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Monday, February 10, 2014

Bright and Salty, A Bacon Sermon

Who loves bacon? It's very trendy to love bacon right now, most of you are probably aware of this because of things like BaconFest and the overabundance of bacon-studded options at grocery stores and restaurants. 

And do you know why bacon is so popular? Because it's delicious. Now I realize I might be alienating the vegetarians right now, but I'm not really sure what the bacon-equivalent is for vegetarians, so bear with me. Bacon is delicious, and so this week I was researching what it takes to make bacon. I'm one of those people that always wonders how I can make something that we're used to buying better or cheaper. So it turns out that bacon isn't that difficult to make. You start with a pork belly. A pork belly, the stomach of a pig. Now I know this is also trendy in foodie circles, but I am not going to eat pork belly by itself, that is not appealing to me at all. There are no redeeming qualities about pork belly except that it makes bacon. And do you know what makes pork belly bacon?  Salt. 4 cups of salt for about 4 pounds of pork belly. That’s a lot of salt. But you know what? Salt makes things taste better. Salt makes things better.
          Our scripture for the day is the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which sometimes we call it the beatitudes.  A few months ago we talked about this because the first part of this sermon talks about those who are blessed and Jesus says over and over, blessed are… so Jesus has just finished turning our idea of what being blessed means upside down and then goes on to this bit about salt and light that we read today.  
We probably don’t think too much about the importance of salt in our day to day lives, but in Jesus’ time, salt was essential. It wasn’t just a seasoning, it was used as a purifier, a disinfectant, a preservative, part of religious sacrifices, and even a symbol of friendship. We now know that salt is absolutely essential for the human body to function, even on the cellular level. Now they may not have known that at the time that Jesus was giving this sermon, but they did know that salt was really important. Just like with bacon, salt makes things better; in Jesus’ time it purified things, it disinfected things, it preserved things. Obviously this is symbolic so I like the way that the Message puts it: “You’re here to besalt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.” The God-flavors, the good, the pure, the clean, the righteous, the peaceful, the hopeful, the redemptive flavors of the world. We are here to make things taste better; to make things around us better.
Now Jesus also says we are the light of the world. And some of the same can be said for light. Light was also essential in Jesus’ time as well. When it was night in Jesus’ time, it was DARK, really dark. Can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Light was necessary for people to be able to function after sundown. It also had strong religious connotations. What was the first thing that God created in Genesis? Light, God created the light first. Light is always connected symbolically to God, representing goodness and truth and hope. The message has a good way of saying this too: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.The God colors, illuminating the work that God is doing in and through and among us. Highlighting the good news that God is alive and active in our world.
Now I really like the Message’s paraphrase of these verses, because I think it awakens our imagination to what it means to be salt and light in the world. We’re supposed to be salt: making things better, and light: highlighting God’s work here. But there’s a problem with this translation, with the way this is paraphrased, and I think I’ve made the same mistake every time I’ve read these verses too. The Message says: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth… Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. I always got the sense that this was a command, Jesus saying, “hey, you’re supposed to be salt and light!” You should be doing this, you should be doing that. But when I took a look at some of the other translations, and did some more research, I found out that this isn’t a command. The way that Matthew wrote this has no hints of command, this is actually a blessing, Jesus is giving those who heard him, and us today, a blessing.
Have you ever heard the term “self-fulfilling prophecy”? The idea is that if you tell a child, or an adult for that matter, that he or she is good or bad or naughty or smart or any number of things, regardless of whether that label is true, if we hear it enough, we live into it. We become what we’re called. We become what we’re called, whether it’s true to begin with or not. And that’s what Jesus is doing here with us. He’s not saying, you better be salt and light, or you’re supposed to be salt and light, or “good Jews” or “good Christians” are salt and light. He says YOU ARE the salt of the earth, YOU ARE the light of the world. You already are, it is a part of who you are so live it out, don’t be shy! Friends, this isn’t a command, Jesus is not giving us directions, he’s giving us a blessing, an affirmation, he is commissioning us to live into our identities as Christians, to make the world a better, brighter place. The good news is that this is not another expectation or list of rules, this is confirmation that we already have what we need, that it’s a part of who we are, it’s built into our DNA we just have to live it out.
Now I hear some of you saying, to yourself of course “but Jen, you don’t know me, the ways that I’ve hurt people, the ways I’ve hurt myself, the messes I’ve gotten into. I’m not really good, I’m not the salt and light Jesus is talking about. Best case scenario, I just keep myself out of trouble.” Point taken, I think the things that we do and that are done to us work against the truth that we are good. But do you think Jesus thought he was talking to a bunch of saints? Do you think God doesn’t know what you’ve gone through and what you’ve done? God knows us better than we know ourselves, Jesus wasn’t fooled by pretenses or big shows of piety, Jesus came for the outcast, the marginalized, the downtrodden, those who are not perfect. And still he says, “You ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world, now live like it!”
But this salt and light bit isn’t the end of our scripture today either, and I think now that we understand this first part, maybe in a new way, now that we know that this is an affirmation not a command, we can read this second part in a new light as well. This is the part where Jesus is saying that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Part of this is a reaction to those who were saying that Jesus wasn’t respecting or following the law, and teaching others not to follow it either. And while I’d be one of the first people to claim that Jesus was not into legalism and rule-following as the key to the kingdom of God, he’s very clear that he’s not opposed to it and he’s not here to make it go away. He came so that we would understand the law better, that we might see what the law looks like when it’s not distorted by legalism and competition and one-upmanship.  Just like Jesus reinterpreted our understanding of being blessed in the first part of this sermon, just like Jesus helps us reinterpret how we understand ourselves as salt and light, Jesus helps us reinterpret the law. God didn’t create laws that were flawed and God didn’t create the laws so that people could be legalistic about it. God gave the law to the people of that time to help them know what it would be like to live in the kingdom of God. God gave the law to God’s people so they would have some guidelines, some sense of how God would want things to be. Like with most things though, we’ve gone and messed up the original intent with our sin. Jesus came not to abolish the law, not to declare it null and void, but to fulfill it, to reclaim it.
          And I couldn’t help struggle a little bit with putting these two parts of scripture together at first. Jesus is giving this blessing and affirmation and then seems to throw in this “And hey, don’t let people say I’m trying to mess with the law because I’m not, don’t forget the law!” It seems kind of defensive to me at first. But as I began to think about some of the questions we have, some of those voices that come into play when we hear Jesus of all people telling us that we already are salt and light, that making things better and shining light on God’s work is a part of who we, I realize that maybe Jesus isn’t leaving us hanging. That like God, Jesus offers us some more guidance a clue to figuring out how to be more salty and bright. While we might doubt Jesus’ blessing and affirmation to us, while we might want to leave salt and light as nice symbols that don’t require much of us, Jesus’ clue to us is to look to the law. If you’re not sure what being salt and light looks like, look to the law. Not the law that the Pharisees and concocted or interpreted, but the real laws that God has given us, the keys to the kingdom of God. If you’re wondering what it really means to bring out the God-flavors and the God-colors in the world, look to the law, but look at it through my eyes. And we know how Jesus understood the law, we find later on in Matthew chapter 22 where a Pharisee, a so-called expert in the law, asks him which is the greatest commandment. And do you know what he says? He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. The law is summed up this way: love God and love others. You are salt and light when you love God and love others. It is a part of who you are, it’s in your DNA. You are salt and light, and you know what salt and light do? Love, love God and love others.
No matter what drama we’re going through, no matter the challenges we have, we here at West Des Moines UMC are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We do make the world a better place and we do shine light on the ways that God is working in the world; we do love God and we love others. Just last week we had the Costa Rica Mission team leading us in worship, reflecting on ways that they worked with God to make the world a better place and the places where they saw God working for good in the world. If you remember at Christmas time, LifeTree CafĂ© attendees had the opportunity to make stars out of dollar bills, with the intent to give them to someone who was working on Christmas. And on Christmas day, Paul Gesell was at Caseys a gave one of those stars to a woman who was working. She was so appreciative; she hunted down our facebook page to thanks us. We have the prayer shawl ministry LifeGroup, that makes hospital and hospice rooms a little brighter with the reminder that person is loved and cared for. The money that we all collectively gave to Habitat for Humanity both here and in El Salvador so that other lives and communities might be better. The people who cook meals here every Wednesday so that we can come together and share a meal as a community so that we can shine a light of the ways God is working around us. There are so many more examples, I know that each of you could name one. All of you who give of your time and money and talents so that this faith community can make the world a better place and so we can continue to point out and shine a light on the fact that God is alive and that God is at work in and through and among us. All of you who love God and love others, we are already the salt of the earth, we are already the light of the world. Our call now is to live that out more deeply, more passionately, more tangibly wherever we are and where ever we go. Amen.

You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Go into the world now and be salt and light, be the church. Amen. 

(c) Pastor Jen Hibben 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Costa Rica Team Sunday

This Sunday we had the pleasure of the Costa Rica Mission Team leading us in worship. In early January a team of 12 representatives from our church went to visit and work with Strong Missions in Costa Rica. In 2012, this congregation raise over $10,000 to support the feeding programs of Strong Missions. Strong Missions is connected to the United Methodist Church through its Volunteer in Mission program (VIM). You can learn more about this trip and how you can help in the future by attending or hosting a presentation with your group or organization. Please contact Robert Bayse to schedule a presentation. 

The following was written and preached by members of the Costa Rica Mission Team on February 2, 2014.


          Today’s scripture from One Peter is a message directed to the Christian churches located in an area under the rule of the Roman Empire in the latter half of the first century AD. Christians of that era were counter cultural; they went against what society expected or demanded of them.  Because they were different, Christians were treated with scorn and subjected to verbal and physical abuse by others.  Government officials also began to view Christians as potential threats to civil order and initiated a campaign to harass and persecute them in a severe fashion.  To say the least, just as Christ had encountered before them, suffering was a normal part of the experience of being a Christian for those to whom this letter was written. 
          This morning we are going to draw from this lesson in the Bible.  We are going to relate a powerful story that we learned on our mission trip to Costa Rica and we are going to hear of the personal challenges that have been met by one of our mission team members.  From each of these different sources you will see how by doing good for others and by improving God’s Kingdom here on earth, we not only can bring comfort to those whom we are helping but at the same time help ourselves overcome suffering that we may be experiencing in our own lives.

          We all experience some kind of suffering whether the loss of a friend or family member, our own illness, broken relationships or even what just feels like bad luck.  During our mission trip, we learned of the story of Pastor Humberto who is no exception to that rule.  As a young man in his twenties, Humberto was working with members of his congregation cutting trees in the forest to provide wood for the construction of houses for those in need of shelter.  While doing this work, one of the trees that they were cutting fell in the wrong direction and landed directly on Pastor Humberto.  He was pinned underneath the tree and lay there in agony for three hours before his fellow workers could get access to a pickup truck to pull the tree off him.  Once loaded onto the back of the truck, they transported Humberto many miles across rugged terrain on bumpy, barely passable roads to the nearest hospital.  A full ten tortuous hours following the tree falling on him, Humberto was finally taken into surgery and the doctors discovered that he would be paralyzed from the waist down.
          Unfortunately, the suffering did not stop with the surgery or the loss of his mobility.  While in recovery he continued to be wracked with severe pain but his nurses refused to provide him with pain medication.  They taunted him saying, “You are a man of God.  If you are in pain, pray to your God to make it stop.”  Permanently paralyzed, far from home with no friends or family to comfort him, plagued by excruciating pain and tormented by those who were supposed to help him, Humberto called out for God to take his life. And God answered his call in a way Humberto did not expect.
          I am no stranger to suffering, as I’m sure each of you could say as well.  While I don’t wish to equate my suffering to that of the Christians of Peter’s time or Humberto, it is important to recognize that we all suffer and we are all under the same call to endure our suffering and respond to it in Christ like ways.  During our trip, we had nightly devotions and one evening we were asked to say something we admired about the person to our right.  When my moment in the spotlight came, Mike began with, “Caltin, your quiet demeanor…” which led to hearty laughs.  I am certainly not known for being quiet and timid.  I always wear a smile and a laugh and I do that proudly which makes it no small task to stand up here and tell my story of suffering.  I would much rather remain the Caltin you all know and love or at least think is adorably funny.  However, if telling my story can help even one person get through some hardship, I gladly bare my soul today.  The last year and a half have been very bumpy for me.  My biggest struggle lies in being unemployed for so long and thus being without insurance.  I have diabetes and shortly before I lost my job at Wells Fargo, was diagnosed with the onset of depression.  With medication, I was able to manage both diseases with success but when the job ran out, the insurance ran out, the meds ran out, and I was given a trial that would test my faith and strength more than anything had before.  At first I was able to self-regulate my diabetes and my depression…well, in truth, I just ‘acted’ my way around them for months.  Really, I should be given an Oscar for my performance.  A few months ago however, I hit my breaking point.  Rather I should say my body hit its breaking point.  I was still on stage but behind the curtain I was constantly fighting thoughts of worthlessness, emptiness, that I had been forgotten by God and anyone who loved me, and worst of all I just wanted to stop existing. I really tried to back out of the trip to Costa Rica.  The health problems were running my life and the financial desert I was in made it seem impossible to be a part of this mission trip I had been so enthusiastic about.  God was not part of my struggle at this point.  I was under the impression that I could handle it on my own.  When that didn’t work, I sunk so low I was sure there was only one way to fix all my problems.
          But the Bible, God’s message, always offers us good news and hope.
          In today’s passage Peter tells the early Christians to humble themselves under God’s hand, that is, to become instruments for improving God’s kingdom here on earth.  By trusting in God, they could cast all their cares and worries to God…not one or two…ALL of their worries.  Why? Because God cares about His people.  God loves us.  When we become servants of God’s will and help others who are troubled or in need, we lighten our own suffering by thinking less about ourselves and more about others.
Peter warned the early Christians about forces that would threaten their faith in God and that would “devour them.”  Peter saw that when people are suffering and undergoing hardship they are vulnerable to questioning their faith and being led away from God.  He urged the people to trust in God, to place themselves under God’s protection by “humbling themselves under God’s mighty hand”.  Peter further noted that whatever suffering that the people were called upon to endure during their time on earth paled in comparison to the everlasting time thereafter where we will be completely restored and renewed in the image of God. 
          Peter realized that people can draw strength from being part of a community and he pointed out that the followers of Christ were part of a much larger family of believers around the world who were facing similar challenges.  Being part of a larger group of people with a common set of problems allowed the early Christians to help each other as they knew very well the suffering that each was undergoing. 
The lessons apply to us today as well.  We must avoid the temptation to blame God and lose our faith when misfortune occurs.  When bad things happen to us, that is the time to be even more resolute in seeking to serve God.  We can do this by reaching out and extending a helping hand to our brothers and sisters in need—no matter where they live.  By keeping our focus on the needs of others rather than our own difficulties, we can cast off the stresses that torment us and enjoy the comfort of God’s Peace.
          There is good news in Pastor Humberto’s story as well.
          Overcome by his hopelessness and suffering, Humberto prayed to God to let him die so that his pain would cease.  This went on for days and one morning, a person whom Humberto had never seen before came into his room and told Humberto that he had been sent by God.  Humberto asked the man, “Why? Why did God let me survive this when I am crippled and in so much pain?”  The stranger answered, “No por que, para que?”  Which means “Not why, for what?”
          The stranger then slipped out of the room and was never to be seen again.  When Humberto asked the doctors and nurses if they had seen a man come into his room, no one had.   Humberto then knew that God saved his life for a reason and from that point forward he would place his complete faith in God’s hands.  When the nurses finally approached him with pain medication, Humberto refused saying that God had taken away his pain.  That was 14 years ago and now Humberto is a pastor in one of the slums we visited which is home to thousands of refugees and is marked by extreme poverty and gang violence.  But, Humberto is there, in his wheelchair, pain-free and positively effecting change in his community, making it look more like the Kingdom of God.  Humberto told us that as soon as he turned his attention to figuring out what God wanted him to do, he thought less of himself and his circumstances and more about how he could help others.
          Through several chats with Pastor Jen, she helped me hear God’s words urging me to trust God and God will provide a way for me to go on the trip and to get me through whatever I was going through…I was able to join the Costa Rica mission team by heeding God’s words of wisdom.  My struggles were far from over though.  As the date of departure to Costa Rica neared, I became more and more filled with anxiety.  How would I deal with the constant thirst and other symptoms of completely out of control diabetes in a third world country where the water may not be safe to drink?  My biggest worry was that this suffocating depressing darkness I was in would prevent me from participating and helping.  I knew I was too unstable to be going out of the country but Jen said trust God so that’s what I did.  From the moment I woke up the morning we left until the moment I returned to my home I experienced the most peaceful calm and relief I have ever experienced in my life.  The entire time I was in Costa Rica I did not have one symptom of diabetes or depression.  I could feel my sugars level out and was granted the freedom to focus on doing God’s work and recognizing God’s purposes in sending me to Costa Rica.  Being free from depression and demands of diabetes enabled me to put others before myself and provided the opportunity to do as much good as I could fit into 8 days.  My chains were gone and I was set free.
My struggles are still far from over, but this experience has given me several things to consider.  Back here in the states my suffering seems just a bit more bearable, I know without a shadow of a doubt that God’s promises are no joke…when God says trust in me and do good and I will take your suffering from you….God will make good on that promise, and lastly that we are all connected in so many ways but most apparent to me, through our suffering in Christ.
          Each of us will encounter problems in our lives and some of those problems may be quite severe.  Some of us may be going through some pretty tough times right now.  What Peter reminds us is that we don’t have to be in these struggles alone.  God is available to help us if we are willing to let that happen.  No matter what we are going through, we cannot let our problems define who we are.  Our trip to Costa Rica illustrated that responding through hardship by doing good can provide us with two paths to choose from in order to heal.  As in Humberto’s case, doing good can give us a purpose to our suffering and in my case doing good for those in need can help get us through our suffering by focusing on other things.  And let’s not forget that by choosing his path, Pastor Humberto’s life and the lives of countless others are better by incalculable degrees. 
          Our prayer for us all is that we start today to let Pastor Humberto be our example and inspiration by repeating and living the mantra “No por que, para que?”  “Not why, for what?”