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Sunday, February 9, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20 & Isaiah 58:1-9a
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
My parents are some of the most interesting people I know. Growing up I don’t think my brothers and I realized this. We seemed to live a very normal suburban experience. My dad put in the hours at the office and provided well. My mom made sure we made it to all of our activities. (Now that I have busy kids I have no idea how she did that. I know I haven’t been able to keep up.) Once we moved on to college my parents moved into a new phase of life where they took up interests and hobbies I could never have predicted. They built a house on an acre of land, nestled into the concord grape vineyards along Lake Erie. Soon after settling in they started raising chickens for their eggs. Over twenty years later, they’re still doing that, and so we know how different farm-raised eggs are compared to their pale, store-bought cousins. Then they added several dogs to the mix, each of them competing in agility trials for dogs. I swear those dogs know more English than the average American. A few years ago they added honey bees to the mix, with a handful of hives dotting the property. Of course, we benefit with some delicious honey.
This past year my parents were reading about how monarch butterflies were on the decline. If it were me, I’d probably think, “That’s a bummer. I like monarchs.” But I would have done nothing about it. My parents, on the other hand, decided to help the monarchs. They have some milkweed on their property, and they would go out regularly to inspect the milkweed for monarch butterfly eggs. These eggs are tiny, but they learned how to find them. When they found one, they would cut the milkweed, bring it inside, and put it into an enclosure. These small eggs had turned into a few dozen caterpillars, which my parents fed. They watched them to witness the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis. We visited them for just a few days this summer, and while we were there, it became clear that one of the caterpillars was about ready to turn into a chrysalis. It’s a pretty fast process, so when we were pretty sure it was ready, we gathered around to watch. The caterpillar attached itself to the ceiling of the enclosure. Then its body moved into a shape like the letter J. Soon, its body started convulsing. Eventually what happens is the caterpillar somehow turns its body inside out. A rip forms down its back and its insides become its outsides and turn into the chrysalis. Watching it, I kept wondering how any creature could survive such a traumatic event. We sure couldn’t as humans. Metamorphosis is fascinating because the essence of the creature is still the same. That egg that became a caterpillar that became a chrysalis that eventually became a monarch butterfly is the same creature in essence, but its appearance and purpose changed entirely. My parents raised and released dozens of monarchs this past year, all the while enjoying how wildly amazing God’s handiwork is.
The thing about butterflies is that they’re not playing dress up. This isn’t Halloween for them. They change appearance but their essence is still the same – to be what God created them to be. But this is a challenge that we humans have because we are good at wearing disguises. We like to pretend we are something that we’re not, and sometimes we like to pretend that we do things to honor God when our hearts are far from God’s heart. That’s a theme I find present in both of our texts. We’ll begin with Isaiah 58.
Isaiah is a long book, and it covers three distinctive times in the life of God’s people. The first 39 chapters occur before the Babylonians took the Jews into exile in 586 B.C. The prophet Isaiah writes warning after warning to his people that God’s judgment is coming, and it does come in the exile, one of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jews. Chapters 40-55 shift in tone. These happen while the Jews are exiled in Babylon. They are comforted by the promise that God will restore them. Our reading happens in the final section of the book, chapters 56-66. These chapters are written after the Jews have their fortunes restored. They have returned to their land and Jerusalem. After surviving such trauma, you’d figure that they’d tow the line for a while. They don’t. Isaiah reports that they are playing the religious part but that its role-playing. They’re doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Isaiah shouts out their rebellion. They seek the Lord, but their hearts are far from the Lord.
In verse 3, the people protest, “Why do we fast, but you (Lord) do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” This would be like us showing up to worship week after week, dressed up in our best, making a show of singing the music just right, but only doing it so those around us think that we’re good Christians. We may have the appearance right, but our essence we have held back from God. It’s not that fasting or studying or worshipping are bad and useless. They’re not, but if what we do is divorced from God’s purpose of justice and love in the world, then it becomes, in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” God has a greater purpose for us. Worship is so important. So are disciplines like fasting and prayer. But if they are separated from God’s purposes, then we’re missing the mark. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” the Lord says, “to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7)?
If I were to dress up as a taco for Halloween, does that make me a taco? Absolutely not! But what if I look like a taco and roll my costume in taco seasoning and cilantro and salsa so that I smell like a taco? Am I then a taco? No, I’m not. But what if I do all of that and stand outside of Arturo’s tacos, would I then be a taco? Nope. No chance. I’m still just me, not a taco. In the same way, if we put on the trappings of being religious and appear to be so from the outside, that does nothing to change us. Only God can reveal our essence.
Which brings me to what Jesus says about those who are following him. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says. “You are the light of the world.” Not you are like salt or you are like light. No. You are salt. You are light. This is your essence as a people whom God is changing from the inside out. This is who you are. Be who you are.
Let’s start with salt. Why salt? Well, salt has many purposes and is absolutely essential to human life. It is essential to human health. We sweat out some of the salt in our bodies, and we must replace that salt. It’s why Gatorade and other electrolyte drinks help us. I’ve seen people who have not been diligent in replacing salt lost in sweat, and they become weak, in need of rest, and sometimes need an IV to get those salts back into their bodies. So, salt is essential to human existence. Records dating back over 8000 years reveal human dependence upon salt. Not only is it essential to health, it also has preserved food long before refrigeration was possible. Salt also seasons our food, suppressing bitterness and enhancing other flavors. Salty is one of the five basic tastes. It is a basic need of life. And a little bit of it completely changes health or flavor a lot. Even though we may not think we are significant, we have the ability – with God’s help – to make a significant, positive difference.
So, Jesus says to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” Not you are like salt or some of you are to be salt. You. Are. Salt. Salt does not get to choose whether or not to be salty. It just is. By its nature it preserves, seasons, and sustains life. That is its purpose. Yet, Jesus says, “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Its purpose – like ours – is to make a difference to life around us. If we don’t, are we actually “salt”?
So, too, light. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. Light is interesting because its purpose goes beyond itself. Have you ever looked at an unlit bulb and then flipped on the light switch only to blind yourself? If lightbulbs were solely for us to stare at, we wouldn’t use them. Rather, the light from that bulb illuminates everything around it. I turn on the lights so I don’t trip over the couch or so I can brush my hair. Light makes it so we can see other things as they are. That is its purpose. You are the light of the world. Your purpose as light is to shine in the world, shedding light in the darkness. This light allows the world to see God at work. This light allows the world to see places where injustice exists. This light keeps shining as together we have rooted out the injustice and brought God’s reign of love to bear in that situation.
You see, whether we’re talking about God’s chosen people in Isaiah or Jesus’ disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount or ourselves today, there is no question that the essence of who all of these people are is having a mission to make a difference in the world. Mission is essential to discipleship. As God’s children, it’s crucial to who we are. We are the chain-breakers. We are the bread-sharers. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. Our existence should result in transformation of the community. These ordinary items – salt and light, flesh and bone – are what God uses to accomplish God’s extraordinary purposes. God chooses to rely on us to bring about wholeness and health to the community.
Interestingly, our Isaiah text ends with a promise. After all of these prophetic words holding their feet to the fire of God’s plan for them, Isaiah concludes with these words, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am” (58:8-9a). When hearing these words, the temptation is that we think, “Well, if I can do what God says, then I earn God’s favor. If I check the right boxes – clothe the naked, house the homeless – then God will be happy with me.” If that’s what we think, then we’re missing the point.
This promise is not an “input this, get that” equation. Rather, it is a description of what life under God’s reign looks like. When we live in this way, we experience the presence of God in the world. God’s favor and grace are all around us. They are available. Just like the caterpillar turning into the chrysalis turning into the butterfly never changes its essence, so too, our awakening to God’s reality all around us awakens us into who God created us to be. This transformation is restoration. God created each of us with this purpose. Will we be alive to who God knows we already are?