Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 5:13-16
We’ve spent the last few weeks focusing on our Arlington Temple mission statement (can we say it together one more time? The mission of ATUMC is to be a welcoming community called by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and equipped to be God’s people in the world.) Today we are on the last piece of that statement. We’ve talked in the past few weeks about what it means to be a community that is called out from the rest of the world and welcomes anyone else who God has called out to be part of it; we talked about how we open ourselves to the Spirit’s empowerment to be good news for people who need good news. Now it’s time to talk about just what that good news looks like: what it means to be God’s people in the world.
If we go back far enough in the Bible, to Genesis 12 which Ernie just read, we discover that the idea of being God’s person in the world is one of the oldest themes of Scripture. Abraham, arguably, was God’s first person – not the first person God made, of course; or even the first person who God judged to be righteous, but the first person God really chose, the first person God entered into that kind of special relationship with, where if you will be my person I will be your God. God chooses Abraham – actually Abram, at the time, because God hadn’t given him his new name denoting his new identity yet – and God tells Abram that he will be blessed, that his family will be blessed, that his allies will be blessed and his enemies cursed. Out of all the people on earth, Abram is “called out” from among them for a different, godly purpose.
And that chosenness means Abram has a job to do. His job is to leave the place he knows and go out into the wider world, and as he does this, we learn, not only will he be blessed, but all the families and nations of the earth will be blessed through him. We see this promise take shape as Abraham’s descendants form the nation of Israel, God’s collective people, who are charged with being an example of justice and covenant faithfulness and a blessing to the surrounding nations, though this did not always happen quite as planned. But from the beginning of the story (our story) being God’s person was never just about what’s in it for me – but about what’s in it for everyone else around me.
And yet for God’s people over the rest of the story, the details of what that looks like tend to vary a lot.
Some of God’s people are prophets. They have a special connection to the mind and will of God and speak truth to power in creative and bold ways. Some of God’s people are priests. They make sure that God is worshiped and honored appropriately to maintain the special relationship between God and Israel. Some of God’s people are kings and government officials, responsible for organizing society in a just way. Some of God’s people are shepherds, or farmers, or other ordinary people who show hospitality and generosity and courage and who show grace to each other and to those who live among them.
All of them are part of God’s story. From the very beginning, there has never been just one way to be God’s person in the world.
I’ll tell you one way I’m trying to live out this mission these days. If you’ve seen me on a weekday in the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that I’ve started wearing a clerical collar. I’ve been in ministry full-time for over seven years now, but until now, I have never worn or owned a collar. I’ve been thinking for a while now about changing that. I think I never wanted to be seen as that formal; I thought it might make me less approachable, like I am trying to set myself apart as a holy person rather than a regular person. I also admit there is a certain comfort to some anonymity out in the world, where I can mostly go about my daily life without worrying that someone is judging me on how well I live up to my job description.
But on the other hand, I began to realize that maybe I could actually live out this call more faithfully and fruitfully if people knew. Not just here, at church, but if people out in the neighborhood and community around us could look at me and say, “Hey, there’s a person who could listen to me and pray for me, because I’m really going through something right now.” Or, “There’s a person I could ask a question I have about God.” Or even, “There’s a person I could tell why I think the Church is terrible” – maybe there could be some healing in that. I can’t do these things when I’m anonymous. It’s early, but I am giving this a try. This is one way I am claiming anew what it means for me to be God’s person in the world, in this specific way that I am called.
Not all of us are called to wear a collar, of course. But all Christians are called out of the world around us to form this thing called the church, the Body of Christ, God’s people.
A few weeks ago we heard Andrew talk about his ministry of peacemaking through listening to people’s experiences and beliefs and working for interfaith understanding. That is something that is not just a job, but a call. Others of you do that work of peacemaking and peacekeeping as diplomats, and that’s a call. Still others of you work as doctors, or teachers, or for nonprofit organizations that are doing good in the world in some way, and that’s a call. Or maybe you are in a job where you know you are using your God-given gifts to provide necessities of life or make life better for people in some way. Any of those things might be part of what it looks like to be God’s person in the world.
But it’s also totally possible that your job, whatever it happens to be at the moment, does not directly represent any sort of grand divine call. Maybe you don’t have one, for instance, whether that’s because you are looking or because you are retired or because you are unable to work. Or maybe you do have one, but there’s just nothing that seems very divine or purposeful about it, but you have it because you have to pay the rent. None of that diminishes your worth or value as God’s person. I think this can actually be a hard concept to grasp, especially with our American-dream kind of cultural idea that any of us can do anything. I once talked to someone who wasn’t happy in his job, but what was eating him up more than the mind-numbing work itself was the fact that he didn’t really know who he was or what he was worth outside of it. God never intended our ability to be God’s people in the world to be dependent on our employment status.
But that same person I knew, who did not see himself doing God’s work through his job, lived for going on mission trips. He traveled with church groups doing disaster relief work and he painted houses. And he laid tile. And he talked and listened to those homeowners who were watching the ruins of their lives be rebuilt. Every this person came back from a mission trip, he was alive again for a while.
Like most of us, of course, he couldn’t actually just quit his job and go on mission trips all the time. But that’s OK. It’s possible that our particular ways of being God’s people in the world may come not first and foremost from the work we do for money, but through however we spend the rest of our time – teaching English as a second language, raising money to build wells with your Rotary club, volunteering at your kid’s school, serving dinner at the Homeless Services Center. Maybe one of those things is how you are using the gifts and resources God has given you to build up God’s Kingdom on earth. Maybe God has given you a passion for some cause and when you work for that cause you are being good news to someone who needs good news.
Then again it’s also possible that being God’s person in the world might have less to do with what we do and more to do with how we do it.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds listening to them that their job is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Wait – that’s not exactly right. He tells them they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He doesn’t really give them a job.
Jesus knows that if people are salt, nothing can stop them from being salty. Wherever they go in the world and whatever they do in it, they will do it saltily. Those Galilean peasants probably didn’t have a lot of choice in the work they did, but they could share what they had with someone else in need. They could set an extra place at the table for the foreigner traveling through. They could forgive someone who didn’t deserve forgiveness, and break the cycle of violence by refusing to take revenge.
Salt doesn’t exist for itself. If they were salt, they were salt for others.
Jesus knew that if people are light, then their light can’t help but shine. Wherever they go and whatever they do in the world, they will do it shinily. The people listening to this sermon didn’t have a bunch of time after work to spend volunteering, but they could bring a meal to a sick or grieving neighbor. They could treat someone who everyone else looked down on with dignity. They could raise their children to be compassionate and just and brave. They could pray for their neighbors and their communities.
Light doesn’t exist for itself. If they were light, they were light for others.
And Jesus knew that if they were, people would take notice. And they would know then that these were not just any people, but God’s people. And through them, then, they would know something of God.
But you know – the truth is, I sometimes need help being salty and shiny. It doesn’t always seem to come as naturally as Jesus seemed to think it should.
So we come back to our mission statement, which says that our mission is to be equipped to be God’s people in the world. In other words – we can do this better with some help, which we can both find and give – here.
I think a lot of it has to do with being reminded. We come here and we are reminded of what it is God asks of us. We sing together and the words of those songs stick with us after we leave. We study the Bible together and all of a sudden understand what God wants from us in a new way. We learn how to pray and we create space to hear God’s call and we help each other understand what kind of work, paid or unpaid, big or small, God might have for us to do. We share opportunities to do some of those things, and we help each other carry them out.
It is good to gather together. It is good to be God’s people together, for a time, and to pray and laugh and sing and learn, to challenge each other and welcome each other and show grace to one another.
But then we go out as God’s people in the world – each of us in our own unique way – that the whole world might be blessed as God works through us.