February 5, 2017, Despised and Desperately Needed – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000007
One of the many impressive and somewhat unbelievable things on TV police dramas is the way the official sketch artist is always able to sit down with the witness and make a drawing that looks exactly like the perpetrator of the crime – the “perp” in police lingo – so that the detectives can find him on the traffic cameras conveniently located a block from the crime and run his photo through the facial recognition software and come up with his name and phone number and current address and go lock him up.
Last week we read what we call the Beatitudes, which is a list of qualities that were a different kind of sketch: Jesus’ own sketch of what a disciple looks like. Paraphrasing a little bit, it went like this:
blessed are those who know how needy they are;
blessed are those whose hearts are broken by all the pain and suffering in the world;
blessed are those who put the needs of others before their own;
blessed are those who long for the right thing to be done so desperately they can taste it;
blessed are those who show kindness;
blessed are those who open their hearts to me,
and who remember to keep the main thing the main thing;
blessed are those who bring people together instead of dividing them.
Jesus told us that that’s what a disciple looks like – and maybe it’s not who we are perfectly and completely now, but it is exactly what we are growing up to be if we follow him, which is what it means to be a disciple.
And after he gave his description of what a disciple looks like, Jesus told the disciples two things about being a disciple in the world. The first thing, he said, is that the world is really, really going to hate you. They are going to say nasty things about you and accuse you of doing stuff you never did; and they are going to do hateful things to you, because of me. When it happens, he told them, and it will – remember that you are in the best of company.
But the second thing about being a disciple, Jesus told them, is that this world that hates you so much, needs you even more than it hates you.
You – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted seekers of justice – you are the salt of the earth, Jesus said. Now, we use the expression “salt of the earth” in English to mean people who are just the most excellent, down-to-earth, highest-quality kind of folks. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Because salt in those days wasn’t just something nice, something you sprinkle on your French fries, or abstain from if you have high blood pressure. Everyone needed salt, because without salt food would last a very short time. All those fish that Peter and Andrew and James and John caught would very quickly have turned into a stinky mess without salt. We could misquote the old commercial and say, “Without salt, life itself would be impossible.”
And you – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted ambassadors of peace – you are the light of the world. In our culture that is so very focused on fame and celebrity that might make you think of someone standing in the spotlight, but that’s just the opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Nobody lights a lamp and sticks it under a basket, he said; no, they put it up on a lampstand so that it gives light to everyone in the house. Being the light of the world isn’t about being seen at all; it’s all about making it possible for others to see, and especially it’s about helping others to see God, who is their Father.
Probably the most well-known verse in the whole Bible is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who put their trust in him might have life in abundance.” If we are disciples of Jesus, we are disciples of the one who came to rescue and to serve the world because God loves them so much. Being salt and light are our ways of being servants to that beloved world – to the people of the world, in particular, but also to the whole of God’s good creation. We are salt to this earth not to draw attention to ourselves but to preserve its goodness and to work against the rot of hatred and greed and fear that destroys its goodness. We are light, not to call attention to ourselves, but to bring hope, to dispel the shadows, to illuminate the truth. “As my Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you.” As Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, so we come as servants to the world.
No disciple has ever been perfect, but there have been times in the history of the world when the church has failed miserably at this job of being salt and light. There have been times when the church has made friends with the darkness and become utterly saltless. There were times when the church hid the light of the gospel under the bushel-basket of worldly principles. It happened in the early centuries of our country, when men who called themselves disciples of Jesus forgot who they were. They forgot they were needy; they forgot to be broken-hearted at the suffering of their fellow man; they forgot kindness; they forgot mercy; they forgot to long for righteousness. Instead they used the word of God to defend their right to use and abuse other human beings for their own profit.
They, many of whom were our own brothers and sisters in Christ, failed to be servants of God’s world, and especially they failed to be servants of the African men and women and children who were also God’s beloved children. And so the rot set in, and darkness reigned, and our country has not yet recovered from that failure; the injustice of racism and the inequity of slavery haunt us to this very day. We can see echoes of our failure everywhere, from the hateful racial remarks that have been made about President Obama and his family, to those TV police dramas I was talking about, with their persistent and harmful stereotypes of the heroic white police detective and the black thug who gets what’s coming to him.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a brilliant writer and speaker and abolitionist, wrote these words that justly condemned the Church in its failure to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in his time. He wrote:
“I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .
I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.
We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.
The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .
The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.
Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.
Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
I’m not saying that the church was single-handedly responsible for the evils of slavery and racism. But the effect of the church not being salt and light in that time; the effect of the disciples of Jesus not opposing the rot of greed and cruelty, and not shining light on the truth that the men and women who were being enslaved were human beings created in the image of God exactly like themselves – the effect of that failure continues to be devastating down into our own time.
We are not disciples merely for our own personal salvation. When the church fails to be light, the world is plunged into darkness. When the salt of the church becomes saltless, the gospel is trampled underfoot. We are not called today to build an ark and be good people keeping ourselves all pure and holy and separate, and letting the whole world go to hell; and we are not called to play by the world’s rules, lobbying for political power and wealth for the kingdom of God, as it were – Christians have been known to fall off both ends of that spectrum. We are called to be simply and essentially disciples of Jesus Christ, offering ourselves in service to one another and to the world.
Our power is in being servants as our Master also served: in meekness, in humility, in sacrifice, in kindness, in love. We are called to recognize the immense value of every human being because they were created by God. We are called to stand with the despised and rejected because our Lord made himself one with the least of these. We are called to spend ourselves for the good of our neighbor, like the Samaritan in the story. We come not to be served, but to serve, as he did. There is a desperate need for us out there right now, if we will be what we are called to be, salty and full of light, servants of the world God loves.