Who Do We Think We Are?
It was a question lifted among friends, which hovered over and above and around us, as we came together in different places over the past week.
Who do we think we are? A preacher, chaplain, writer, teacher, and activist – all women, some mothers, all struggling to find words in the aftermath of violence upon violence. All feeling we should say something, but struck dumb, struck numb.
As I was preparing this sermon, I came across an old article in Christian Reflection – it began in this way: “Mass shootings have a ‘here-we-go-again’ feel about them in our society…. We learn intimate details about the victims, the perpetrators are scrutinized, public soul-searchers consider how this tragedy might have been avoided, and memorial services are observed. Then attention moves away and we await the next shooting.” That article was written 14 years ago, which is maddening.
So here we were, public soul-searchers, wondering: who do we think we are – to have any words at all that don’t now sound trite, to have any answers that are not meaningless, to have anything at all to offer? What action could we take that would be of any worth, from our own small corner of the world?
But at the same time, who do we think we are to contemplate sitting in the luxury of silence? To allow numbness to keep us quiet? How long before something must be said? How long before something must be done?
The questions stayed with me, even as we received more news as the hours and days ticked by, even as I had hard conversations and shared tears with my second-grade daughter.
Who do we think we are?
And that is the moment in which I was asked to preach, and so here we are together, in this space both physical and virtual, exploring, struggling, questioning, lamenting. The together part matters, and for that I am deeply grateful.
Whatever other identities we – not just those of us here, but we all - claim, there is one that we have all bought into together: we are not enough.
This is the central lie, the lie around which all the other lies revolve. It is the lie that draws us away from God, into sin, away from love, pitting us against one another, causing us to see the world as a warehouse, causing us to see fellow humans as means to an end, assigning us value only according to our productivity, our social status, our amassed belongings, our superior intellect, our credentials – whatever it may be that we have been told will give us worth. It is the lie that obscures our truest selves and keeps us from our truest potential.
We are not enough.
Once upon a time, so Genesis tells us, we lived in a garden and walked with God. We were part of creation, tasked with taking care of all that surrounded us, and given as companions to one another. Everything we needed was within our reach.
And then we heard the lie. In the story as we know it, it is the serpent who tells it. “You could be more…” And we believed it. And we gave up everything in the quest for more-ness. We gave up everything, believing that everything was not enough.
And the God who created us with such tenderness and with such love, and who provided for us so completely, and who gave us our first identities as those who come from and take care of the earth, and those who help and accompany one another, was betrayed, and devastated.
And God kicked us out. God placed the curses of inequality and relentless productivity upon us. And we forgot. We lived as though the curse was God’s intention. We forgot the garden and believed the lie.
Who do we think we are?
Disoriented and confused, we could not find our way home, despite God calling us there. God gave us law to help us, sent prophets and poets and priests to guide us, but we were just so far gone.
And so God came for us Godself – God’s own self took on flesh, and came for us through boundaries of space and time and belief and wonder and suffering and shame, to show us the way home.
This is the God who taught us, spoke to us, preached to us, whose words still echo and guide us.
The Gospel lesson today is situated within the Sermon on the Mount.
To understand what this lesson might mean, we need to understand something of the context.
Perhaps this sermon was preached all at once. Perhaps, as many say, it is more likely a compilation of different sermons preached over time. We’re okay either way, I promise. And either way, it is presented as the core of Christ’s teachings, and look where Matthew locates him as he teaches.
He is not in the temple. He is not in a synagogue. He is in the open, accessible to all people – good religious types, people on the margins of the faith, people not of the faith at all. He can be heard by anyone who happens by. These core teachings of Christ are not reserved for those who can gain access through their social standing or their religious purity. They are for all people who are willing to hear.
The text says “he saw the crowds.” Who exactly did he see? The sick, the suffering, the afflicted, and their companions and loved ones, but also the religious leaders who would show up to challenge him – that was the crowd that followed him.
And he sat down to teach, and his disciples came to learn. Now, the twelve had not yet been named. These disciples were simply those following him, who came to learn, who wanted to hear. So, any of them from among the crowd. Any of the ones who would not be able to join him in the temple. Any of them who would not have been welcomed into the synagogue. Any of them who would feel out of place in our churches, unprepared for our Bible studies, left out of our good Christian circles – we are not off the hook for this just because our context comes along a couple of millennia later.
These are the ones to whom Jesus spoke, and the first thing they heard him say was that they were blessed. Not that they could be blessed. Not that they would be blessed. There were no ifs or buts involved. They were blessed, as they were, where they were.
Imagine how their lives were turned upside down by this news. Who did they think they were? Not enough, surely. That’s what the world had been telling them.
But Jesus called them blessed. He gave them a new identity – or, more accurately, returned to them their original identity. AJ Levine says that “the Sermon on the Mount assures us that we are wondrous creatures with unlimited potential [and that] we already have the gifts needed to live into the kingdom of heaven.” What a beautiful contradiction to what the crowd had been taught! What a beautiful contradiction to what we have been taught.
And then he says to them: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
And it is so easy for us, today, to misunderstand. We have salt shakers on our tables, tiny packets of salt that come with takeout orders, boxes of salt on grocery store shelves, entire bags of salt to prevent us from sliding on ice. We have light switches in every room, lamps on every desk, flashlights, headlights, chandeliers, street lights. We have no shortage of salt or of light.
But when Jesus spoke, these were valuable commodities. You would not use salt carelessly or burn lamp oil carelessly – not unless you were making a point of your wealth. Salt and light were precious.
Salt is not rare, but it is valuable. And, importantly, it is no good on its own. It has healing qualities, it enhances flavor, it delays decay – but if it just sits without being used, it has no point. To be salt is to be in the service of the world. Eberhold Arnold said “Our mission on behalf of the kingdom is to be the salt of the earth: to stem its injustice, prevent its decay, and hinder its death.” Such an important mission for a people who supposedly are not enough!
Light, once the sun goes down, is only available when something of value is used to create it. The world of Jesus’s day was far, far darker than it is now. But as valuable as it is, it cannot be hoarded. It is of no good to anyone, including the one who ignites it, if it is covered. Like salt, it exists for the world – illuminating danger, obstacles, and injustices – bringing what is hidden out to be seen.
As salt and as light, not only are we precious and valuable – we have a gift to give. We have a contribution, a place at the table, a crucial role in the kingdom of God on earth. We are needed, and we are here on purpose.
Who do we think we are?
And you see, this is why the lie is so powerful. If we believe we are not enough – we can be persuaded to put our energy into becoming enough, whatever that means – and it is a moving target. We can be convinced that our saltiness and our brightness are of no use to anyone, and focus instead on what we can produce, what we can own, what power we can gain. And we forget who we are, and we lose sight of the kingdom. We become reckless, with our own lives and with the lives of others. We worship at the altars of status, possession, and violence. And then we are shocked when we gain nothing but pain, anxiety, anguish, and grief.
But we, here, know something different. We do. See, Jesus didn’t command them to become salt and light. He didn’t try to persuade or convince them – us – to become salt and light. He told them that’s what they were. He tells us that is who we are. That distinction matters. We cannot strive to become salt. We cannot achieve light. We already are those things, like it or not. It is part of our spiritual DNA, part of being made in the image of God. We can’t shake it.
I think sometimes that believing in Christ, as counterintuitive as it is, is easier than simply believing the teachings of Christ. But if we could hear and internalize the words, even only the few we are discussing today, imagine what a different world we could be partnering to create.
From Arnold, again – and know that he was writing this in Germany between WWI and WWII:
“Not a single area of life should remain unaffected by this salt and this light. There is no responsibility in public life, including economics and politics, from which the city on the hill may remain aloof. Nowhere should the poison of decay be allowed to set in without being counteracted by salt. No wickedness must be allowed to lurk in the dark. The light must scare away the horrors of night. The icy, deadly breath of hate or coldness of heart cannot take full possession of this earth so long as the warm love of Christ’s light is not taken from it.”
We are not voiceless. We are not useless. We are not helpless. Even in the face of unimaginable violence and death, we do not lose our core identity, and all is not lost. As long as we have breath, we have purpose.
No matter how small we may think our actions are, they matter. One candle can be seen from a tremendous distance on a pitch-black night. The tiniest amount of salt makes a huge difference.
We are blessed beyond measure – remember, “wondrous creatures with unlimited potential” - and we are made to be a blessing to others.
It’s who we are.
The lie was not only told once. It is told every day, all day. We are told we aren’t enough, we don’t have enough, we don’t make enough, we don’t do enough. But a lie only has power if we believe it.
All of the creator-given, Christ-proclaimed identities that we find throughout our holy texts: companions, stewards, branches, friends, children and heirs, new creations – they all lead us back to love. Christ’s ambassadors, Christ’s disciples, those who are willing to hear and learn and act – are ambassadors of love. We draw our strength from the heart of God, and in so doing we are never doing the good work of love alone.
My friends, who do we know we are?
We are salt. We are light. We are both blessed and a blessing. We are valuable, gifted, called, and crucial to the unfolding of God’s work on earth. Anything that tells us otherwise is a lie.
I offer you the same words my 8 year old daughter and I say to each other each night, in the hopes that they sink in and we remember them no matter what comes our way:
“You are blessed. You are a blessing. I am thankful for you.”
Let us believe it. And when we don’t, may we be reminded of it.
Be salt. Be light. It is who we are.