The Holy Ordinary

Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime
to the house of Jacob their sins.

They seek me day after day,
desiring knowledge of my ways
like a nation that acted righteously,
that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
wanting to be close to God.

“Why do we fast and you don’t see;
why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want,
and oppress all your workers.
You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
you hit each other violently with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
if you want to make your voice heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I choose,
a day of self-affliction,
of bending one’s head like a reed
and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?

Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
if you open your heart to the hungry,
and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
your light will shine in the darkness,
and your gloom will be like the noon.

The Lord will guide you continually
and provide for you, even in parched places.
He will rescue your bones.
You will be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;
the foundations of generations past you will restore.
You will be called Mender of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets to Live In.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

***

Although I first heard my call to ministry in my first year of college, it wasn’t till I was a senior that I began to share my plans more widely, beyond my closest circle of friends. But in your last year of college everyone starts to ask each other what you’re doing after graduation; and since I had an answer, I answered: “I’m headed to seminary.”

I expected some pushback; many of my peers weren’t Christian, and might not get why I was pursuing a religious calling, and many of my peers were the kind of Christian that doesn’t allow room for women leaders, and might question the validity of that calling. I prepared myself for having to argue my calling over omelets in the dining hall.

But what happened surprised me. Not one of my peers explicitly tried to tell me seminary wasn’t the place for me. What happened instead, is that almost none of them really knew what seminary was.

I got a stream of, to me, baffling questions. What will you do with the stuff from your dorm? Can you write your parents? Won’t you miss, like, going to the movies?

Our frames of reference were so difference that it took me awhile to figure out what was going on: my friends thought I was entering the cloistered life, removing myself from the world, planning to live out my life in a windowless room without human contact.

Mostly my friends didn’t know the difference between seminary and convent; and mostly they didn’t know what a convent really was either, only what they had seen in movies set in the middle ages.

Honestly, it shocked me that so many of my friends—bright, well-read young women about to graduate with the same degree I was—were sure that religious life meant disappearing from the world altogether. But they weren’t without reason; there is a long history of religious types disappearing into monasteries or temples or up the top of mountains. In almost every religion, the “holiest” folks are the ones who leave the hustle and bustle of the ordinary world to contemplate the divine in isolation and purity.

That was true in Jesus’ day—perhaps even more true than now. The temple in Jerusalem had a backroom called the “holy of holies” where only the most special priests could go, and retreat from the messy world. In the famous community at Qumran, the Essenes (makers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) created a desert hideaway from the impure society they detested.

This makes Jesus’ incarnation all the more astounding, because he went the wrong direction. He came into the world when all the holiest folks were scrambling to get out of it. He took on a body when all the holiest folks were trying to fast and pray their way out of one. He got out into the crowds and the cities when all the holiest folks were on full retreat.

And Jesus didn’t just come into the world, but points our attention there as well. Last week we heard his beatitudes, when he blessed those the world beat down, blessed those who never had a chance to escape and contemplate the divine in peaceful repose. And this week he doubles down: “you are the light of the world,” he says. “You are the salt of the earth.”

Not “you are the light of the heavens,” you are the stars and suns gliding serenely over the earth, but you are the lamps that everybody has hanging in their houses, cheap and common, just a bit of dry clay and olive oil. Not “you are the jewels of the temple” but you are the salt of earth, a pantry staple, used in cooking and preservation and folk medicine and whatever else can benefit from a dash of salt.

You are light bulbs and salt shakers. Ordinary as anything. Part of the regular, everyday world.

For the proud, those with a high opinion of themselves, Jesus’ words might have been heard as an insult. How dare you call us ordinary? How dare you compare us to the stuff you pick up on a Walgreens run?

But for the meek, the merciful, the hungry—all those people Jesus was blessing just a few seconds ago—think about how they heard this.

Think about the ones had heard from those holy elites that they were common, useless, disposable, ordinary.

Hear Jesus’ words to them: It is the ordinary, common stuff of life that is so holy, because it is necessary to keep us alive. It is the stuff the world thinks is cheap and disposable that we need the most. Forget gold and jewels—what we need are lamps and salt to get us through the day. And that’s you guys—light and salt. The stuff of life, getting the world through another day. It’s the work you do in the trenches—forgiving someone while you fish, loving someone while you grind grain, making peace with your neighbors while you herd your sheep off their land—that’s what makes a community strong.

Because here’s the thing about lamps and salt—on their own, they really don’t serve much purpose. Jesus reminds us that nobody lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, because the lamp doesn’t shine for itself. And in the same way, you don’t flip on the lights and then just stare at the bulb. The point of the light is to cast light on something else, allow something else to be seen. Light’s beauty is in bringing out what is beautiful in something else.

And so with salt—the point of salt is not the salt itself. You don’t take out the jar of salt and then just start eating it—or at least, I hope you don’t. Salt goes on meat to preserve it, or in a wound to heal it, or in a meal to bring out its best flavors. I remember the first time I saw a friend put salt on a cantaloupe—I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world. But she explained to me that it actually made the melon sweeter and juicier, and though I couldn’t fathom how, I tried a bite and discovered she was absolutely right—that, chemically speaking, the salt broke down the cell walls in the fruit and let its juices run free. So salt’s beauty, too, is in bringing out what is best in something else.

Jesus calls us light and salt—common, ordinary, necessary. And he doesn’t just call us the stuff of the world, but he calls us the kind of stuff that has to go out and interact with other stuff to be useful. He calls us light, to illuminate what is beautiful in our neighbor. He calls us salt, to bring out what is best in our neighbor.

So how is Jesus calling you to be salt and light this morning? What corner of the world would he love to see you light up? What part of your life would he love to see you make flavorful?

It’s probably something very ordinary—somebody you see everyday, a task you do at work all week, a hobby you enjoy. There’s somebody in your life that needs a little bit of your light—needs to be seen, valued, cherished, loved. There’s something in your life that needs a little bit of salt—needs a little bit of your flavor to make it really sing.

Here’s what I love—all those folks that Jesus just called meek, and thirsty, and persecuted—he also calls them the ones that bring light and flavor to the world. The ones that make the world better, brighter, tastier, more joyful.

They don’t have to get away from the world to be holy. They already are holy, just by being their ordinary selves.

We don’t have to get away from the world to be holy. We already are holy, just by being our ordinary selves, just by shining our unique light, and bringing our unique flavor to the table.

You are salt. You are light. You are ordinary. You are holy. You are needed.

Never doubt that. Amen.

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