Good morning! Or Boker Tov in Hebrew! Or, as Palestinian Christians say, Sabahul-khayr in Arabic. As you may know, I have just returned from two weeks in the Holy Land with a group of 30 parishioners from Christ Church. As we stood in the Field where the Shepherd’s heard the angels, or in the center of busy Bethlehem, or in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested, we prayed the words of scripture in the place where they happened. We celebrated communion together on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum, next to Peter’s house, and touched the place where Christ died on the cross in Golgotha. It was a very meaningful trip—adding context to the gospels of our faith. In other words, the gospels become real, the seemingly intangible becomes tangible. In the Holy Land, the birth, life and passion of Christ takes on color, flavor, scent and sound. As David Brooks says, “The ineffable becomes intelligible in Israel.”
Because of this, one might be tempted to think that a trip to the Holy Land would make one more Holy or more spiritual, but that is not true. Nothing we do as humans can make us more holy or spiritual—only what Christ has done. (1 Corinthians 2:2). What is true about a trip to the Holy Land is that it challenges one’s definition of the meaning of life because of the encounter with the reality and rationality of our faith. Usually, we are able to avoid thinking too much about questions of existence when we are going about our daily grind—making and eating food, going to work and school, keeping our homes and selves clean and orderly. But when standing at the River Jordan or the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, it becomes obvious that we know very little about ourselves and the mystery of faith we profess. The question Why are we here on earth? was at the heart of our trip, but you don’t have to go to Israel to wonder about the meaning of life, and especially your life in particular. The sense of, What’s it all about? is the elevator Muzak of our fast-paced life.
In his book Making Sense of God, Presbyterian minister Tim Keller poses the question “Can we have meaning in life without any belief in God at all?” Tim talks about two types of meaning in our post-modern lives; created meaning and discovered meaning. Created meaning is finding purpose in our lives from a goal bigger than ourselves such as reducing poverty, caring for our family or increasing literacy in preschoolers. We create meaning by selecting what would be meaningful to us. The problem with created meaning is the lack of permanence in our world. You help kids with reading but then you get sick and can’t go any more or the program ends. Does your sense of meaning and purpose also end?
Keller explains that there is also discovered meaning—defined as a meaning beyond our own “inner feelings and interpretations. If we were made by God for certain purposes, then there are inherent meanings that we must accept.” In other words, there is meaning that we do not create but is the very fabric of existence in a world created by God. An experience of the Holy Land points to the discovered meaning in the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond anything that we create.
The gospel today from Matthew Chapter 5 is directly after the Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon Jesus ever gave. It took place on a beautiful rolling hill full of green grass, trees and flowers on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. In the Message translation it begins with Jesus telling the people, “Let me tell you why you’re here.” It’s a beautiful segue from the beatitudes, which tell us that spiritually we are losers, mourners, poor, hungry and thirsty. “Let me tell you why you’re here.” This one scripture exposes the question that lies behind all of our striving, wondering, competing, tears and searching.
Jesus continues, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Jesus is giving us an identity, not a job. He is not telling us to go out and be salt and light- as we’re often told about this passage. Jesus is telling us that we are salt and light. Martin Luther identified this salt and light as the gospel of grace that does not lose its saltiness for the people who need it. Who needs the salt of grace? Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t feel inadequate, not enough, self-centered and just plain not up for the task of life on life’s terms?
The gospel of Christ, however, loses its taste when we believe we can live life without depending on the grace of Christ, when the gospel becomes about us instead of Christ. That is when the salt of faith loses its taste. Has that happened to you before? You try and try to be a good person, but you can’t seem to pull it off? You remember some old behavior, someone you hurt, something you stole, a cruelty you perpetuated, and your faith loses its taste. Your good behavior becomes a chore. Your trying to ‘be good’ makes you resentful and competitive.
When the law of God and the grace of Christ become only a laundry list of good behaviors, or that we believe the blessed are only the winners, the good news has lost its saltiness. When we are left to our own devices to work our way into feeling good about ourselves and answering questions of meaning alone, the gospel light is under a bushel basket. Our good news today tells us that because of the trustworthy promises of God, only through our loserness, our mistakes, our inability to make everything come out well, our sickness and addictions, are we the very people whom Christ died to free. The salt in our wounds is evidence that we do not heal ourselves. The light of the Holy Spirit that is kindled in our hearts is the hope that Jesus Christ shines into the world, which refuses to go out. Our need and vulnerability are where Christ meets us with saving grace.
We are salt and light because we have been saved by Christ. We have admitted our need for God and have been met by the grace of Christ. We are the evidence of Christ’s grace in the world.
On our Holy Land pilgrimage, we spent time at the Dead Sea, home of the salt cure for ailments. Salt has been used not only as a preservative and for taste, but therapeutically as a curative. Salt was used in wounds to cure them. As anyone who has gotten salt in a papercut can tell you, this hurts at first. The salt of this passage is also about how Christ’s grace heals us. Tenderly, Christ opens up the wounds of life—of betrayals, losses, regrets and heartache—and applies the healing salt that is grace. It stings at first, feeling so exposed and embarrassed by our failure and need for repentance. But Christ brings our darkness out into the light, where it cannot hurt us anymore and can be healed. This mercy of Christ leaves us with scars, but also a new freedom to experience life in a more Christ-trusting way, knowing that anything that happens can be healed and used by Christ for good. The salt and light have healed us and are evidence of the power of grace in the world.
I hope you get a chance to go to the Holy Land one day to experience the reality of Jesus’ coming– but it’s not necessary to give your life meaning. Your life has deep significance because you are created by God and the salt and light of Christ’s grace gives your life meaning in the world beyond yourself.
I would like to end with a prayer that mirrors our Collect today.
God I offer myself to thee, to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help by Thy power, Thy love and Thy way of life. May I do Thy will always.
Shalom, Salam and Amen.