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Finding Salt, Seeking Light

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I think today’s readings offer us some guidance from other eras when things were pretty fractious. And I think there are stories from our own times that might offer us a bit of inspiration.

Today’s texts – Isaiah 58: 1-12 and Matthew 5: 13-16

Pastor Phil

If you have been wondering what to do in this extraordinarily fractious time in our nation’s history, if you have been ricocheting between calling elected representatives and arguing with relatives, marching down State Street or crawling under the covers, I think today’s readings offer us some guidance from other eras when things were pretty fractious. And I think there are stories from our own times that might offer us a bit of inspiration.

Isaiah was writing to the Jews who had returned from exile, who were settling back into old routines in Jerusalem – old routines that were both good and bad.

Some of them were adopting the outward markings of piety yet their behavior toward others was filled with quarreling and brawling and physical altercations, with selfishness and exploitation, with finger-pointing and wicked speech.

That’s not what God wants, wrote Isaiah – public professions of piety combined with mistreatment of others. When you treat others well, he wrote, “your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noon.”

Jesus was talking to his followers living under Roman occupation and the exploitive collaboration of religious leaders. The little snippet we heard today comes early in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ lengthy description of how his followers ought to act.

They should be salt, they should be light. Or, to keep this current, we should be salt, we should be light, even in the midst of hard times. And we should let our light shine before people.

Light, after all, is not just for ourselves. We let light shine for others and by letting light shine, we expose what is bad and illuminate what is good.

Josh Miller knew how to let a bit of light shine.

Josh is young pastor in the Fitchburg area, a guy who describes himself as a “community pastor.” He has been particularly active at Leopold Elementary School in addition to creating a Christian community called The Bridge.

Two of the folks who became part of his community in 2015 were Hakeem and Erica, 21-year old African Americans from the south side of Chicago who had moved to the Madison area and had a one-year old son. They were looking to buy a car and one of the used-car chain dealers in town said they could help them.

 The dealer sold them a ten-year old Chevy Aveo for $10,900 with an interest rate of 22 percent. The car Blue Books for $3,100. Hakeem and Erica had no experience with loans or cars, and once the $360 monthly payment started kicking in, they were constantly trying to figure out what bills to default on – the rent or the utilities or the car note.

Josh tried to help them and I helped connect Josh with an attorney who had some experience dealing with used-car dealerships and who offered to represent Hakeem and Erica for free. It made a huge difference. As Josh said, the attorney “was a tremendous advocate for them and was able to get them out of the purchase. Go team humanity!”

And as Isaiah wrote, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated and breaking every yoke?” Light was breaking out like the dawn.

Let me take you to another story, this one involving some farmers in central Wisconsin in the 1980s. One of them was my wife Ellen’s Uncle Bill.

You may recall that the 1980s was a particularly tough time for small farms. The daughter of one of Uncle Bill’s neighbors wrote about the hard times her family faced in the midst of the farm crisis. And in the story is a glimpse of what neighbors can do when they look out for each other.

Here’s how the daughter described the situation:

“We had to have an auction to save the farm. I was around 10 years old at the time. Strangers and neighbors gathered on our farm. My dad sold many of his antique tractors, farm supplies, and the collectibles he had. But it all came down to our modern Ford tractor.”

They needed the tractor, you see, to keep the farm running in the hope of recovering from the crisis. But the bank had said they had to sell even the modern tractor to pay off their debts.

The area farmers came up with a plan. At the auction, Ellen’s Uncle Bill made the only bid on the tractor. It was for $1. Sold.

Then, as the neighbor’s daughter wrote about Bill, “He said, ‘Hey Al, I just acquired a new tractor and by gosh, wouldn’t you just know it, I don’t have any room in my barn to store it. Can I store it in your pole shed? And by the way, you can use it whenever you need it. No sense in letting it just sit there.’ ”

Her father went on to farm for another 20 years.

Like Isaiah wrote long ago, the neighbors removed the yoke from among them, opened their hearts to the hungry, provided for those who were afflicted. To use the farm imagery from Isaiah, they were “like a watered garden, like a spring that won’t run dry.”

Sometimes it is those small acts – helping out an exploited young couple, helping a family save their farm – that can show the salt and light we carry within us. But even in the midst of hatred and violence, there are ways to respond.

You may have heard the story about a mosque in the southeastern Texas town of Victoria that was consumed by fire on the last Saturday in January. There still is no clear cause for the fire, but the fact that it came in the midst of a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment in our nation, there certainly are suspicions around it. And earlier in the week, the mosque had been burglarized. Several years ago, it had been vandalized.

What I am interested in, though, is the response after the fire.

The variety of faith communities in Victoria had some history of working together. They had a three-week event a few years ago where the mosque, a synagogue and a church hosted each other’s members.
So the day after the fire, according to Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a surgeon who in 2000 helped found the mosque, “Jewish community members walked into my home and gave me a key to the synagogue.” They said the Muslims could use the synagogue for their worship.

Children from the local Catholic school in Victoria visited the mosque last Wednesday, forming what the Islamic Center called a “human chain of love and peace.” They planted a tree.

Some people have offered to perform carpentry work, lend their trucking services and knit new prayer rugs. And there was a gofundme campaign that hoped to raise $850,000 for the reconstruction of the mosque. It actually raised $1.1 million within a few days.

We think of salt as a seasoning for our food. In Jesus’ time, it was used for more than flavoring. It was a preservative and, because of its value, a form of currency. The salt did not lose its essence in the aftermath of that mosque fire. The people who gathered around the mosque were indeed the salt of the earth.

As long as we are in Texas, let’s stop by the annual Muslim Capitol Day in Austin.

This is an event that goes back to 2003, bringing members of Muslim communities across the state, including many young students, to the Capitol to see for themselves what state government is like.

But two years ago, it was disrupted by a couple of dozen protesters, including one woman who took over the podium and yelled, “I proclaim the name of Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet, Mohammed.”

It was different this year. Last Tuesday morning, when participants walked up to the south steps of the Capitol, they were surrounded by a massive human circle made up of at least 1,000 supporters – many of them Christians from churches in the area – looking to ensure the event went off without a hitch. And it did. The anti-Muslim protesters were hardly visible in that mass of humanity.
Something similar happened in Portland, Maine. Recently, four black ninth graders were walking to a bus stop when a white teen made racist remarks to them and then assaulted two of them while waving a knife. Nobody was physically hurt, but it was a very disturbing incident.

Farhiyo Hassan, a student representative to the school board who happens to be a Muslim, saw reports about that incident on the news. So she organized a march to support the ninth graders. Over half the school’s nearly 400 students joined with teachers, the district superintendent and even the mayor to march from the school to the bus stop.

When they got to the bus stop, it was covered with signs with messages like, “We are here with you” and “You are loved.”
It is almost as if they had read Isaiah – remove the finger-pointing and the wicked speech, mend the broken walls, make the streets livable again.

One more story.

Last weekend, after President Trump signed the executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for the next three months, demonstrations broke out at airports across the nation, including, of course, at O’Hare in Chicago.

Chicago Tribune photographer Nuccio DiNuzzo was trying to portray what was happening there last Monday as the protests continued.

He saw Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell of suburban Deerfield lift his 9-year-old son, Adin, onto his shoulders when the boy asked for a better view of the crowd. And then right next to the rabbi, he saw Fatih Yildirim lift his 7-year-old daughter, Meryem, onto his shoulders because she was getting tired of standing.

Adin was wearing his kippah while holding a sign that read “Hate has no home here.” Meryem wore her black hijab while holding a sign that simply said, “Love.”

It turns out that Adin’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors who spent time in refugee camps. Meryem’s father is a store manager from Schaumburg who had come to the airport with his wife and children to bring cookies to the lawyers who were offering their services to free to those immigrants who had been detained.

Rabbi Yildirim said later, “I know the tension between the Jews and the Muslims. People think we hate each other. But we’re not fighting. When we come next to each other we can have normal conversation. We can promote the peace together.”

And the rabbi said, “I just feel like if this picture, in some small way, can bring a bit more light and love into the world, I’m so happy about that.”

Or as Jesus said, people don’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel. “Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand and it shines on all who are in the house.”

These are just a few examples of the ways some individuals have chosen to be salt for the world, to let their light shine. In a time when things can seem overwhelming, I know that I can take a bit of inspiration from what I see others doing.

These are small things. They are ways of asserting our common humanity, of living out the message of Jesus with our hands, with our feet, with our hearts.

They are examples that came from people with varying faith traditions but a common sense of the shared dignity of all people.

Those people who gathered on a hillside to hear Jesus 2,000 years ago became his followers and sought to live out his message. They formed what we know of as the church, a pretty disparate group of folks united around our commitment to walk in the way of Jesus.

When we are working together in that spirit – and with God’s Spirit – we can live as if God’s vision is a reality in our fractured world. But that takes continual effort.

There’s a hymn about renewing ourselves as the church. It’s #311 in our hymnals, “Renew Your Church.”  Let’s sing that together.