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Members Worth Their Salt

February 6, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, February 5, 2017

Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The community of Christ followers in Antioch, to whom Matthew wrote his gospel, lived in an imperial city that divided people by their ethnos (their nation, language, and culture). Matthew’s small community, however, gathered people together.  In an empire that ruled over many peoples through a strategy of “divide and conquer,” here was a small but powerful sign of resistance; an assembly of people from different, conquered nations who had pledged themselves to one another in the name of Christ, and who were demonstrating and advocating this unusual allegiance to one another’s well-being, far and wide.  They not only stood out because of who they were, but also because of what they did, namely, practicing mercy, peacemaking and perseverance in the pursuit of justice in an inhospitable and unjust world.

Jesus said that those who practice this new way of life are the salt of the earth and a light to the world. John Calvin interestingly argued that “salt” and “light” are not descriptions of what the church is, but what the church is called to do.  We are called to salt a world that is dying and to light a world that lives in shadows.  In other words, Jesus is describing the vocation of God’s people.  Salt was a sign of the covenant way of life in ancient Israel; the Prophet Isaiah describes Israel as a light to all nations (Isaiah 42:6), and announces that our light shall shine only when we confront injustice, practice radical hospitality and demonstrate God’s superabundant generosity.

This has been the church’s vocation in all ages.  One way that Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of Riverside Church in 1930, and Howard Thurman, founding pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Nations in 1944, helped the church carry out its vocation of salting and lighting the world, was to intentionally create interracial Christian congregations here in the United States.  From the beginning, Riverside Church was described as “international, inter-racial, inter-religious”, and the Church for the Fellowship of All Nations was an experiment, testing Thurman’s belief that “experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than experiences which divide them.”[1]

Like Matthew’s community, by their very nature these congregations posed a challenge, as well as a hope, to the broader society of their day.

And here at White Plains Presbyterian we too are a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national congregation, navigating our way in a world where such communities are still too rare, in a world that still fosters division and discrimination, and yet a world hungry for a better, fuller sense of the value of all of its people.

A week ago Friday, President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the US.  Yesterday that ban was overturned by a federal judge in Seattle, Washington.  It will surely be challenged by the administration.  As this news was breaking, I was meeting with the worship and music committee in my office to discuss the liturgical season of Lent that is coming, flowers, memorials, and receiving new members.  Following our meeting Dierdre Lewin and Jackie Copeland and I crossed the street to attend a rally for immigrant and refugee rights that was convened by NYS Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

As I stood in the crowd that filled the Pace Law School’s lawn, I saw people of all ages, ethnicities, and races.  I saw politicians and clergy, labor leaders and teachers, representatives from domestic violence shelters and immigrant rights coalitions.  On the stage were two flags – one of the State of New York, the other, the American flag.  And there was my son, holding that American flag steady as the wind billowed the symbol of our democracy this way and that.  The crowd was filled with signs that read “We all belong!”  “Lady Liberty says welcome!”  “We are all God’s children!”

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I was greeted by Florence McCue from NYSUT – retirees, other clergy, and a number of politicians, many of whom were at our congregation’s 300th anniversary and know what we’re about.  And I thought about our congregation, the diversity of backgrounds that we represent and the unity of love that we endeavor to show toward one another and toward our neighbors.  And I found myself feeling a resurgence of hope.

Like Matthew’s faithful community long ago, we bear witness in this congregation to this hope – for we are a diverse community, united in Christ, demonstrating our love for one another and the world.  We are a community that welcomes everyone who comes through that door back there – or this front door over here – and we recognize every person as a unique child of God.  Each of us with a call.  Each of us called to love one another and our neighbor.  Each of us an irreplaceable member of this family of God. 

Right after this service, during our annual meeting, we will elect women and men to serve as our congregation’s leaders.  And all confirmed members of this church, young and old alike, are eligible to speak and to vote.  Women as well as men hold leadership positions in this congregation. And we believe that God’s spirit anoints women and men to prophesy and preach and serve.  As the Apostle Paul once wrote, in our baptism “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (adapted from Galatians 3:28).

The mission statement of the White Plains Presbyterian Church proclaims: God calls us to be a beacon in the community to draw people into relationship and service with Jesus Christ.  We are called to make a difference in ourselves, our church community and those around us.”  Jesus agrees, saying “you are a city set upon a hill.”

And a “city on a hill cannot be hid.”  What we are – an inter-racial, inter-generational, egalitarian and inclusive community born of God’s love – makes us stand out, draws the notice of the wider society, whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not.  But who we are, we should never hide, warns Jesus. Rather we should shine it all around, to illumine and inspire.  Who we are is a gift to the wider church and to the world. We are Christ’s church.

In just a few moments we are going to invite twelve new members forward to profess their faith and to follow Christ by making commitments to community, conscience and caring. Let us welcome them.

[1] Howard Thurman. Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Wipf  Stick: Eugene Oregon, 1959/2009. p. 24.

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