someone with a cold who takes a cough drop – the cough is gone for awhile, but the cold remains.

What is it that makes the man well and truly whole? Praise to God for what amounts to a brand new-life, a return from the dead. People wrote lepers off, families often acted like they were dead and gone. But these men have been reborn, and the one foreigner knows who to thank for it (God) and what to do about it (thank him).

Paul will spend a lot of time telling us that everyone everywhere can know God is our creator by watching his creation. And God only wants us to respond to that knowledge properly with our praise, thanksgiving, respect and obedience. Because we haven’t, God has brought Christ into the world to re-shape us so we can.

The Samaritan leper does just that. He has asked for new life, in the form of a cure. He now has new life, and so he shows his praise and respect to the one who have it to him by thanking him. He is now well.

And this is what God calls us to do as well. God offers us a new life in Christ, a life with the possibility of real change. People in despair over what seems to be a broken life can find healing. People cut off from those around them by pride and arrogance can find humility and a community.

The Samaritan’s cure came about through the grace and mercy of Christ, just as ours does. Neither he nor we earned it. We ask. Because God loves us, he answers.

But then comes the part where the changed life really shows up. Do we offer our praise and gratitude to God for the change? Do we decide to live our lives knowing we are changed people, even though we might not see much evidence right away? If we don’t, we’re just cleaned up for a little while.

But if we do, then we too are made well by the good news of Jesus Christ.