Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Salt of the Earth, City on a Hill -- Matthew 5:13-16

Matthew 5:13-16


13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”


He does not say you are going to be a light of the world.  He does not say that someday you are going to become a city on a hill. 


He says this is what you already are.


You ARE the Light of the world.


You ARE the city on the hill.


The question is this – when people look at you, what kind of city do they see?

Now there are at least three levels of understanding this city on a hill.


One level is personal and individual.

You, Joe, are the salt of the earth, a city on a hill.

And Jane, you are also the salt of the earth, a city on a hill. 

And the same is true with you, and you, and you, and oh by the way, ME!


This business of being watched by the world brings with it a great burden of responsibility. 


People are watching.

Children and youth watch adults and we present a model of how to be and behave.  For good or bad! 


People our age are watching us for inspiration and encouragement.


And non Christians are watching because they love to catch Christians being hypocrites! 


People are looking at YOU as an individual to be the city on a hill that inspires and encourages. So you best be the salt of the earth kind of person.


On another level, however, you can understand the church is the city on the hill.


We, collectively, make up that city when we come together as a church.  And people are watching Grace/Orlando.  Others look at us and want to know how we respond to the homeless.  How do we respond to crime and to victims of crime.  How do we welcome strangers when they come in.


The church is a city on a hill, not just individuals – but the church as a whole is that city.


So we together need to work together to make sure that what our community sees in us is the kind of city set on a hill that Christ desires.


Now there is one other level in which we can understand the call to be a city on a hill. 


And it is this level that particularly resonates with us later this week as we celebrate the Fourth of July.


It is us as a nation.


I have a friend on Facebook, and like a lot of friends on Facebook I have never met Kate.  Kate and I share the hobby of astronomy and that is how we have connected.  Kate would be furious if she found out that I was talking about her in a sermon – she is an atheist and hates anything to do with the church.  But we do have good conversations about astronomy, and sometimes about faith.  She is intensely interested in politics.  She wanted Hillary to win so badly.  She is watching the news very closely about Trump’s appointment to the US Supreme Court.  She counts the roll call votes on certain proposed legislation.


Which surprises me because Kate lives on the other side of this planet.  She lives in Australia!


I asked her one time why she had such a deep, deep passionate interest in our politics.  I mean, I don’t follow Australian politics.


She said it was because what happened in America was felt all over the world.  She looked to America to lead the rest of the world.  In other words, even though she is an atheist, and even though she might not realize it, she was in agreement with the words spoken by Jesus when he said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city on a hill.”


In 1630 eleven ships carrying a thousand Puritans left England to immigrate to Massachusetts.  On one of the ships, the Arebella, their future governor, John Winthrop, delievered a sermon named, “A Model of Christian Charity.”  In it he referred to this text from Matthew and said that the colonies in America were a city on a hill and the eyes of all people were upon them. 


The eyes of the world are still upon us.


The problem is that we are not doing as good of a job as we should.

We fail, and we often fail miserably.


As an individual, as a church, and as nation, we are not that wonderful city on a hill for the world to see and be inspired by.


We have crime in this nation.

We have racism.

We have scandals and corruption.

Because we have a Constitution that guarantees a free press we air our dirty laundry whenever we discover problems and try to resolve them.


Hmmm…. Has there been an example of a community that was called to be a city on a hill that failed in that calling?


Well, Sodom comes to mind!


And that is not a very comfortable thought!


You probably know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We have the impression, I think, that Sodom and Gomorrah were the rotten cities of the ancient world.  Like Flint, Michigan, with the corruption in its city government that failed to provide clean and safe water.


Or like Las Vegas and the greed and lust we associate with that city.


Or like Washington DC and the political quarmire we associate with DC.


Sodom and Gomorrah calls up the images of “bad and evil cities.”

But no, according to many Bible Scholars, they were model communities.  They were, by many standards, living up to the call to be a city on a hill.  Other communities looked up to them.


Except for God.

God decides to destroy them because of their sin.

Do you know the sin that condemned them?


Well, the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible, and in Ezekiel 16:49, we read this:


This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.


As the story goes in the Book of Genesis, Abraham learns about God’s plan to destroy Sodom, and Abraham is concerned.  And he becomes an advocate on behalf of Sodom.


Now we all know the old saying that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. 


Abraham turns that around and wonders if a few good apples can save the bunch, or in this case, the city on the hill, Sodom.


"Wait a minute," says father Abraham. "What if there are in that city, 50 righteous people? Will you save the city?"


          And the messenger of God, an angel, says, "Yes.”


          Almost immediately, Abraham thinks he might have overestimated the number of good souls in Sodom.  He might not be able to come up with 50 righteous people.


“What if there are 45?"


          "I'll save it."


          "What if there are 40?"


          "I'll save it."


          "Save it."

          Abraham is on a roll here.

"20? 10?"

          "Even if there are only ten, I'll not destroy it."


          The concept of course, is not that one bad apple spoils the bunch, but that one good apple can restore the others.


A few good people, simply by being Christian people, the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, can preserve and restore a broken society.


You see, anytime we complain about the politicians in Washington not doing enough, we need to look toward ourselves and ask, “what can I do to restore my broken society?”


We live in an age of violence. We may not be able to change society, but we as individuals can say, I will not be violent.


We live in an age of dishonesty, tax cheats, and workers who steal from the office. We can't change others. But we can be the salt of the earth and as individuals be people of honesty.


     We live in an age in which others break their word and their pledge. We cannot change others perhaps, but we can change ourselves. We can be people of integrity.


John Winthrop preached a sermon to a group of Puritans who were coming to this nation to help build it.  He told them they were the city on the hill.  He told them that the world would be watching.  And the world has watched.


If we don’t like what we see in our nation, then we need to listen to one of the lessons of Sodom and start finding a few righteous souls to redeem the city on the hill – and the only way to find such people is for us to be better individuals. 


If we are to redeem this nation, it is up to the individuals who make up this country to become the salt of the world.


Don’t like what you see in this country, or community?  Don’t look at the sin of others.  Look for the righteousness in yourself.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Israili Chainsaw Massacre - Judges 19:22-28, Matthew 23:23-24

Judges 19:22-28
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."
   The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing.  Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing."
   But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.   At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.  When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.  He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.  (NIV)

            The Book of Judges is one of those books of the Bible that we do not read often, and yet, we are familiar with several of the stories in that book.


            We find Samson in the book of Judges.   You remember him – the strongest guy in the Bible.


            Gideon is also there.


            But most of the stories in Judges are ones we don't remember well, because Judges is a book we don't often sit down to read or study.


            Because we do not read the book of Judges very often, when we do read it we are absolutely shocked at what we find.


            If you were going to pick the strangest story of the Bible, then the top ten finalists for that honor would have to come from the book of Judges.


            It is in Judges you find the story of dainty little Jael. While a warrior who was on friendly terms with her husband was asleep, she took a tent peg and a hammer and drove the peg into his head.  She drove it all the way through and into the ground.


            Just as children of our age sing songs of Lizzy Borden who took an ax and gave her father forty wacks, so did the Song of Deborah sing about Jael being the Most Blessed of Women, and (unlike her victim) the Most Blessed of Tent Dwellers.  Hopefully no wives here will get any ideas from Jael!


            Then there is Jephthah, who vows before going into battle that if he wins the war, when he gets back home to the farm, he will sacrifice whatever he sees at the gate of the house.  He wins the battle. When he goes back to the farm what he sees at the gate of the house is not a goat or a cow.  It is his daughter.


            He sacrifices her.


            Then there is Jair.  His story takes all of one verse of the Bible.  We are simply told he had 30 sons, who rode 30 donkeys and who ruled 30 towns.  There must have been more to it than that, but who knows what it might have been.



            But the strangest story of all is the one that closes the book of Judges.  It is about a man who had a concubine.  A concubine was something like a wife, but not quite. She was something like a slave, but not quite.  She was something like a mistress, but not quite. Well, this concubine gets fed up with the man and leaves him and goes home to Daddy.  The man follows her and convinces her to come back to him.  After a few days, she agrees.


            But that's not the end of the story.


            On the way home, they stay in a stranger's home. That night, a gang of violent men come pounding on the door, yelling, "Bring out that man, we want to have sex with him."


            The owner of the house yells out to the gang, "That is a disgraceful thing to do.  You can't treat this man like this. But I have young daughter, why don't you take her instead."


            The men are not interested in the girl and begin to get angry. So the traveling man takes his concubine, and without asking how she feels about it, he throws her out the door.  Then the traveling man and the owner of the house go to bed and sleep, while outside the house, the gang rapes and abuses the woman.


            But that is not the end of the story.


            At daybreak, the gang leaves the woman.  She struggles back to the house. The door is locked and she just collapses at the door.  The men inside the house wake up and according to the Bible this is what happened: "When the master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.  He said to her, 'Get up; let's go.'  But there was no answer."  The woman is dead.


            This is a baffling story. 


But that's not the end of it.


            This strange story gets stranger as the master takes the body home. Once there, he does not give her a funeral.  Instead he takes a knife and mutilates the body.  He cuts off her arms and legs and sends pieces of her all over Israel with a description of what has happened. And he sends a message along with the body parts asking, “Ok tribe, what are you going to do about this?”


            As a result, an army of 400,000 men gather and decide to destroy the Tribe of Benjamin.  Now if you are wondering what the Tribe of Benjamin had to do with this, it was in the boundaries of that particular tribe that the woman was raped and murdered.


            There is then a series of battles and all of the members of Tribe of Benjamin are killed, except for 600 men who hide in the hills. To insure that the Tribe would be destroyed, it is agreed that it will be forbidden to allow any survivor of the Tribe of Benjamin to have a wife.


            But that is not the end of the story.


Israel begins to regret what it has done.  The Tribe of Benjamin is on the verge of being wiped out.  After all, there are supposed to be 12 tribes of Israel, and here they are about to destroy one of the tribes.  There are supposed to be 12 tribes, but there is about to be only 11.


            So they make peace with Benjamin, which is now a tribe of 600 men who have no wives.  It is illegal to give these men wives, so what does Israel do?  They throw a party.  And they don't give the men wives, they let them kidnap some innocent women, to be dragged off to be wives for the tribe.


            NOW it is the end of the story.  Just like that – that is the way it ends.


            I read a good bit of Science Fiction and as I read this story, I feel that I am reading something out of Science Fiction.  It is not because of some scientific technology in the story, but because of the alien-ness of this event.  It is so alien, it feels as if it must have happened on another planet.


            What kind of story is this?  At first it feels like a love story in which there is a man whose lover leaves him.  He goes after her.  But no, its not a love story, because whatever this man feels for the concubine it certainly is not love that he feels as he throws her out the door to meet her fate.


            It is a violent story, with rape, murder, even genocide.


            It is difficult to know exactly what this story is all about.  It is so alien to our way of thinking.


            Then again, maybe this story and the behavior of its characters is not so alien after all. They may be more like us than we would like to admit.


            When you strip away the outer layers of the cultural differences and work your way to the heart of the story, what you have is a people in search of justice. That's all.


            There is no justice in their land.  More than anything else, they want to see justice.  That's all.


            It is a commendable thing to want justice.  It may be that this is the ONLY commendable thing that you can say about any of the people involved with this event. They want justice.



            If there was justice, then a man traveling far from home would not be attacked by a threatening gang.  So in search of justice, the man stays behind the safety of a locked door and throws out a woman to the crowd.


            But - If there was justice, then a woman would not have been treated that way - like worthless property to be thrown into the hands of a gang, like a piece of meat thrown into the jaws of a hungry animal.  So in search of justice, the nation of Israel goes out to destroy an entire tribe of people.


            But - If there was justice, a tribe of people would not face extinction.  So in search of justice, their neighbors stand by and let the survivors kidnap women to serve as their wives.



            These people in this story are all searching for justice, which is commendable, but they are so perverted in their understanding of what justice is, that they simply continue to make this story worse and worse and worse.


            These people are looking for justice, and are unable to find it. The obvious reason as to why they cannot find justice is that they don't know what justice is. They would not know justice if it were staring them right in the face.


            You want to find some justice in this world? Wonderful. The first step is to discover out what justice really is.


            This long biblical story presents a wonderful case study of three common misconceptions we have about justice.


            The first misconception is that justice is something that protects YOU.  In the story, the man is threatened.  In a sense of what is just, he protects himself, stays behind the locked door as he throws the woman outside to meet her fate, while he goes to sleep.


            The purpose of justice, so he thought, was so that he would be protected.  That is not what justice is.  But that is not so alien a way of thinking.  WE sometimes think about justice in that way.


            We think that if there is justice in the world, we will be protected from all harm.  Forget about the poor, forget about racial hatred, forget about the fellow lost a job yesterday. If there is justice in the world, protect ME, and my freedom and my job.


Justice means God watches over me.


Now that is not true, but it is not that far from the truth.  Justice is not God watching over ME.  Justice is God watching over ALL of us. 


In Judges, the people thought that justice was a way of getting protection for yourself. So the man in Judges feels it is right to throw the woman out to the gang to be raped and murdered, as long as he is able to lock the door, climb into bed and feel protected.


Justice, must be for all, or it is perverted.  The traveling man in Judges had a right to be protected, but so did the woman.


If we want justice for ourselves, fine, but let's make sure that we do not gain it at the expense of another.  As we work for justice for us, let's work for justice for the poor in our community, for the illiterate, for the powerless, for the other person. Not just for us.


            The second misconception many people have about justice is that they have the impression that justice means permissiveness.


The Tribe of Benjamin becomes the focus of the anger of the rest of their neighbors not simply because the rape and murder happened within their boundaries, but because the Tribe of Benjamin let it happened and did nothing about it.  The purpose of justice, so Benjamin thinks, was permissiveness.  That is not such an alien way of thinking.  WE sometimes think that this is what justice is.  It's your thing, do what you want to do.


Permissiveness is not justice, but it is not too far off the mark.  Justice is not permissiveness, but mercy. The two are not the same.


Mercy and justice go hand in hand. But mercy is not permissiveness. Mercy does not permit someone to move into the future unbridled, doing whatever he or she wants to do. Mercy reaches backward into the past and heals our broken souls of our past disobedience.


In the New Testament Lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes some of the people listening to his sermons because they give great importance to some articles of the faith, but very little to justice and mercy.


Justice – you cannot have it without mercy.


The third misconception many people have about justice is that it is the same as revenge. 


In the biblical story, the nation of Israel decides to destroy the tribe of Benjamin.  Revenge, they think, is what justice is all about.  Again, this is not so alien to our way of thinking.  You push me, and I'll shove you.


Some people don't see a difference in the two – punishment and revenge.  What is the difference? 


Revenge is getting even. Revenge is inflicting hurt.  Revenge is done with a sneer and a fist, with meanness in one's heart.


Punishment, however, is meant to build up. It is intended to help someone move beyond their mistakes and errors.  It is done with a love in one's heart.


This God, who is often described in the Bible as a heavenly “father,” is a God who loves justice.  Now, admittedly the image of God as Father is stretched too thinly if one thinks of a father who is absent or abusive.  But when a father conducts himself appropriately, we have excellent images of God.  I remember my father punished me more than a few times.  I don’t remember him ever seeking revenge against me.  And yet, so many of us confuse punishment as the same as revenge when it comes to justice.


This story from Judges is confusing.  At first glance you just want to ignore it.  Go to something simple like the Beattitudes or something.  But here it is in the Scripture.  And when you take a deep look, you find that it portrays humanity at its worst moments.  It is a story of perverted justice. 


You want to find some justice in this world? Fine. The first step is to find out what justice really is.  Strip away the misconceptions and find the truth to what justice is about. 

Justice is not for you, but for all people.

Justice is not permissive, but it is mercy.

Justice is not vengeful or angry, but  it is disciplining punishment.
Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved
Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.