- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: I Peter 2:9-17, Matthew 5:13-16
Salty days and starry nights. In harvest season our farm was a lively place. There were always extra “hired men” to haul bundles and “hired girls” to help with cooking. Young boys like myself were confined to the grain wagons, safely out of harm’s way and with our own chore of keeping the load leveled. During the day there was always a crossing breeze at the threshing site, and the chaff would fill our shoes, our cuffs, and our shirt collars.
The August sun always seemed to burn especially bright in harvest season, reaching 90-degrees on what seemed then to be frequent occasions. It was hot and hard and dirty work all the livelong day. To maintain good health one needed to sweat, because if our systems failed, folks fainted dead away in what we called heat prostration. Since an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, there were always salt tablets by the water jug. At day’s end our shirt collars, and scoop shovel and pitchfork handles carried the gray residue of salt that had done its job of cleansing the body and sustaining our strength, strength needed to do hard work.
When we finished a field or wound up the harvest we would often gather at sundown around the back step by the big box elder tree. Dad would bring home from town an ice-cold watermelon and we would have a celebration. As the celebration wound down we lay on the grass and looked at the stars, calling out the constellations and venturing our dreams. Those starry nights of celebration were a time of joy, of thanks and of anticipation. Such were the salty days and starry nights in the harvest times of my youth.
Each of us needs salt and light in the harvest times of our lives. For many there is a harvest of want. Our economy booms but, according to economist Andrew Hacker, the United States is a nation that “has a greater percentage of its citizens in prisons or on the streets, and more neglected children than any other advanced nation.”
There is the harvest of separation. We are an increasingly diverse nation in which the walls of separation grow higher, accompanied by meanness of spirit. As President Clinton pointed out at the recent commemoration of the integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas schools, “while segregation is no longer the law, too often segregation is still the rule.”
We also experience the harvest of moral ambiguity. Indeed, the lines have become blurred even among the best and the brightest. In a survey of young people named to “Who’s Who Among American High School Students,” 70 percent acknowledged that they had cheated in school and most said it was “no big deal.” According to a national survey by the American Board of Family Practice, the young are not “happy campers:” three of four teenagers believe the world their parents lived in was better than the one in which they live; half believe the world their children will inherit will be worse than the world in which they are now living; three of four believe environmental pollution will affect the health of everyone; six of ten expect someone in their family to be a victim of crime; and six of ten expect someone in their family will get AIDS.
In this age of highly tuned technology we have extended life and made living more comfortable to the point of forgetting the tragic and the unpredictable. Then there is the irony of the Mir spacecraft’s disenabling, the unpredictability of human relationships, and the unplanned reality of cancer. It reminds one of the age-old question, “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” Such is the harvest of the lives we live out one by one. There is sweat in our harvest time, darkness in its nights, but we still need salt and light.
We need salt and light in the harvest times of our communities. Michael J. Sandel, writing about “democracy’s discontent,” observed that despite our affluence our common life is beset by anxiety and frustration. We are, increasingly, surrounded by bureaucracies that require us to fill out forms and be in compliance; by care providers that seem driven more by the hard-edged economics of a distant insurance company than the reality of our needs; by service providers who bombard us with promises and then serve us with conditions; by churches that are strong on symbols but weak on connections; by schools that are expected to do more than is reasonable with less than is necessary; by political representatives who may be compromised by deep pockets and a public discourse which is increasingly discordant. As Sandel sees it, there are two sources of our discontent — one is the fear that we are losing control of the forces that shape our lives and the other is the sense that “the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.” Whatever your take on the state of community in America, there is sweat in our harvest time and darkness in our nights, and we need salt and we need light.
It’s also harvest time for the church. In the faith community we are a church living with the challenges of religious pluralism — we are no longer the only game in town. Beyond the faith community we are a church living in a post-Christian era facing the challenge of connecting with a society that increasingly regards us as harmless, powerless or irrelevant. Thus we face the twin temptations of becoming remnant communities on the one hand or, on the other, clones of the secular society, offering help but not holiness.
We are a church facing a harvest of ignorance. George Gallup, in a survey of young people found that only 35 percent could name all four Gospels, 44 percent did not know how many disciples Jesus had, and 29 percent did not know the religious event associated with Easter. In this harvest time, there are estimated to be 120 million non-Christians in this land. Perhaps that is why churches in Africa — churches that are growing by leaps and bounds — are sending thousands of missionaries abroad, including to our own United States. Yes, it’s harvest season for the church and we are in need of salt and light.
It’s also harvest time for the colleges and universities of our land. By the middle of this century rationalism had marginalized religious study at most colleges and universities, including many of those established by the church. The intellectual credo of the 1960’s and ’70s was that, if you couldn’t weigh or measure or quantify a thing, it was nonsense. The goal of enlightenment theology was to free ourselves from dogma and tradition by practicing the virtues of “skepticism, tolerance, and individual freedom.” All of which led educator Anthony B. Robinson to conclude that the modern academic project was “far more successful in dismantling the tradition than in rebuilding or sustaining lives and communities of faith.” Yes, it’s harvest time for colleges and universities of the land. It’s a time of change and sweat and challenge, and it’s time for salt and light.
Our texts today proclaim that there is salt and light. Salt cleanses and heals, preserves and seasons. Jesus made the sacrifice to cleanse. He reaches out to us in grace to heal, He has given us His word to season our lives, and He sends His spirit to preserve us in the faith. What difference does it make? Well, in Peter’s words, this makes us a holy nation, a chosen race, a royal priesthood. He says, “Once we were no people, now we are God’s people. Once we had not received mercy, now we have received mercy.”
How can one improve on such words of proclamation? Christ is salt for us and we are changed. No more guilt, we are cleansed by the salt of the Gospel. No more sicknesses, we are healed by the salt of redemption. No more dullness of life, for we are seasoned by the salt of the word. And no more despair in our discipleship, for God has sent the salt of His spirit to preserve us in the faith.
There is light for our journeys. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. “We have been called out of darkness into His wonderful light.” This is the message that we have heard. This is the God who entered the dark places and conquered them. This is “the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is the news that Jesus and the disciples brought to people of many tribes and colors and nations. They made it a point to say and demonstrate that salt and light were not for people who already had it all together, but for people struggling with harvest seasons just like you and me. And, most important, they assured us that this salt and this light shall endure. This salt will never slake, and this light shall not be overcome by the darkness.
We have salt and light and we are called to be what we are, people of salt and light. We have literally been salted down and lit up! So we may be salty and light-giving people. The Gospel and Epistle lessons develop these themes. We are not to hoard the salt or it will lose its power, it will become slack. We are not to put the light under a bushel basket, for not only will it not be seen, it will go out for lack of oxygen.
What happens when we take salt and light into the harvest fields? The Apostle Peter was in the field with flesh and blood harvest hands like you and me. His counsel was very straightforward: mind your personal morals, he said, lest you lose your soul; conduct yourself in a neighborly way with Gentiles, that is with strangers — with people who don’t share your faith or your view of life; and be subject, he said, to the emperor and every human institution. Now that takes a little interpretation. Peter was saying don’t isolate yourselves or be obstinate about life in the community. Be a good citizen, he was saying, and in our day, as citizens of a democracy, that means something a good deal different than it would have meant in the first century. Finally Peter said, live as free people and use that freedom to live fully as servants of God. This was Peter’s counsel to people who had already passed out of death and into life, people in their harvest season, people who were about the ministry of salt and light.
So we stand in the harvest fields of our lives called to be what we already are, people of salt and light. And what would a salty, light-filled person be like in the harvest fields of our time and place? Well, in the first place, we would make sure that we are getting steady doses of salt and light. That means staying close to the Word, being renewed by the sacraments and the discipline of prayer, and being found in the fellowship of believers.
For parents it means modeling for our children and grandchildren. While from one perspective families are one of the casualties of our culture, from another perspective they are its strength. We see it in the families of our students, the intimacy, the encouragement and the pride. Modeling parents ground their children in a sustaining faith and durable values. James Wall wrote in “Christian Century,” “When God drafted the Ten Commandments, He didn’t conduct a market survey to see what people wanted. He
saw what was essential to the preservation of the human community and its connection with Him, and He set up the standards.” There is wisdom for parents of every age.
In this new multi-culture that is America, there is potential for either joy or despair — joy if we find a way to respect our differences and find our bonding unity, despair if we emphasize our differences and ignore our common humanity. What Pope John Paul II brought to the United Nations is sanguine in this matter. He said:
“We must overcome our fear of the future, but we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do it together. The answer to that ‘fear’ is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer is a common effort to build a civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty.”
There is a harvest out there and it beckons salty people, people of light. It isn’t easy going; it’s more often hard work. Ask Dr. Jeremy Torstveit, Class of 1969, a world-renowned heart surgeon who, through the Children’s Heart Project, shares his gift with children who otherwise would not have a chance. Or ask last year’s Cobber royalty, Kristi Rendahl, serving in the Peace Corps in Armenia, or Ben Snell, serving with Youth Encounter Ministry in the Midwest and West Africa. Or consider the four recipients of this year’s Alumni Achievement Awards, all examples of the Gospel mission, living out their saltiness and sharing their light.
There is a harvest out there for the community of faith. And what should a salty, light-giving church look and act like in this harvest season? I believe the highlight of the recently completed assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was approval of a commitment to seven initiatives for the 21st century. They call on us to deepen worship life, to teach the faith, to witness God’s action in the world, to strengthen one another in mission, to help children, to connect with youth and young adults, and to develop leaders. It is an agenda consistent with the Gospel mission -- it is a salt and light agenda. As Stephen Carter, the distinguished Yale law professor tells us, we should not keep our religious ideals to ourselves. Ours is a society in need of soul, a people in need of character, a civilization seeking justice and we have the Gospel Word, so let this church be salt and light to the nations.
What will a salt and light filled college look like in this harvest season? At a time when church and society and especially young adults are less clear about our faith tradition? We are committed to the salt and light tasks of communicating that tradition so that students, in turn, may be both thoughtful and informed. As the attack upon scholarship grounded in faith now subsides, this college is in the forefront articulating the connections between faith and learning, connections that bring into conversation the life of the mind and the life of faith.
In a period of academic deconstruction when some scholars evoke pessimism and dismiss the possibility of any grounding for truth, in such times we affirm with good argument and confident spirit, the ground of our hope, the Christ who is Lord of all, the God who is salt and light. In a time of ambivalence about academic standards, we reaffirm the calling of scholarship on this campus. There is no room for intellectual sloth among people called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind. In a time when the popular arts often doggerelize culture, profane the language and pollute the human spirit, in such times we cultivate the traditions of sacred song and verse, traditions that reveal the life-giver, give expression to human need, and inspire the vision of a peaceable kingdom. Thus, we shall be salt and light.
My friends, the field is white unto harvest. And it is sweaty business in a dusky time. But don’t worry about the sweat, for there is plenty of salt. And don’t worry about the dark, for Jesus will light the way. Live in the hope of the Gospel, for you are a holy nation, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and God’s own people.
So salty days and starry nights — God be with you always. Amen.