A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2023. The scripture readings are Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16], Matthew 5:13-20, and Psalm 112:1-9, (10).
Salt and light are strong images. They gain even more strength in the teaching of Jesus. He ties them to faithfulness and suggests that by resembling salt and light we will not only be useful to him and to God, but we will please God, and will be a part of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to see why these images have guided Christians for centuries. But taken out of context and blown out of proportion, salt and light become destructive and imperialistic.
As the Puritan John Winthrop sailed towards the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he preached a sermon on the ship entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The words have been used again and again by preachers and presidents to inspire and to encourage. The trick is to remember that they are words having to do more with service than privilege. Too much salt can sting and ruin things. Too strong a light can blind and confuse.
In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul suggests how to navigate a middle way, moderate approach in the face of possible Gospel zealotry.
When Paul approaches the worldly and urbane Corinthians, he does so not as though he’s got all the light and they’re living in the dark. He doesn’t approach them as though he’s rubbing salt into a wound. Instead, he approaches them simply. He tells them about Jesus Christ crucified. Paul describes his approach as one of weakness, fear, and trembling. Of humility, really. It’s as though Paul trusts God more than he trusts his own words or wisdom.
Paul describes beautifully the Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail. It’s the Spirit that soothes when answers are hidden, that accomplishes when plans fail. The Spirit is sometimes our last resort, but it’s often God’s first choice of presence in our lives. As scripture reminds, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
And then Paul does an interesting thing. He relates this Spirit of God to the mind of Christ. In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ is to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out. To be like Jesus is to allow our mind to be filled with God and God’s Spirit.
Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights. If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better.
It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds to, rather than obliterates; it promotes rather than dominates. Salt is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s just the way our faith ought to be.
If we are centered on the Spirit, allow God to make us light and salt, then that second part of the Gospel really sort of takes care of itself. The second part talks about the commandments of God remaining firm, and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God.” If we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, the Gospel says, we will be “great in the kingdom of God.” All of this takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall, or fail, or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. Keeping the commandments is not the focus of our faith, but it becomes a natural by-product of living faithfully.
And so, how do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?
It begins at baptism. There and then, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy.
Another way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.
Some of you are familiar with the type of prayer known as Centering Prayer. There are other forms very similar—Christian meditation, Buddhist and non-religious meditation, and others. Centering Prayer works very simply. One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one simply opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful. It’s a little different from a mantra, which would be repeated over and over. In Centering Prayer, the silence is welcome and the “centering word” is simply used to bring one back to center.
It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”
Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice. It’s counter-cultural because in such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’re not improving or producing or creating. We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it,
What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’(Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)
Whether it’s Centering Prayer, meditation, a good cup of tea and quiet few minutes, or a particular walk in the park—I encourage you to find something that centers you, that calls you again to the Spirit of God within you. Each us is called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it. May we slow down, breathe, notice, and give thanks for the “mind of Christ” within us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.