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Name Calling

San Williams

February 6, 2011
Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-16

02-06-2011 SermonAt the men’s retreat last weekend we watched scenes from the movie Crazy Heart. The movie’s main character is a down-and-out country western singer who goes by the name of Bad Blake.  His name helps tell his story.  Everything about Blake has gone bad.  He’s alcoholic, isolated, broke, irresponsible and unable to write any new songs.  But the movie moves toward redemption. He sobers up, cleans up, reconnects with people and recovers his musical creativity. One of the signs that he has become a changed person is his decision to drop the name Bad. “I’m no longer Bad,” he tells a friend, “I’ve gone back to Otis.”  “What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare. Well, maybe a great deal. We hear a lot of negative name-calling directed toward the church these days.  Some label the church with names such as deathly ill, shrinking, irrelevant, hopelessly divided, hypocritical, and judgmental. But this morning let’s open our ears to hear the names that Jesus confers on his disciples.  After his series of blessings, that we call the Beatitudes, Jesus pauses, looks his disciples in the eye, and says to them:  “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”

Now, our first reaction may be to back off from these names.  We immediately wonder if Jesus has overestimated his disciples. When we consider the sex scandals, divisions within denominations, financial woes, and other problems that too often beset the church, tagging disciples “the salt of the earth” feels disingenuous.  Also, the church sometimes gets so turned in on itself, so bogged down in internal disputes that the church may seem more like a dim bulb than a shining light.  Of course, Jesus’ first disciples didn’t exactly live up to the name Jesus gave them, either. They were consistently uncomprehending and, in the end, unfaithful and afraid.  For these and other reasons, we may question Jesus for pinning such a shocking moniker on his disciples.  He tells us straight out:  “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

But Jesus does acknowledge that it’s possible for his disciples to lose our saltiness, and become useless. It’s possible to hide our light, and thus become irrelevant.  Robin Meyers has written a book called Saving Jesus from the Church.  Meyers’ rather sensational title aside, his contention is that the church began to lose its saltiness in the 4th century, when Christianity became the religious extension of the Roman Empire. At that time, Meyers contends, the focus began to shift from practice to doctrine, from following Jesus to believing in Christ, from doing what Jesus taught to simply spouting the church creeds.

The contemporary poet, Wendell Berry, echoed this prophetic critique of religion in one of his poems, declaring: “Abroad we burn and maim in the name of principles we no longer recognize in acts.” The prophets and Jesus consistently call us to live out our principles through our actions, our good works.  This morning we heard the prophet Isaiah preaching that God’s light breaks forth in us, and God’s presence draws near, when social wrongs are made right. When the bonds of injustice are broken, the yoke of oppression removed, the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the naked clothed. Thus, Jesus warns his disciples that if we forget that we are in the world to advocate for the dispossessed, care for those who suffer, show mercy, be peacemakers—then our saltiness has lost its taste and our light hidden under a basket. 

Here’s the thing.  The disciples of Jesus are called to live for the sake of others.  You are salt—not for yourselves but for the earth.  You are light, but it is light to be seen by others.  Archbishop William Temple is often quoted as saying, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”  As many of you know, our college students gather on Sunday evenings for a meal followed by worship.  In recent months, some of the students have been going out into the neighborhood and inviting the street youth to join them for a meal.  They are letting their light shine, but that initiative isn’t without cost. Some students are understandably uncomfortable. conversations can be awkward.  Visiting students may not come back.  Still, these students are struggling with what it means to be a salty church, a church that is letting its light shine, and not just among ourselves but throughout this university neighborhood.  Sure, tensions and challenges inevitably accompany bold initiatives to lift the yoke of oppression, loose the bonds of injustice, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Yet this much is sure:  A posture of protection, or a lifestyle of self-interest, while safer, is like salt that has lost its usefulness.

When Jesus called his first disciples the salt of the earth, that expression would have evoked powerful symbolic meaning. It would indicate the permanence of God’s covenant promise to Israel, which was sometimes even referred to as “a covenant of salt.”  Salt was also used for blessings, as when Hebrew mothers would salt their newborn babies.  It was a sign of healing, as when Elisha purified a spring of water by casting salt into the water.  All these rich symbolic connections would have come to mind when Jesus called his disciples the “salt of the earth.” Today, however, that expression has lost much of its biblical allusions. It is commonly used merely to refer to a good, solid, down-to-earth person. “So-and-so,” we might say, “is the salt of the earth.” Maybe we can recapture some of the shock Jesus intended if we play with language a bit and say, “You are the red hot chili peppers for the whole earth.” Such a name is not an indication of status but function. Jesus calls us to good works that add zest to the life of the world.

So clearly the names Jesus gives us are for the purpose of adding savor to the earth and light for the world.  Make no mistake. We are not in and of ourselves the light of the world.  The church is light only in a derivative sense.  As one commentator put it: “It is only as the church genuinely proclaims Christ as Lord; that is, not by mouthing theological platitudes, but by manifesting his life in its life, that the church can truly be the light of the world.”  Perhaps it’s most helpful to think of ourselves more as a window.  Our worship, our service, our life together in community, while far from perfect, can be a window through which  others can see—not how great we are—but how good and loving God is.

Friends, we live in a time when a lot of people are giving the church a bad name. While we need to listen to voices of complaint and be willing to confess our failings, we don’t need to be defensive or discouraged.  We know our name.  Jesus has told us who we are.  So may the name by which we have been called lift our spirits, empower our mission and season the life of the world with the flavor of God’s Kingdom.