Signs of Life

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on January 25, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 5:13-14

Let us pray:

Living God,
Sometimes vital signs are faint,
And we can’t see seedlings beginning to sprout.
Give us your creative vision for the world,
That we may participate in its restoration.


I have a notoriously bad memory. No, I’m serious. I’m known around our house for losing things in less than 12 hours. It’s like a résumé-worthy skill or something. But I remember really random things; stupid facts and things that would only serve you well in bar trivia.

And I remember very little from my childhood; just bits and pieces. But I do remember liking 4th grade. Must have been a good year for me.

In particular, I remember liking 4th grade science class. Do y’all remember the experiment that we use to do where we’d poke some toothpicks around a potato and balance it on the lip of a cup with half of the potato submerged in water? And then we’d take the whole potato-in-a-cup apparatus and set it on the window sill and a couple of weeks later, you’d start to see little roots poking out?

That’s one of the images that comes to my mind when I think of the phrase “signs of life.” Roots.

Because after a while of sitting in the window, the roots start growing into this elaborate system of nourishment. You know about root systems, right? That the systems themselves are oftentimes more extensive than the plant they’re supporting? Sometimes the visible signs of life are only a fraction of what’s actually going on under the surface.

That’s what I think about this place, about Luther Memorial, too. We have got some vibrant signs of life, y’all, that’s for sure. And the root system we have supporting this shared life together is immense and extensive. I think about our One Stop Wednesdays. We have a tremendous set of ministries that happen here on Wednesday night, but we coalesce, we come together, we gather, around a meal. And yet, these things, these ministries, don’t happen on their own. There’s a tremendous amount of coordination, and planning, and volunteering that goes on that we might not often see. Our phenomenal group of volunteer chefs, coordinating and planning and cooking to ensure that all who come to our table are fed, and no one is turned away without enough. Our ministry staff, spending hours of planning each week to ensure that our choirs, and handbells, and Confirmation students, and youth, and everyone else who wants to be involved are not only contributing in a deeply meaningful way, but are also being formed—formed to be a more faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our neighborhood, in our places of work, in our city, our country, and our world.

In our Gospel today, Jesus uses a couple of different images to talk about the signs of life and vitality of the earliest faith communities. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
Declarative assertions that those who follow in the particular, if sometimes difficult, way of Jesus are to be a certain way in the world.

I think most people here have heard the explanation of biblical saltiness that salt was used as a preservative, and so by calling the people salt, Jesus was saying that the people were to be preservers of this counter-cultural, subversive way of living. This is certainly true and is a very worthy thing to hold on to, but, even though I wasn’t exactly planning on preaching this morning, in reading this week, I came across something interesting. That salt, in ancient times, was also used as a trade mechanism, and in sacrifices.

In the time of Moses, salt was to be added to sacrifices to signify the purity and holiness of the sacrifice, and also to symbolize the meal-like quality of these sacrifices. It’s a striking relationship, I think, between salt and sacrifice. Especially on this Sunday, when we’re holding our Congregational Meeting after worship today, when we celebrate all the ministry that’s happened over the past year, and discern the vision for ministry that God is calling us to in the future.

It might suggest to us that there’s something sacrificial about ministry together…

Joint ministry requires us to give up our false self, our ego…to quote and steal Pastor Tim’s theo-crush, Father Richard Rohr, that bald and beautiful New Mexican-desert-dwelling monastic. Joint ministry means sacrificing the idea that only we can do it, that only we know how to do it best, and that only we are the ones that should benefit from our work. I think joint ministry is, at its base, a sacrificing of our selves, our time, and our possessions…all for the sake of the redeeming and transforming of the shared world we all inhabit.

And salt, as a mechanism of trade, was a precious resource, it was highly-prized, and was even sometimes used as currency. Roman soldiers were occasionally paid in salt.

It’s curious then…that Jesus would liken us, and all people of the kingdom of God, to an economic principle…

But it’s no mistake. See, here’s the thing…we…are God’s currency.

We are the exchange units God uses to conduct God’s business of reconciling the world.
We are the way in which God’s reign of justice and love and peace gets transacted.

And we have agency and a role to play in bringing it about.

Dear friends, we are the vessels through which God brings God’s grace and mercy and love to the entire world.

And how that looks is what we discern together.

And so, people of God…people of Luther Memorial…as we look forward to our congregational meeting…as we give thanks for the ways God has blessed our community…as we collectively discern God’s creative vision for us for the future…

Let us be mindful of the place and space in which we are rooted.
Let us endeavor to illumine the places in our world that have gone dark.
Let us strive to add flavor to the places in world that have gone bland.

And, most of all, let us commit to celebrating the signs of life already present, to seeking out how to be signs of life in new ways, and to embodying these vibrant and renewing signs of life in our world.


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