Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sermon Preached at Fort Bragg on February 6 2011

Epiphany 5 (110206)
Confirmation and Renewal of Christian Commitment
Memorial Chapel, Ft. Bragg, NC                         
The Rt. Rev. James B. Magness

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9, (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world.

The life of Jesus has been described as a series of interconnected events in which 30 or so years of relatively normal life preceded 3 years of intense ministry that led to a tremendous crisis – the crucifixion on a cross and resurrection from the grave – a crisis that we’re still talking about today. 

Almost everywhere Jesus goes he creates a shock wave within the ranks of his hearers and his followers.

People who heard Jesus and assigned any credibility to him whatsoever likely would have experienced spiritual crisis in their lives.  Jesus creates a crisis of faith in the lives of people, at times made of whole cloth and at other times seemingly out of nothing.  Yet, it is still a crisis of faith.

We all know what a crisis is.  A crisis is something that destabilizes life situations.  For example, in Cairo, Egypt there is a significant crisis going on.  Life in that country, with all of the riots in the streets, has become very unstable.  The crisis in Egypt is, among other things, designed to bring the leaders of that country to a decision point.
The crisis Jesus creates, a crisis of faith, is also designed to bring people to a decision point.  To have a crisis of faith – which frequently issues out of a life crisis –takes us to the moment of truth when we are called to make decisions: decisions about belonging and about direction.  To whom do we belong, and what direction in life will we follow?  Jesus, by virtue of his presence and controversial sayings brings people to the moment of decision.

In 1982 we developed our most recent full hymnal.  Historically, every time we publish a new hymnal we introduce new hymns, and for a variety of reasons, delete others.  In the older 1940 Hymnal there was a hymn of which we would do well to be reminded today. 
            Once to every man and nation,
            comes the moment to decide.
In the strife of truth with false-hood,
For the good or evil side.
(The Hymnal 1940, Hymn #519)

Though the theology of only one faith choice in a lifetime is a bit questionable, the idea of the times to choose is certainly in accord with Jesus’ message in the Gospel.  Jesus’ presence in a life or in a family can make such a difference that we are brought to that place of decision.  Of course, not to decide is a decision in its own right.  But lest we think that our decisions of being a follower of Christ are simply mental choices, you may want to reconsider.

Jesus’ words have strong implications that will lead to action. 

It is much easier for us to talk about the fact that we want to act in a certain way, and to then keep the issue at thought and conversational levels.  It is much harder to put our words and thoughts into action.  It may be appropriate to remember the old Chinese proverb: Talk won’t cook rice.

Jesus told his followers that they are salt for the earth and light for the world.   We all know a bit about what light is, but salt is more difficult to understand.  In Jesus day salt was used in a number of ways such as preserving and flavoring food.  However, salt was also placed upon the soil to burn away the weeds that would choke good crops.  Hence, salt has a connection with light.  Both salt and light burn and remind us of fire.[1]

This is the fire that comes down upon God’s people in baptism and today in confirmation in which we remember the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling fire of the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ way of calling us into a relationship with him and with his Father.  Jesus’ intent is for this relationship to make a profound and pronounced difference in our lives. 

Today we remember that God calls us to be something that is more than we have ever been before.  The salt and light of God are doing the work of transforming us into something we’ve never been before.  Jesus’ challenge is to a spiritual life in which we establish some heart habits that bear the fruit of our ongoing transformation.  One of these heart habits is to enjoy God.
Many of you will remember and probably have read the books of the late Chaim Potock, a novelist who wrote in the Jewish tradition.  One of his books In the Beginning contains this segment of a story about a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie.  The following describes David’s experience and enjoyment of God when he is at the local synagogue on the eve of a Jewish festival.
I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue.  It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.  The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.  The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy.  I remember one white bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years.  My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable length of time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, advancing upon one another with their scrolls, backing off, singing.  Saul, and Alex, and I danced too.  I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, and went out to the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face.  The noise and dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating, swelling and receding, and thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound.  The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very Words of God.  I wondered if Gentiles ever danced with their Bible.  Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?
As we hear from the written word what was spoken by the living Word, Jesus, the totality of Jesus’ invitation is to come close, very close.  Come so close that you can feel the heat and flame of salt and light; so close that all the areas of your lives, even dancing and singing, are open to Jesus’ transforming power. 
Jesus invites us to come closer, closer to God than you have ever before been; closer than you ever thought you could be; closer than ever before you have been brave enough to come. 
Momentarily in the great tradition of the church, three people, Wesley, Rebecca and Michael, will be presented to God.  We will affirm that each of you have searched your lives and are committed to openness with God.  Then we will go the altar of God and allow the body and blood of Christ to enter our bodies and penetrate into the innermost parts of our being.  We will make real the Word that has become flesh and now dwells in us.  
I want to close with a prayer which was given to me over thirty years ago by an old friend, Jim Morton.  As Jim lived the last months of his life, this was a prayer he used each day to remind him of the One to whom he belonged.  As you remain seated, let us pray.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands;                  
do with me what you will.                                           
Whatever you may do,
I thank you;                              
I am ready for all,
and with your grace I accept all.   
Let only your will be done in me
and in all your creatures.                                                                     
I wish no more than this, O Lord.                                        
Into your hands I commend my soul;                                         
I offer it to you with all the love in my heart.                            
For I love you, Lord,
and need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my God.  Amen. 

[1] The Biblical Archaeologist: Salt, Soil, Savior by Eugene P. Deatrick (1962, Vol. 2) Former Head of the Soils Department West Virginia University.

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