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September 14th, 2014

Stop thinking of church as a place to avoid uncomfortable people.

Matthew 5:13-16

September 14, 2014

Closer or farther?

In each of the following scenarios, do you move closer or farther?

  1. The entrance to a dark cave.
  2. A restaurant’s low sodium menu.
  3. A homeless man.
  4. A couple angry at each other and ready to separate.
  5. A teen who has just announced his gay identity.
  6. A young American has admitted his sympathies to ISIS.
  7. The office gossip.
  8. The neighbor who is pulling down property values.
  9. A member of a fundamentalist church.
  10. The tarot card reader.
  11. A tattooed young woman with a cigarette in her hand.
  12. The fun-loving family with no time for God in their lives.
  13. Middle school minority boys from the projects.
  14. The guy who never knows when he’s had enough to drink.
  15. Mormon missionaries.
  16. A Ferrari owner who ditched his wife for a young chick.
  17. The successful man who’s been accused of domestic violence.

Most of us, most of the time, want more distance from most of these people and situations.  It’s the American way.  We have rights, and those rights include freedom of religious belief and practice, freedom to associate with people who think like us.  One of the ways we move away from others is by coming to church.  We think of church as a safe place where we don’t have to encounter people whose appearance or behavior makes us uncomfortable.  We even convince ourselves that moving away from those broken people might help them see their sins and repent.

This month at Corinth, we are learning to “walk across the room.”  We are wrestling with our own failures – I can certainly speak for myself, anyway – to create and capitalize opportunities to bring the grace and love of Jesus into a very broken world. Because I don’t “walk across the room” naturally, I don’t do it frequently.

Salt and light

In the September worship services, we’re looking at Scripture texts that fit those themes.  Today, we look at Jesus’ twin metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”

When Jesus tells a parable or uses a metaphor without telling us specifically how to understand or apply it, he makes us work a little harder – or maybe ask the Father humbly for help.  He also leaves himself open to a good bit of speculation as to what, exactly, he means.

Take, for example, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Typically, preachers and commentators ask, “What is salt used for?”  The two most common answers, though there are others, are as seasoning (or flavor) and as preservative.  Either will preach, and both have preached.  The world should taste better, be a better place, because you are in it.  Or, you should keep back the spread of evil as a preservative for the world.  “Don’t use your saltiness” means that you never stop being a change agent in your environment.

Rather than choosing one of those options, some commentators will take it a step further and say, “Salt is used for many things, and that is Jesus’ point.  There are many ways to impact the world, not just one.”

“You are the light of the world” is often used as a contrast to the salt metaphor.  You salt the earth by what you do.  You light the world by what you say.  Light, then, is about your explicit witness to Jesus – who he is and what he did.  Don’t hide your light under a bushel, then, means to share your faith explicitly.  For some, it means also to expose the dark, evil deeds of people.

These may all be legitimate and even insightful points about salt and light.    But I took a different angle. I think Jesus is making the same point two different ways.  I wanted to ponder what these two metaphors have in common.

Part of what he’s saying is surely connected to the context.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and so on.  These are upside down values in a world that seeks power and pleasure and privilege.

So what do salt and light have in common?

Proximity

Let’s start with proximity.  Salt has to touch the food in order to flavor it or preserve it.  Light must enter the space.   There must either be a direct path from the light source, or a reflection of the light from other objects.  A light bulb in my house can’t light your living room.  You have to be close by.

This applies to any of those examples in my opening list – that neighbor who trashes his yard, that pain in everyone’s backside in the office, that guy who shows off his hot babe and his hot car.  Our human reaction is, “She makes my skin crawl” or “I just need to create some distance before I say the wrong thing.”  We convince ourselves we’re being good Christians by avoiding them as part of our self-restraint.

I am not arguing against verbal self-restraint.  But what if we trained ourselves to think differently? “That’s a person created in God’s image.  That’s someone for whom Jesus died.  That’s an eternal being in whom the Holy Spirit wants to work because he wants that person to share the joys of heaven.  What if God has put that person in my office, in my neighborhood, at my party, in my path?  I want to get closer.”

Bill Hybels asks what it looks like to see “filthy-mouthed, party-loving, woman-chasing Joe” as Jesus sees him.  “You begin picturing him in his redeemed state.  Your love for him grows and grows as you move toward him, engaging in the good, the bad, and the ugly of his life.  You find yourself craving opportunities to be around people just like him – people who are one prayer away from becoming your eternal brothers and sisters” (Just Walk Across the Room, 69).

Bill Hybels’ first “D” in a 3D model to walk across the room is:  Develop friendships.   Instead of figuring out how you can move farther, you scheme how you can get closer.  You ask that person who doesn’t share your world view or your values to lunch.  You invite him to play a round of golf.  You include her in a party they wouldn’t normally be included in.  You say yes to an invitation into their world that would have been more comfortable to decline.  You pray for, look for, and yearn for chances to develop friendship.

Here’s one practical idea to “walk across the room.”  Tad Texer sent me yesterday an invitation from the Council on Adolescents to be a “lunch buddy” for a Middle School kid.  What a great idea!  It’s a simple way to enter the world of a young person who, more than anything else, needs to know there’s an adult who cares.  Call or e-mail Chae Williams at 828.322.4591 or [email protected].

Where did we ever come up with the idea that the Christian thing to do is avoid broken people?  Do we not remember how Jesus spent his time around tax collectors and prostitutes?  Listen, he even spent his time around Pharisees, eating in their homes, just being with them.  Some of their lives were changed – not all of them, but some of them.  How do we expect broken lives to be changed if those who have what they need stay as far away as possible?  If we are salt and light, we need proximity.  I want to get closer.

Penetration

Here’s another connection between salt and light.  Both penetrate.  They permeate.  They infiltrate.  Salt does it chemically.  Light does it physically.  Both can be stopped, as we’ve already noted, but unless something happens to block it, the natural process is for salt to draw out moisture from meat, a process that intensifies the natural flavor, and to penetrate every fiber of the muscle.  Likewise, light may enter directly or indirectly through reflection from various colored objects, but as it bounces around the room it permeates each corner if given the opportunity.

This is, I believe, what Jesus intended for his disciples – that we would penetrate every fiber of individual lives, every corner of our culture.  But how do we do that?

Curt Thompson, the psychiatrist Cornerstone Counseling is bringing to Hickory November 6-7, will also speak here at Corinth November 9.  Chapter 2 of his book, Anatomy of the Soul, is titled, “As We Are Known.”  He writes, “We live in a world that values knowing things.”  But “knowledge alone does not satisfy.  What does satisfy is being known.”  I spent some time yesterday in marriage counseling with a newly married couple.  At this vulnerable stage of their relationship, they are having heated arguments that really amount to both of them saying, “You’re not listening.  You just don’t get me.”  Both of them want to be known by their partner.

The second “D” in the “3D” of “Walk Across the Room” is Discover stories.  Evangelism doesn’t start with some complex presentation of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation or a strategy to answer people’s complex questions about their doubts.  The starting point is to listen to someone’s story.  I ask some form of the following question several times every week.  Chances are I’ve asked you:  “Where were you born, and how did you get from there to here?”  When you discover stories, you open up the possibility for gospel penetration.  People don’t just like to tell their stories – they need to be known.

Listen to what I’m about to say with the background that most of you know – that I believe God designed sex for marriage between a man and a woman.  I don’t advocate for gay marriage or for gay rights.

What I do advocate is that we meet people where they are and love them right there.  I mean really love them, not conditionally.  What I’ve found is that it’s very powerful for gay and lesbian people just to ask for their story, and to listen non-judgmentally as they share their own accounts, which often are filled with wounds inflicted by “Christian” people.

I received an e-mail this week from Bill Henson, who was here in April leading a seminar called “Lead Them Home” about ministry to gays and lesbians.  His blog calls attention to a Rolling Stone article that describes a disturbing trend of homelessness among gay teens.  Why?  Because as soon as they “come out” to their parents they get kicked out of the home.  Is this the way to change their view of God and family and self?

Bill Henson says every Christian pastor should deliver this message in their churches, a message I wholeheartedly resonate with –

No matter what you believe about biblical sexuality, God calls you to love your child regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Bible never instructs you to disown your child. The church of Jesus Christ must lay down our lives to love gay youth. Parents, you have permission to love your kids whether they are gay or heterosexual. Jesus calls you to love well.

Of course there is more to be done after a gay teen – or anyone tells their story?  But the best way for salt and light to penetrate is for us to value people enough to give them a chance to be known – by God, of course – but we are his ears and eyes and arms.

Identity

This final point is not so much about the connection between salt as a substance and light as a particle, but between the way Jesus uses each metaphor.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Try harder to be salt and light.”  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  Be who you are.

You may think, “Well, I don’t feel much like salt or light.”  Then, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.”  Salt and light define who you are.  This is your identity.  He goes on in verse 6: “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”

Who you are is not American, Carolina fan, conservative, or young.  You are not your race or sexual orientation.  You are a disciple of Jesus, and you are salt and light.

So what does that mean for evangelism?  The third “D” in “3D” is Discern next steps.  We fear evangelism because we think we’re not going to know everything we need to know if we reach out to people in Jesus’ name.  What if they do show interest in the faith?  What if they want to know my position on creation v. evolution or on gay marriage?    What if I discover their story and don’t know what to do next?

I don’t really know how to summarize in a few sentences what Bill Hybels says in his book, except to say I love how his “next steps” are so non-threatening and helpful.  It’s about being a resource provider.  You don’t have to write books or create blogs or start new churches and classes.  They already exist.  At Jake Robertson’s funeral last week, I knew there are many parents who are newly terrified about what might happen to their own kids.  I just told them about the Parents of Teens and Students (POTS) Class we have here.  It’s about something as simple as a neighborhood cookout or kickball game where there’s a low-key and fun way to let people get to know each other.

What matters is that I embrace my identity as salt and light in this world.  I have the message of eternal life, what the world really needs.  He has chosen to limit himself to you and me as his way of giving the world his truth and grace.

This morning as you leave the worship service, you will be handed a little packet of salt.  I’m going to encourage you to put that little packet in a place where you will see it every day, and perhaps several times a day.  Maybe on your coffee mug or mirror or the steering wheel of your car.  Perhaps you could lay it on your desk or on your computer keyboard or monitor.  Put it where you’ll see it.

That includes running everything I do and say through the grid of my identity as salt-and-light. Yesterday I tweeted a comment about the Carolina Panthers and their star player, Greg Hardy:  “This hurts to say, but I can’t be a ‪#‎Panthers fan until the ‪#‎GregHardy matter is settled. ‪#‎ZeroTolerance for domestic violence.”  My tweets automatically post to Facebook, and a wise woman named Jeannie Brackett responded  on my Facebook page with one word: “grace.”

For those of you who don’t follow NFL news, the Carolina Panthers’ Hardy was named Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL last season.  He was convicted in July of misdemeanor domestic violence, and has now appealed for a jury trial.  The Panthers and the NFL have chosen not to discipline him until the legal proceedings run their course.  No one (myself included) said much about Greg Hardy’s continuing to play until another NFL player, Ray Rice, was suspended from the NFL this week when a shocking video surfaced of his own brutal actions against his then-fiancée, now his wife.

Here’s my struggle.  What Greg Hardy does on the field is to use his larger-than-life body to run through offensive linesmen and drag a quarterback to the turf.  I don’t think I can watch that or get excited about it now that I have I read what his ex-girlfriend says he did to her.  Something died in me as a sports fan, and my love for the Panthers will be altered until there is some resolution – either Hardy is exonerated or he is released.

But Jeannie was right to inject the one word, “grace,” into the conversation.  Even if the NFL should have “zero tolerance” for domestic violence, as I believe it should, we need to be very careful about how we say what we say.  Grace needs to be our theme word.  That, for me, includes grace for others who don’t feel what I do about the Panthers.

Instead of as a stalwart of the defensive line who breaks the opponents’ schemes, I now see Greg Hardy as a broken person whose play may be fueled by rage.  But the wrong attitude is to see him – or people like him – as irredeemable.  I want him changed, and maybe this incident will do it.  Even if I don’t think the Panthers should let him play football, I want my attitude toward him as a man to be one word: “grace.”  I know other Greg Hardys, and I want to be salt and light to them.  I crave an opportunity to get closer, to show them what love looks like.  “God, redeem him, transform him, use him.”

In the meantime, neither you nor I will always know the precise balance between grace and truth.  Don’t let that immobilize your passion to be salt and light.  Step out.  Reach out.  Love people.  Get to know them.  Speak words when the Spirit prompts you, and trust him to use your successes and your failures to draw others to himself.  Amen.

2 Responses to Be Who You Are »

  • Ken says:

    I like that Jeanie spoke grace into your thoughts of NFL players accused of domestic violence. I recently read that Ben Carson is creating waves by saying don’t demonize Ray Rice,which I agree with. what the NFL should do is make going to counseling part of any hope of getting their job back–the player and the spouse or others that was involved. Domestic violence is a sign of a deep hurt that needs healing.
    On another theme are you aware of the book “How We Love” by Mylan and Kay Yerkovich? The have a “comfort circle” which would probably be beneficial to couples that don’t communicate very well.
    Always appreciate and learn for your sermons. Blessings.

  • Ken says:

    Pardon my mistakes. My IPad changes some of what I write and not always for the best.

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