by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 58: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5: 13-20
Our scriptures offer up a medley of metaphors today. God’s people are “a watered garden” and “a spring of water,” says Isaiah. Both Isaiah and Matthew say that you and I are light. Matthew adds that we’re salt, too. Reading farther into Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount today—past the Beatitudes that name God’s upside-down kingdom values and into the specifics of how we live out those values—we learn that being salt and light in this world is all about giving ourselves away completely.
Brian Maas writes that salt needs to “disappear into food to make the food tastier.” You don’t want to taste salt. You want the salt to bring out the flavor of the food. Just so, followers of Jesus lift up others as we “disappear in humble service.” Similarly, light “dissipates” as it travels across the miles. Light doesn’t do its job if we try to contain and hide it. So our role is not to concentrate our saltiness by forcing “Christian policies” and “Christian candidates”and Christian “Merry Christmas” greetings on our diverse neighbors. Nor is our role to hoard our light, hiding it under a bushel, to the neglect of neighbors in need, to the neglect of refugees in harm’s way, to the neglect of justice for LGBT friends, for instance. Our role is not to corral our light while leaving others in the dark. When we allow our salt to dissolve into the world and our light to dissipate as it’s cast abroad, we are giving ourselves away, dying to self, relinquishing our need to be in control, giving up privilege and security. That kind of dying, says Maas, “is the shortest route—the only route—to resurrection.”*
Dissolving, dissipating, dying. That’s the Jesus way.
Let’s also notice that Paul’s understanding of the Jesus way involves even more complex metaphors. Paul’s metaphors say that we who are light and salt in a dim world, an unpalatable world, must rightly 1) discern the Spirit of God and 2) have the mind of Christ to carry out our purpose.
Paul agrees that dying is how we live in Christ. Paul downplays his theological aims to proclaim the simple truth of Christ crucified: God revealed in human limitations and weakness. What a scandal! God is revealed in weakness, human weakness. The Jesus Way is not about asserting strength but showing vulnerability, which calls us to rely on God’s form of power: compassion. Which seems like weakness to “the rulers of this age” (I Cor. 2:6).
To follow in the countercultural way of Jesus requires spiritual discernment.
In reflecting on “the rulers of this age,” I admit that lately I’ve been feeling a lot of feelings, but not discerning much. I’ve gotten angry when I witness what I’d label the Spirit of discord at work, a Spirit of unkindness, a Spirit of “me first,” a Spirit of fear, a Spirit of Might and Provocation and Willful Ignorance and Deceit. Do you hear my anger creep, no, leap, into my voice? I’m trying to discern if my anger is a right and righteous resistance to movements that are running over people and harming entire groups and threatening our planet and stirring up enmity. But maybe my anger is just adding fuel to the fire. Are any of you struggling with that question?
So I’m trying to self-critique my usual political leanings and even consider the possibility that we may need to dump the whole chessboard on the floor and start the game over, as painful as that would be. But to do so, I fear, would cause great harm to so many. I continue to ask, How can I try to hear others’ perspectives with an open heart and mind—while remaining true to Jesus values as best I understand them?
This is hard work. Our nation’s rough transition to a new administration is exhausting. Just this past week I—and many of you—joined new social justice groups springing up and attended meetings and rallies out of concern for immigrants and LGBT folks and other minorities and the environment. We’ve been protesting and writing letters and calling our legislators. Yesterday I attended a prayer breakfast to hear and support our local NAACP president; then I immediately drove to a board meeting of the North Mobile County Food Park and Market, which is trying to bring fresh produce to Prichard, a food desert; then on to the funeral of Jerry Pogue, our brother, a civil rights hero, whose life deserved our deep honor and gratitude; then home late in the afternoon to sign some petitions and sign up for more meetings in the week ahead. And stay up late to finish a sermon. You and I are going to have to discern priorities for us as individuals and as a congregation.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians emphasize that how we prioritize as we live out our faith hinges on two metaphors: “discerning the Spirit” (I Cor. 2: 15) and “having the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16).
At last Saturday’s church leadership retreat, we refreshed our acquaintance with a little book called Grounded in God: Discernment for Group Deliberations. As you may know, Open Table decided early in our short history to conduct our meetings and make decisions in an orderly way—but without the usual rules of parliamentary procedures. And without voting. We took more of a Quaker approach—listening for the Spirit’s leading and finding consensus. For most decisions it’s easy for us to reach a decision as everyone around the table fairly quickly comes to a common solution. But sometimes for major decisions we have proceeded with careful, prayerful discernment—with lots of time for lots of shared thoughts and good research and silence in which we try to discern the Spirit’s direction.
If discernment sounds either completely impractical to you or utterly superstitious and anti-intellectual, hear how the authors of Grounded in God describe group discernment:
“Group discernment is our effort to tap into the flow of divine wisdom. In classical spirituality, discernment means distinguishing God’s Spirit from other spirits that are present in a given time and place—such as the spirit of a nation, the spirit of the times, the spirit of competition. . . .distinguishing the voice of God from other voices that speak to us: the voice of our parents echoing from years past, the voices of friends, voices of urgency, of fear. These voices are neither bad nor good in and of themselves. God often speaks to us through them. But, if followed indiscriminately, such voices can dominate us and lead us along a wrong path.”
“Discernment is a prayerful, informed, and intentional attempt to sort through these voices to get in touch with God’s Spirit at work in a situation and to develop a sense of the direction in which the Spirit is leading. Discernment is more a journey than a destination.” (5-6)
We may not find answers for all our concerns, but we can be receptive to God’s presence as we ponder the questions.
“Sound rational analysis based on the best available information” (in other words, not “alternative facts”—my own aside) “is crucial for good discernment. Yet spiritual discernment “goes beyond the analytical to engage our senses, feelings, imaginations, and intuition as we wrestle with issues. It often points toward a decision but it is not problem-solving. The issues. goal of our discernment efforts is to FIND THE MIND OF CHRIST. As such, it is the central component of decision making for those who would have their lives grounded in God. . . . And the first order of business is to become attuned to God’s presence within and among those assembled—requiring total listening, focused silence, a serene environment. . . to grow in faith and love for one another, to have the mind of Christ” (6-7).**
Having “the mind of Christ” is not about thinking Jesus-y thoughts but more about relating to others at some fundamental level of union within the Christ. It’s about giving up our tendency to see reality in overly simplistic either/or terms, giving up our categories of in-groups and out-groups.
Fortunately, this past week Richard Rohr has turned to this very theme. He explains that “having the mind of Christ” is a “nondualistic” way of knowing. “[Dualism] knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets. Yet depth and breadth of perception should be the primary arena for all authentic religion. How else could we possibly search for God?”**
Rohr concedes, “We do need the dualistic mind to function in practical life . . . to do our work as a teacher, a nurse, a scientist, or an engineer. It’s helpful and fully necessary as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, sexuality, death, or love; this is exactly why most people stumble over these very issues. The dualistic mind pulls everything down into some kind of tit-for-tat system of false choices and too-simple contraries, which is largely what ‘fast food religion’teaches, usually without even knowing it. Without the contemplative and converted mind—an honest and humble perception—much religion is frankly dangerous.”
Having “the mind of Christ” does not happen easily. I think we can get a little closer to that goal within a patient and caring faith community. To have the mind of Christ means letting go of judgement in order to pay attention with compassion and to recognize that my fate is inextricably bound up with yours. If we could ever really love God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, we would be united in the mind of Christ within a cosmic perspective and tender regard for all beings.
Rohr affirms, “We are living in exciting times, where we are teaching people not what to see, but how to see! The broad rediscovery of nondual, contemplative consciousness gives me hope for the maturing of religion and is probably the only way we can move beyond partisan politics.”
That’s a hopeful word for me! I hope it brings you hope and challenge.
We pray, O God, to be salt and light, to discern your way, to be united with you and one another in the mind of Christ. Amen.
* Maas, Brian. “Living the Word” The Christian Century (18 Jan. 2017) 20.
** Farnham, Suzanne G, Stephanie A Hull, R. Taylor McLean. Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations, Revised Ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999).
*** Rohr, Richard. Daily Meditations. See the last two weeks of his daily devotionals archived here: https://cac.org/richard-rohr/daily-meditations/daily-meditations-archive/.