Come to Church With Me
Happy anniversary! Well, it was actually last Monday. Bishop Sharma Lewis has appointed me to Mount Olivet for another year so do not worry if you forgot to get me something, you still have time over the coming months to get me an anniversary gift.
Over the past year we have gotten to know one another. You learned about the affinity I have for barber shops and Fleming Rutledge. I learned that Pastor Ed loves words, their origin and function within a language (has an intense distain for the word “awesome”) and that Mount Olivet is a place where all people - gay, straight, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, even Democrats and Republicans - all are welcome. Welcoming people into the community is part of the DNA of Mount Olivet and it was one of the first things I learned about you all. While it is plastered on a sign along busy Glebe Road, before I even arrived here last summer I had learned that this church welcomes people every day through partners like La Cocina and Just Neighbors. And over the past year you have made my me and my family welcome in this place. For that I am grateful.
Over the past year you have gotten to hear bits and pieces of my calling into ministry. Many of you know that my wife married a security engineer back in 2009. But somewhere between September 2009 and September 2011 something happened.
In the late winter/early spring of 2009 Allison and I began “shopping” for a church to be married in. Really we were shopping for a preacher because like many of our peers, we did not plan to have an overly “churchy” wedding. Ideally, the preacher would keep the sermon short, make sure we said our vows, and sign the marriage license without too much hassle. We knew what we wanted and that was the plan we were going to stick to.
It is not that we wanted church to be easy, its that church for us, two people who grew up attending Sunday school and worship regularly, had become a thing that people watched other people do. It was easy to sit and watch a small group of people within the larger body do church, and for us that was not something we wanted to be part of. Like many millennials, I had experienced life changing encounters with the risen Christ as a teenager but as an adult those experiences seemed to be few and far between. (We were looking for a church community that sought those experiences together by actually being the church in the world.)
Our scripture reading is a mashup of verses from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount makes up three chapters of The Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has just proclaimed the Beatitudes. The blessed are they’s and because they are blessed the Kingdom of G-d is now their’s.
Those people that are now blessed were not the folks most people in first-century Israel would have considered to be blessed and because of that, Jesus had to drop a new reality on the disciples base on how He had just flipped the structure of first-century Israel on its head.
Our first reading is a favorite among Christians because Jesus tells his disciples, that's us, that we are the salt and light of the world. If you were feeling insignificant or needed a pick-me-up, allow that to sink in for a moment.
As Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples, because of who He is, a new relationship is being developed by Jesus with His closest friends. A new community is being formed by Jesus as He teaches the disciples and the others who gathered to evesdrop on Jesus’ teachings.
When the disciples heard Jesus speaking about salt and light they could have resisted the way Jesus was re-organizing the community. While being salt and light may sound like a prestigious honor, the new status would also draw the attention of those who opposed Jesus’ community changes onto the disciples.
2000 years ago, salt was rarely used for seasoning. Instead, salt was used to preserve food. So when Jesus tells the disciples that once salt is no longer good (or becomes contaminated) he is not talking like a snooty Top Chef contestant. Instead, he is saying that when His followers no longer preserve the community He is creating they will be cast aside.
As light, they are to give honor and glory to G-d in all things; drawing attention to G-d and G-d’s faithfulness. Shining G-d’s light into the world and not our own.
Together, as salt and light, the disciples who hear this sermon are being called into a community. They are being called into a new life together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that the implications now mean that the Church is a “community in and through Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less this.” And because they, we, are salt and light, the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount lays out the implications that are now essential to what it means to be a community centered in the re-ordering Jesus did in the Beatitudes.
Jesus places his disciples on notice. No longer will self-righteousness and public displays of piety be acceptable. The signs and wonders they will perform are to be done in consultation with the Father, just as Jesus has done and will continue to do. Prior to Jesus saying these words almsgiving, the social security of the time, was done as a way to draw attention to the giver. The trumpet Jesus is referring to is the sound made when alms were tossed into a container with a trumpet-like opening. So giving to the poor, in many cases, was more about making yourself look good in front of your neighbors than it was actually giving to the poor.
Private devotions had also spilled out of the home and into the public square and now Jesus teaches that we are not to parade our good deeds and piety for all to see. Prayer is now to be done with simplicity, directness, and sincerity.
Jesus has re-oriented the focus of first-century Jewish piety towards G-d. And for the skeptics out there, he specifically directs attention to the One who sent him, so even at this moment He is humbling himself and taking on the role of a servant.
After Allison and I decided to ask one of the pastors at a UMC in Alexandria to officiate our wedding, we did not return for Sunday services because the pastor required us to in order to be married or because we were ever invited. Statistically speaking, it is very unlikely for anyone to be invited to church since on average, individually, we invite someone to church every 33 years.
Allison and I went back to that church because the acts of charity and piety being performed were not self-centered and instead were focused on honoring G-d and being part of the Kingdom of G-d on earth. We returned week after week to have our lives transformed by the Word of G-d. My life was transformed. I am in ministry today because of a community focused on living out their faith as followers of Jesus Christ and not as a Church with flashy sales gimmicks.
We have been given the Holy Scriptures so that the Word of G-d may be shared with others. When we open ourselves to be a community transformed by the Word of G-d our natural reaction is to speak it, live it out, pointing attention toward to One who has drawn us into a community with one another. The One who holds us together through the promise to be with us whenever two or three of us are gathered together.
The grace of G-d and the grace of G-d alone is where our community finds it’s life springs. So maybe when Jesus told the disciples, and those who overheard Him from a distance, to go and make disciples of all nations He did not include “and be sure to invite folks to church with you" because in the Sermon on the Mount he expected this newly formed band of followers to become a force of transformation within their own community.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the church. When the followers of Jesus Christ come together to further the Kingdom of G-d awesome things happen. So often though, inviting someone to church is about great programming or a fabulous new preacher when instead we are called to be proclaimers of G-d’s unwavering grace, lived out by Jesus Christ, and witnesses to the power and promise of the empty tomb.
It is not that we should not invite people to church. Instead, our lives are to be a force of transformation, a living witness to the Word of G-d made flesh in Jesus Christ, and that is a far greater invitation than anything else we can offer.