Sermon February 5 2023 To God be the Glory Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you like things to be organized? Orderly? Predictable? I suspect it’s probably a matter of personality. Either we’re inherently more comfortable with order and patterns and systems… or we tend to lean toward a preference for “it all looks extremely untidy but I know where everything is”.
Although there IS of course a third option, which is where I’d locate myself, in which I’m absolutely more comfortable with order and patterns and systems – but you’d be equally absolutely forgiven for not guessing that by looking at my house. Or my car. Or indeed my general demeanour at any given time.
But it’s true. I like order. I like systems. I like routine. I find them restful. And maybe you do too… or maybe you’re one of those people I always admire SO MUCH. Who thrive, and especially creatively, always sort of on the edge of, or even in the midst of, chaos. Intuition, instinct, randomness.
I always find it kind of awe-inspiring and breathtaking, that kind of extrapolative artistic “apparently scattered but it’s not” process. Where there’s just chaos chaos chaos – and then whoosh. It all comes together. I love that so much.
One of the best examples I ever experienced was in a sermon I heard probably twenty five years ago at a meeting of Maritime Conference, that was preached by Rev. Ivan Cumming from Vancouver. Because he was that kind of preacher.
That oldy timey United Church preaching – it’d be at least forty five minutes long – but Ivan Cumming did NOT also subscribe to the OTHER oldy timey United Church tradition of “three points and a poem” in his preaching. Because his preaching was absolute chaos.
Until it wasn’t. Because he could make that beautiful thing happen. Where he’d just be rambling on about this and this and that and that, and doodleedoo and where on earth are we going here – and then whoosh. And it’d be perfect.
And memorable. I mean, we’re talking here about a sermon I heard probably twenty-five years ago. And there are sermons I’ve preached myself only five years that I have no memory of preaching.
But Ivan Cumming was preaching that day, twenty five or whatever years ago, on the Apostle Paul’s teaching to the first Christians to “pray without ceasing”. And after he’d begun his sermon by noting that, and talking a little bit about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, which is where that text comes from… he just kind of went off the rails.
Starting talking about how he’d spent the week getting ready for this visit to Maritime Conference, and rambly rambly this and rambly rambly that, and he and his wife had gone to see a movie, and what movie it was, and he was kind of describing how they were watching this particular part of the movie –
And then he said “And suddenly I thought to myself, ‘Am I praying without ceasing?’”
It was absolutely brilliant. I mean, maybe you had to be there, but I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The ‘meta’-ness of it. With all of us sitting there kneedeep in this kind of rambling indistinct life-going-on sermon -- yadda yadda Apostle Paul yadda yadda went to a movie – WAIT.
Are we praying without ceasing? I think we might not be, right now.
I think about that sermon all the time. And I thought about it this week, in looking at the so familiar words from Matthew’s gospel, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that Anne Marie read for us this morning. Jesus’ words to his disciples, to the crowds that have gathered to listen to him, and to us. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Because I’ve preached on this text, I’m going to go with one million times. And it’s a beautiful beautiful teaching. It speaks to faithfulness as being active – not about “here’s what I believe” but about “here’s how I live”.
It speaks to a way of being in the world that’s about enhancing and uplifting the flavour, the goodness, of the world – the way salt enhances and lifts up the flavour of food. Not making it about ourselves, just like the point isn’t to taste SALT, but about what’s around us.
And it speaks to a way of being in the world that’s about illumination – shining a light so that something can be seen, shedding a light so a path’s discernable. Again not making it about ourselves, just like a light’s no use at all if all you see is the light, but about what’s around us.
So “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” – they’re spectacular. They’re how to live. They’re service, they’re discipleship, they’re about others and not ourselves –
There’s humility in them, and a passion for justice – enhancing what’s good and shining a relentless light of love to illuminate what’s not. What’s UNjust, what can’t be left unresponded to, what has to be changed.
And they leave us with two equally spectacular questions to guide us: am I being salt? am I being light? Am I enhancing and lifting up the goodness? Am I helping others make their way, and especially calling attention to any wrongness they’re contending with that’s not what God wants for God’s people?
Am I being salt? Am I being light? In the sense of being the sort of questions that Jesus wants his disciples, that he wants US, to always have at the forefront of our minds, as sort of the essential expression of our ordinary day-to-day efforts to live our faithfulness actively… these two questions, am I being salt, am I being light, in a way they’re kind of comparable to the Apostle Paul’s teaching to “pray without ceasing”.
The sort of questions we’re meant to have pop into our minds just randomly, and all the time. Like a kind of check-in, or a reset button.
Like wait now – am I praying without ceasing? Am I being salt? Am I being light?
But here’s the thing. All of that’s absolutely true. That IS exactly the place of these teachings in our faithfulness that are the reason Jesus says them. They ARE meant to be the essentials, the check-in, the reset button. Absolutely. Am I being salt? Am I being light?
But this week, as I thought through this passage of scripture for time number approximately one million and one – what I found I got most struck by was one little detail that I think I’ve probably just always skimmed right over before as a given.
Because “you are the salt of the earth”, Jesus tells us: be salt. And “you are the light of the world”, Jesus tells us: be light.
But why? To give glory to God in heaven, he says. In this way, he says, you give glory to God in heaven.
And I thought, “What a question that shapes for us, in the ordinary and the day-by-day. What a question that raises up for us and then lowers to place underneath us as essential, and a constant, and an underpinning source of guidance.”
And it’s way better than “Am I praying without ceasing” because unless that’s at least partly metaphorical I know very well that I’m not. Right now, for example, I’m delivering a sermon – and I can assure you that there is NO leftover intellectual capacity that’s also praying without ceasing at the same time. So metaphorically sure. Or at least hopefully, God being our helper.
But consider, instead, as that essential, that constant, that underpinning rudder kind of acting as our guidance… “Am I giving glory to God in heaven?”
It’s quite a question, to randomly and regularly ask ourselves. But what I like about it is its great wide breadth of possibility. The great wide spectrum of active and relevant and real faithfulness it makes space for and embraces – as vital and important and meaningful.
Because we know the obvious answers for ‘am I being salt, am I being light, am I giving glory to God in heaven’. Some people made or sent food for the emergency shelter this weekend. All those staffing the shelters, and firefighters, paramedics, search and rescue, first responders, linespeople working to restore power, during this weather event. Neighbours checking in on each other. Nurses, busdrivers, doing extra shifts. We KNOW what service and care for others looks like – people being salt, people being light. And does all that care and service give glory to God in heaven? Of course it does, because it all arises out of Love – and that’s what God is, God is Love.
So we know what the obvious answers are. But “am I giving glory to God in heaven” – it has so much more space in it than that.
Because it can be “yes” on a ramble out at Point Pleasant or in the Public Garden or at Shubie or Hemlock Ravine – just deep breaths out in nature, relishing God’s creation. It can be “yes” just enjoying the view out the window. Or taking pleasure in the abundant creativity of the artists who wrote the book or the music or the tv show we’re sitting down with.
Am I giving glory to God in heaven? It can be “yes” to exercise and to rest; it can be “yes” to taking care of ourselves and to receiving care – our bodies are created, beloved, precious, God made us. So ALL these things give glory to God. And it can be “yes” doing chores or errands that aren’t fun, it can be “yes” making a meal or eating a meal, or chatting on the phone or writing to an MLA. It can be “yes” hobbying or puzzling or daydreaming, because all of these make up the infrastructure of life, and life is a gift of God.
There’s just so much space, it’s not limited to the obvious. There’s just such a breadth of living that “Am I giving glory to God in heaven right now?” identifies for us as ALSO embodying faithfulness and following Jesus’ way, just as surely as Am I being salt, Am I being light.
Because can we ALWAYS be being salt or being light? Maybe not. But can we ALWAYS be giving glory to God in our living? We can.
So as a way of centering and refocussing ourselves on who we’re trying to be as faithful people, “Am I giving glory to God in heaven?” is a real gift of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It’s a beautiful essential shaping question to just randomly ask ourselves in the midst of whatever we’re getting up to.
Or, I suppose, to regularly and purposefully ask ourselves… if we’re the sort of people who like things organized and orderly and predictable. God fortunately being our helper. Amen.