Sermon
August 25, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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Sermon: The Salt Shaker and the Candle

I can never read the passage from Romans which we read this morning without thinking of a story told by Garrison Keillor in his News from Lake Wobegon. It also shows up near the end of his book "Leaving Home" as he makes one last trip up to Lake Woebegon before heading off to Copenhagen. He stops by the family home, but the family is not there. Let me read a little:

I drove over to Aunt Flo's to look for them and got caught in Sunday morning rush hour. It was Confirmation Sunday at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. Thirteen young people had their faith confirmed and were admitted to the circle of believers

Pastor Ingqvist asked them all the deepest questions about the faith (questions that have troubled theologians for years), which these young people answered readily from memory and then partook of their first communion. Later they lounged around on the front steps and asked each other, "Were you scared?" and said, "No, I really wasn't, not as much as I thought I'd be," and went home to eat chuck roast, and some of them had their first real cup of coffee. They found it to be a bitter oily drink that makes you dizzy and sick to your stomach, but they were Lutherans now and that's what Lutherans drink.

The Tolleruds, for example, drank gallons of coffee on Sunday. Church had been two hours long, the regular service plus confirmation, and Lutherans don't have the opportunity to stand up and kneel down and get exercise that you find elsewhere, so everyone was stiff and dopey, and the Tolleruds, when they sit around and visit, are all so quiet and agreeable they get drowsy, so they drink plenty of coffee.

The Tolleruds gathered for pot roast because Daryl and Marilyn's daughter Lois was confirmed. She sat at the head of the table, next to her dad, promoted from the children's table out in the kitchen. She is quieter than she used to be, a tall shy girl with long brown hair she has learned to tie in an elegant bun, and creamy skin that she keeps beautiful by frequent blushing, which is good for the circulation and makes her lovelier whenever she is admired.

A boy who has sat silently across from her in geometry since September has written her a twenty-seven page letter in small print telling her how he feels about her: he thinks God has written their names together in the Book of Love. But she wasn't thinking about him Sunday ? she was blushing to see her Confirmation cake with the Scripture verse inscribed in blue frosting: "Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

It was a large cake, and Marilyn used the extra fine nozzle on the frosting gun ? there it sat, lit with birthday candles, and Lois didn't know how to tell them that she wasn't sure that she believed in God. She was pretty sure that she might've lost her faith.

She thought she might've lost it on Friday night or sometime Saturday morning, she wasn't sure. She didn't mention it at that time because she thought she might get it back.

Poor Lois - here she is confronted at a young age with a celebration at her mastery of the mystery of faith, and yet she is just becoming aware that her life is a work in progress - that some of the things that she thought she always knew, that her family held near and dear to the core of their identity, some of these things were beginning to lose their hold on her and she was indeed being transformed, but not in any way the icing on her cake might foretell. How could she hold on to the mysteries of faith when her own life was becoming a mystery to her?

This morning we celebrated the sacrament of baptism - a sacrament of welcome for new members in our family of faith. We hope for them the power of transformation that Paul hoped for the Romans and the Tolleruds hoped for Lois: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And yet, that transformation is only one part of the dynamic of our faith journey. There is a second force at work, the force of knowing who you are and where you came from - a strength of stability that was expressed in our call to worship this morning -
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;

Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were dug - here is an image not of transformation, but of dependability, of something given to us that is constant and resists change even under the most adverse conditions.

These are the two poles of spiritual energy that hold the tightrope of our life as we try and make our way without falling. On one side we feel the pull of being our parent's children, a member of a family, enjoying the security of what is familiar and being true to our past; on the other side is the pull of leaving home, striking out on an adventure, being on our own, being open to a yet unknown future.

This is the tension of a spiritual journey. Lois, it seems, had been taught a faith that consisted of memorizing set answers to pre-determined questions. Faith, as it was explained to her, was an ever growing sense of certainty, a rock on which she could stand, an anchor to keep her safe in the stormy weather. Faith as an adventure, as a transformation, might have been inscribed on her cake, but its first stirrings in that way were deeply unsettling to her and seemed to be more a loss of faith than a step forward in her journey.

The tension that a person of faith has to live with is expressed in two sayings of Jesus and two symbols that have arisen from those sayings. The sayings are found one right after the other in the Sermon on the Mount, and the symbols are both used in ancient liturgies of baptism.

We read in Matthew 5:13-15 that Jesus says: "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.

Now because we have long heard these two sayings side by side, we might think that they say basically the same thing. But let's look closely - salt is hewn from the quarry or gathered from the sea. It is a basic element of life that keeps its essential nature no matter what you do with it - it can be ground up, mixed up, boiled, bottled, baked and its saltiness will let you know it's there. In fact, if you want to preserve something that is highly perishable, especially in the days before refrigeration, you salt it. Salt doesn't change.

Light, on the other hand, is all about change: you take oil or wax and add a wick and put a match to it and suddenly there is this miraculous blaze of transformation; Light is the visible sign of something that was becoming something new - and without that process in place, the light goes out and we plunge back into darkness.

So being the salt of the earth and being the light of the world are really quite different and to hold them together in a life of faith is quite a challenge.

But holding them together is what we are called to do in Christ. And this can be seen in the symbolism of baptism.

In the more liturgical traditions of the church, both salt and light are symbols involved in the sacrament of baptism. As with most rituals, our congregational forbearers had a very back to basics outlook on the sacraments, so we do not make the sign of the cross and bless the ears, the eyes, and the nostrils in baptism - we do not anoint with oil, nor do we place salt on the tongue or provide the newly baptized Christian with a special candle that has been lit from new fire started with flint on stone at Saturday midnight outside a sanctuary full of worshippers waiting in the dark to celebrate the coming of Easter.

Yet these liturgies, rituals, and symbols are part of our heritage and they still have a story to tell - in this case the story of the salt shaker and the candle stick.

You are the salt of the earth - you are to be down to earth, constant, patient, and dependable. You will honor your father and your mother; you will study and learn the wisdom of your elders. You will know what to value and what to hold on to with all your might. You will never lose touch with the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were dug. That is the story of the salt shaker - that is the character of faith.

And yet, you are the light of the world, a burning flame of change, new and unique, following the road less taken, marching to a different drummer, putting your hand to the plow and not looking back; not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect. That is the story of the candle, and that too is the character of faith.

T. S. Eliot has some often quoted lines that speak to the 'hard to pin down' nature of this journey of faith. He wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

That is a truth we all face as adults on a pilgrimage of faith. And, on top of that, there is another truth we face when we bring children into this world and present before God in baptism - that we bring them up to leave home.

Yes, we want them to know the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug, but we also face the task of sending them out to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. We baptize them, we bless them, we try and give them good roots and do our best to prepare them, but then - it's time to cut the cake and celebrate their next steps and send them on their journey with their own supply of salt, a well-lighted candle, and a whole lot of faith and prayer.
Amen.

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