Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, February 9, 2014
Getting Beyond Ourselves
[Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20]
We are meditating on two metaphors: salt and light. Jesus is not speaking to individuals in this passage but to a community of believers, which for us today means St. Pauls Presbyterian Church. We are called to BE salt and light for the world. That is a tall order to fulfill! Salt is not just a seasoning, but a preservative. Salt pork and country ham are salty, because the salt keeps the meat from becoming rancid when there is no refrigeration. Salt seasons and preserves.
How about light? What is its function? Light illumines, clarifies, and guides people, so that they do not stumble and fall, so they can find their destination. Light warms, nurtures and inspires us, lifting our spirits after periods of cloud and rain. Light enlightens and heals.
Both salt and light are not SELF-SERVING. They exist for their function. When Jesus says we are salt, it is for the earth, not for ourselves. We are light for the whole world, not just for our own closed fellowship. This is a missionary imperative: that is why God put us here in St. Pauls! If we forget that purpose, we have forgotten what is most important about our God-given identity. We are not called to any special status, but to an essential and sorely-needed FUNCTION in our community.
“Salt” has lost some of its punch in our generation, because we don’t use it as much as we once did to preserve food. Many people are even on low sodium diets. Doug Hare, a Bible commentator on Matthew, suggests that we consider ourselves red hot peppers for the world. And he doesn’t mean the “Red Hot Chile Pepper” music group that entertained the Super Bowl crowd! Red peppers wake up the taste buds!
St. Pauls Presbyterian Church has been “salt” and “light” in the past, if you read the history of our church written by Rev. Joel Alvis at the time of our bicentennial. We have been pioneers in caring for this community and improving it; however, we have come upon hard times. Our members are aging, our numbers are diminishing and our identity as a community is hidden in the pines we love so dearly. The beautiful wooden sign on Armfield Street is covered by overgrown tree branches. The brick sign on Old Stage Road has plants that cover up part of the name and numerous have people have asked me what church do you pastor? When I say: St. Pauls Presbyterian Church… they say: “Where’s that?” Is it possible that people in St. Pauls, North Carolina, a town of 2100 people do not have a clue where St. Pauls Presbyterian Church is located? Have we become a mausoleum buried in the Pines?
One of the teachers at the high school asks me to pray for her and to support her when she is going through difficult times. She remarked that St. Pauls Presbyterian Church is off most peoples’ radar in town. We are not known for our “drama” – which is a good thing, but unfortunately, we are not really known for anything at all. If we are salty, we are pretty much sitting in our salt shaker. If we are experiencing the light of Christ here, we seem to have a bushel basket over our heads. We have lost our sense of purpose and function, which is not to “do church” – but to be salt and light in the world.
The Old Testament Lesson is pretty clear and hard-hitting about what the “people of God” are called to do. Isaiah writes: If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” As I see that text it feels strangely like Isaiah speaks directly to St. Pauls.
When I googled the expression: “Getting Beyond Ourselves” – to see what popped up on the Internet, Catherine Marshall’s classic work: Beyond Ourselves was at the top of the list. The idea for her book began in 1943 when she had been very ill with the early symptoms of tuberculosis. As she reflected on that time in her life when she was surrounded by four walls, she wanted to help others who were going through a similar situation of recovering from an illness, a traumatic life event, or depression. She wrote the book for people looking for “something more,” a yearning restlessness for a higher calling. She wrote in Beyond Ourselves that: “The search for God begins at the point of need.” (p.1)
Catherine Marshall was married to the great Peter Marshall, a Scots-American preacher and pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and twice appointed Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 46. His death propelled Catherine into becoming a published author, beginning with her first book, her husband’s biography: A Man Called Peter.
Sadly, the word, “Presbyterian” – is difficult to spell, difficult to pronounce, and difficult to explain. The “word” has become “frozen in time,” rather than “shaken out” into a world of need. And I am not talking about “marketing ourselves” with cups and T-shirts and sweatshirts, but rather recovering our function & calling to be salt and light in a community that needs preservation, seasoning and direction in the 21st century.
I am proud of the Presbyterians showing up at the STEP meetings. Almost every team that has been mobilized in St. Pauls, under the excellent leadership of our new town manager, Mr. J.R. Steigerwald, is made up of Presbyterians who want to improve Main Street, support businesses, begin a community garden and provide education that is accessible for those who need skills for future jobs.
I believe God is knitting us together as a community FOR A PURPOSE, not for our own pleasure. God wants us to be biblically grounded, emotionally healthy, mentally equipped and spiritually WISE & ALIVE… so that we will bring HEALING and LIGHT to this community. I am thrilled that Vivian and Bill Millar have committed themselves to strengthening marriages in our congregation. I am grateful our Mission and Stewardship Ministry Team is facing the challenge of coming up with a Comprehensive Endowment Program for our congregation to extend our ministry and witness into the future. They are grabbing the bull by the horns, rather than chasing after its tail.
I am proud of our Member Care Committee’s taking seriously the needs of our elderly and shut-ins. They are sending birthday cards, baking cakes, making visits and encouraging members who are homebound.
We ALL have a calling and a purpose not just to be here on a Sunday mornings, but to integrate our callings and purposes into what we do every day. We also NEED everyone on board. I pray with all my heart that when you come to lunch this afternoon, you will not just come to feed yourself, but to explore how you can begin feeding others, by joining a TEAM today. Put your name on a piece of paper that says: Education and Member Care, Mission and Stewardship or Worship, Administration, Building and Grounds. Show up at the table that says: 175th Homecoming Planning Committee.
A few weeks back I asked you what you wanted and needed from our church in the coming year. Let me share a few of your suggestions: 1) I would like for more of our church members to visit our church’s shut-ins. 2) I would like to see us fix up the playground area by pouring a concrete pad and putting in a permanent shelter. The shelter would give protection from the sun with permanent seating. 3) A sprinkler system to get the grass reestablished. 4) I would like to see some public service projects, by setting aside a day each month to help the elderly or poor with home projects or yard work, clean up a run down area of our town or maybe a food or clothing drive with a rest home. 5) Some fun church outings or retreats, like a day outdoors hiking, rafting, picnicking. 6) New music and worship styles to appeal to the younger generation. 7) I want our church to discover our true mission. 8) I need spiritual and intellectual stimulation through Sunday school or a book club. 9) I want us to be welcoming and God-centered. 10) I would like to see a fundraising project in the spring to raise money and awareness of the church. 11) I would like more presentations like the one we had by the missionaries from Bangladesh. 12) I want the church to welcome groups such as AA, ESL, parenting classes, elder care support, knitting, quilting, creative writing, Spanish and more. 13) I want to help our partner, Monte de los Olivos, build a church! I thank each person who offered their vision of what is needed in our faith community.
On the note card in your bulletin, I want you to write down how you want to FUNCTION this year, how you feel called to be “salt” or “light” in a tangible way. Our gifts are all different, but we all have gifts to give. Are you ready to make that commitment? If so, DO SIGN your name and put that card in the offering plate and make sure you also sign up and let the members of our Ministry Teams know that you are on board. What are you doing in this community of faith that is NOT simply for your own benefit? How are you getting beyond yourself?
The Lord Jesus Christ is re-creating us, so we can be “God’s re-creation” of the new day, as we sang in our Introit. If we pour ourselves out for God’s glory, joy is our reward! The Church of Scotland approved the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1648 and the very first question, which many of our older members surely memorized as children, is this:
What is the chief end of people? The answer is simple: to glorify God and enjoy God forever! Our purpose as a church is to bring God glory & and enjoy ourselves in the process! Who could want anything more? Did you know, we can’t out give God? The more we give without expectation of reward or thanks, the more our joy overflows! That’s the truth. Let’s try it and see what happens! Right out there beyond ourselves is a stream of living water where abundant life grows, where joy bubbles up from the earth below, where we become instruments of God’s amazing grace! Let us pray.