Preached at Family of Christ, PC(USA)
February 5, 2017
Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Boy, did I put this off. I mean, seriously, I stalled, I delayed, I procrastinated. I played video games, I took naps. Pretty much anything I could do, except actually write. Even when I had gotten to the point of sitting down at the computer, there was an endless stream of distractions and such that I had to overcome.
It’s not that I didn’t want to write y’all a great sermon. No, I really do. In fact, this sermon is just one of many, many things that I really want, or need to do, that I’m not able to get done these days.
“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.”
This a really familiar text to me, mainly because of the musical “Godspell.” It’s actually really appropriate that Ila is the lay leader today because I can never think of the show without thinking of her son, Jonathon. One of the things we bonded over, back when we were both members of the Almost Perfect Youth Group was our love of musicals and particularly of “Godspell.”
At the end of the first act, theirs a song based on this text called, “Light Of The World.”
You are the light of the world!
You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
Brrr, it's lost something kind of crucial
You got to stay bright to be the light of the world
You are the salt of the earth
You are the salt of the earth
But if that salt has lost its flavor
It ain't got much in its favor
You can't have that fault and be the salt of the earth!
“Godspell” was actually the first album I ever bought for myself, way back when I had a little portable cassette player and was going to Brentwood Middle School (Why yes, I have always been a nerd, why do you ask?)
So these lyrics have been with me a very long time, but I don’t know that I’ve ever spent a lot of time thinking about them until now.
The other thing about this text is the salt thing. It just doesn’t make sense to us today. Salt is salt. NaCl, it can’t lose its flavor or become not salt. And that’s why many sermons on this text include telling about how back in biblical times the salt they could get was not pure, it had various things mixed into it, either because they didn’t have a good way to refine it, or because the person selling it was trying to cut it with cheaper ingredients so that they could make more money.
But, I’m not really interested in that kind of literal reading of the text. Because even if we know why it was written that way, it still isn’t something that we can really relate to.
But there was something else that grabbed me about the salt this time around because I’m going through a period where I very well understand how something can lose its saltiness.
You see, I’ve recently come to the realization that my anti-depressant has, over the last few months, lost its “anti-depressant-ness.”
I have depression, and anxiety, and probably a couple of other things.
Depression is insidious. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get to the point where I realize that my anti-depressant, my friend Wellbutrin, wasn’t working the way it should, and why it’s taken even longer for me to start trying to do something to fix it.
For me, there are two main symptoms of depression, anhedonia, and lethargy. Lethargy, feeling like you're stuck, that you can’t do anything but sit and stare at the wall, or the TV is why it’s been so difficult for me to write this sermon, I just can’t get anything done. I can’t do things I want to do, I can’t do the things I need to do. Depression is fun with that because it makes you that way and then gets in your ear and explains to you how awful you are for being so lazy, so useless.
I know depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but it often feels like a living thing, a parasite that lives off of your feeling bad, and so puts ideas in your head to make you feel worse.
Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about her depression in her second book, Accidental Saints. She actually named her depression Frances and writes about her as a real person, “she was a terrible roommate,” Nadia wrote, “She was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me devastating things about myself. When Frances lived with me, I was no longer able to do simple things, like remembering if I’d showered or shopping for groceries.” I’ve never met Frances, but I’ve definitely spent a lot of time with one of her cousins.
My other symptom of depression is anhedonia. Anhedonia is defined as “is the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable.” In other words, as the depression creeps in, the things that you like, or even love doing become less and less enjoyable, and as that happens, you become less and less interested in doing them, no matter how much you have loved them in your life.
At first, you don’t notice it, or you attribute it to other things. For the last several months, I have barely been able to read books, which if you’ve known me through the years is akin to saying that I’ve barely been able to breathe. But, as it was happening, I just thought things like “I’ve been really busy,” or “I’m just tired.” But that wasn’t it. It was depression taking away another thing that made me feel good.
It wasn’t until the last few weeks when the anhedonia had taken away pretty much any interest or pleasure I had in food, that I realized what was happening and began to think about taking steps to fix it.
“Began to think about” being the key phrase there, because there was still that lethargy, that procrastination there, keeping me from actually accomplishing anything.
My salt had lost its saltiness, and my light was being more and more progressively hidden under a bushel.
And, honestly, I’m still at that point. Which is why it was so hard for me to get started writing this.
It also makes the usual readings of this text very hard to hear, because they sound like it’s all your fault. Just let your light shine, just make your salt have flavor. Which is exactly what I can’t do right now.
It makes the second half of the text sound even more grim.
“For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Well crap. I can’t make my light shine, I can’t make my salt salty, how am I supposed to make myself more righteous than the Pharisees?
The whole second half of the text is sounding really very grim and difficult:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
That doesn’t sound too hard does it, all you have to do is obey the whole law, every little bit of it. And you have to obey that law better than people who 2,000 years later are still remembered as being obsessed with obeying every little jot and tittle of the law.
Shouldn’t be a problem at all, should it?
Especially for someone who’s struggling with depression that makes brushing their teeth a struggle.
I guess I’m never going to be entering the kingdom of heaven, right?
But it’s okay because none of you are going to make it by that standard either. I mean let’s be honest here and remember our Reformed heritage here. We all suffer from what classically has been referred to as “Total Depravity.”
Total depravity is a concept that dates back to Augustine and has survived through the years under various reformers, it comes to Presbyterians through TULIP, the five points of Calvinism
Total depravity says that we are all of us, Pharisee or common man, burdened by depression or not, all of us are utterly incapable of not sinning, incapable of following the law.
But despite the grim warning in the text and our total depravity, I don’t think Jesus is saying here that the kingdom of heaven is going to consist solely of him and his dad.
No, Jesus is not saying here that the kingdom is unattainable, he’s just saying that none of us are going to make it there if we depend on our ability to be righteous before the law. The law can’t save us. Nothing we do can save us. No matter how hard we try to make our lights shine and our salt be salty, it’s not going to be enough.
Later in the New Testament, Paul says it like this: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse … Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
Jesus and Paul are both telling us not to rely on the law, not to rely on our own actions to be saved. We are only saved by the Grace of God through faith, freely given to us and always poorly received.
That guy Martin Luther put it in a way that has become very near and dear to my heart, “Simul justus et peccator.” Which can be translated into English as we are all simultaneously saints and sinners.
The church I attend in Denver is named House for All Sinners and Saints. I think some people read that name and think that it means that both the sinners and the saints are welcome in this place where they can mingle together. But no, what we’re trying to say is that we are a home for all and that all are both sinners and saints.
A member of the church expressed it in an awesome way once, he said that House is not made up of the whole and the broken, or of the sick and the well, but of the medicated and the slightly less medicated.
In that way, House is not really any different from other churches, except that we’re not trying, as so many churches do, to pretend that it’s not true.
Read together, the two halves of the text remind me that I need help in all things. I cannot obey all of the law and be more righteous than the Pharisees, and thus I can’t reach the kingdom of heaven by my own effort. And I can use that understanding to look again at the first half of the text.
I can’t make my light shine or my salt salty just by my own effort I need help, and that help comes to me through medication, through loving, sympathetic community and most of all through the great giving and all-pervasive grace of God.
And even now when my beloved Wellbutrin has started to fail me, and when because of that I find myself less and less able to feel a part of that community, I can remember that the grace of God is still there for me.
And I can say, in the words of the hymn we’re going to sing in a few minutes,
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand.