How are you feeling about the world today? Certainly, there are good things happening. Sweeping LGBT rights legislation that bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations sailed out of the Virginia Senate and House on bipartisan votes Thursday. Pope Francis has turned one of the Vatican’s properties into a home for Rome’s homeless population. The EU will be decreasing use of single-use plastics.
Yes, good things are happening in the world. In some small pockets, God’s dreams for the world are coming true. But a lot of days it feels like the wheels are coming off, doesn’t it? Political turmoil. Incivility. Ecological devastation. Abhorrent treatment of people at our southern border. For one friend, a radio personality known for his racist and misogynistic rhetoric receiving the nation’s highest civilian honor–while a centenarian Tuskeegee airman looked on–was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. She is now at despair.
Knowing how to preach in these, what feels like, unprecedented times…does anybody else want this job? It’s not easy. First, there’s trying to decide which dire event to address… then figuring out a faithful response to that event…then trying to communicate that faithful response for that particular event to people who are inundated and overwhelmed by all the events in the world right now… The issues are so numerous and so dire, I often feel like the steel ball in a pinball machine, ricocheting from one thing to another. Maybe you feel like that, too.
What’s a pastor to do? What’s a follower of Jesus do in these fraught times?
As I watched the news this week, and fretted yet again over finding some adequate word to say, I read today’s Gospel lesson. “You are the salt of the Earth,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world.” The words are familiar. They are great images. But what do they mean? Any ideas, Marika?
You are the light of the world! // You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel, // Brrr, it’s lost something kind of crucial
You got to stay bright to be the light of the world
You are the salt of the earth // You are the salt of the earth
But if that salt has lost its flavor // It ain’t got much in its favor
You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth!
Ah! So, salt is salt and light is light. If salt doesn’t flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor. If our light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. Salt and light have only one purpose— to salt and to shine. Every time you pour salt on something, it becomes salty. It doesn’t become sweet. It doesn’t become tart. When you salt something, it becomes salty. Likewise, every time you shine a light on something, it’s lit. The substance or circumstances don’t matter. Salt is salt and light is light.
The same is true for us who try to follow Jesus. The circumstances don’t matter. Whatever the state of the world, no matter how unprecedented the times, we are called to follow Jesus. If the planet’s suffering continues to speed up—we follow Jesus. If our country’s policies at the border continue to demean and traumatize—we follow Jesus. If some states continue enacting legislation that denies rights to folks who are LGBTQ—we follow Jesus. If our country’s leadership loses its moral compass—we follow Jesus.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means immersing ourselves so deeply in the teachings and the person of Jesus that every single thing we do, every action we take, every interaction we have, reflects what Jesus taught, what Jesus did. Focusing on dire events in the world, I’m convinced, will keep us in a state of anxiety. Focusing on following Jesus, though, will give us clarity—both about who we are and what actions we should take.
A case in point—Senator Mitt Romney. After an exceedingly contentious and partisan impeachment process, Senator Romney’s speech on the Senate floor before the vote on Wednesday was remarkable. He spoke of conscience. He spoke of doing what was right. And he prefaced all of it by saying “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.” After saying that, he had to gather himself, the words were so true and so deep.
On one of the articles of impeachment, Senator Romney voted to convict. In his speech, he acknowledged that his vote wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome of the proceedings. He also accurately predicted intense political fallout for voting his conscience instead of voting with his party. But the results of his vote weren’t the main concern for Senator Romney. His main concern was to follow his conscience, which has been formed by his faith.
Progressive Christians are sometimes leery of talking about Jesus…or even calling ourselves Christians. A lot of terrible things have been done by Christians. A lot of terrible things have been done to us by people calling themselves Christians.
And yet…there is so much truth and love and healing in following the way of Jesus. I follow the way of Jesus because I believe it is an effective and powerful means of healing the world. I worry, sometimes, that we spend so much time trying to make the message of Jesus more palatable to those who aren’t into religion or who have been hurt by religion, that we miss the Jesus message all together.
What might happen if we took Jesus back from the people who claim him, but don’t follow him? What might happen if, like Senator Romney, our public actions grow even more intentionally out of our personal faith? What might happen if we begin our day, not with our newsfeed, but with the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s verses come?
Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t a Christian, but he did read the Sermon on the Mount every day. He said it almost convinced him to become a Christian…but then he met some Christians.
To be clear, he wasn’t talking about rank-and-file Christians who try to follow Jesus in caring for the least of these. Most of the Christians Gandhi encountered were part of the British colonial government, which had oppressed the Indian people for well over a century.
In 1757, India became a British colony. After a century of exploitation, British coffers were overflowing, while the people of India were starving. “By British figures, 400,000 Indians died of starvation in the 2nd quarter of the 19th century, 5 million in the 3rd quarter, and an appalling 15 million between 1875 and 1900, the years in which Gandhi was coming of age.” (Easwaran in The Essential Gandhi)
Indians had from time to time attempted to re-gain their independence, but those efforts had been disorganized and, in some cases, violent. Gandhi’s approach—largely in conversation with the Sermon on the Mount—was unique in its insistence on nonviolent resistance.
The event that finally led to India’s independence happened in 1930. Perhaps taking the “you are the salt of the Earth line” literally, Gandhi called on the Indian people to defy the British government’s oppressive laws regarding salt.
“Britain’s Salt Acts prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, a staple in the Indian diet. Citizens were forced to buy [it] from the British, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also exerted a heavy salt tax. Defying the Salt Acts, Gandhi reasoned, would be a simple way to break a British law nonviolently.”
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi set out with several dozen followers on a journey of 240 miles to the coastal town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea. The Salt March had begun.
They planned to defy British policy by making salt from seawater. Along the way, Gandhi spoke to large crowds about what they were doing. Each day more people joined the march. By the time they reached Dandi on April 5th, the crowd numbered tens of thousands.
The morning of April 6th, Gandhi walked down to the sea, reached down and picked up a small lump of natural salt out of the mud. In that simple act, he defied British law. His action inspired tens of thousands of others across the country to do the same. When all was said and done, 60,000 Indians had been arrested. It took another 17 years, but the Salt March was the event that initiated the movement that eventually led to India’s gaining its independence, which eased the suffering of millions people.
So, here’s what I wonder. I wonder what might happen if, instead of starting with our newsfeeds, we started each day with the Sermon on the Mount. What might happen if we began each day with the words of Jesus rather than the opinions of the pundits? What might happen if we used the words and person of Jesus to frame the way we see the world rather than the other way around?
Might we then become the salt of the Earth? Might we then become the light of the world? Might we then become less anxious, less despairing, and more energized for our work in healing the world? What might happen if we renew our commitment to following Jesus? What might happen to Asheville? What might happen to this church? What might happen to our country? What might happen to our world?
What might happen if we decide—every morning of every day…What might happen if we decide to follow Jesus? (Sing, We Are Marching in the Light of God)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2020