A canceled worship service

Post 3/2023 Sunday 5 February . . . I was slated to give the sermon (adapted following) today at worship services for residents in Greencroft Healthcare and Evergreen Place Assisted Living. Covid-19 precautions meant the service was canceled in Healthcare, as well as in Assisted Living since the roof of the chapel there needs fixin’, Some residents may tune in to the blog via computer.

No photos. Sorry. I’m having difficulty transferring them from my photo files, with no one at hand to help me get the ox out of the ditch.

So, here’s an adapted version of the sermon, based on the text from Matthew 5:13-20.

Please pass the salt

A friend from college, Harold Neufeld, is writing a book about the life and times of the small village in Ukraine where his father was born. In a Christmas note he wrote: “It’s historical fiction based largely on diaries and interviews with folks who lived there between the village’s founding in the 1860s and its collapse in about 1930 after WW I, the revolution and the Civil war. The region is at the epicenter of the current conflicts between Ukraine and Russia.”

In the long view, past, present and future are a melding together of loss and gain, sadness and joy, despair and hope, fear and faith, war and peace. Out of the conflicts that beset communities, nations, the world, God offers a way to make things right. God promises to be with us, within us, beyond us, in good times and bad including those most directly affected by the devasting assault on Ukraine.

In the midst of what is happening in Ukraine, and elsewhere, we know God’s overall purpose is to season the world with salt and light, to be followers who share their faith and live lives that reflect Christ’s teachings and example of love and good works.

Even so, the chaos evident in Ukraine is almost so unbelievable that we may wonder where God is in the middle of it all. I’m guessing Harold’s book will trace both the plight, the errors and the faithfulness of God’s people who lived there, those who left, those who stayed and those whose descendants live there now.

One of the areas of conflict in Ukraine is the city of Soledar. Soledar is located in the Bakhmut municipality in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. The city is home to the Soledar Salt Mines.

The mines are vast, with 125 miles of tunnels. The largest chamber has accommodated soccer matches and in October 2004, the Donetsk Symphony Orchestra.

A month ago, on January 5, 2023, the Russian Armed Forces and a mercenary force took parts of Soledar’s east, forcing the Armed Forces of Ukraine to step back and take up defenses farther west in the central parts of Soledar. On January 10 pro-Russian outlets claimed the mines were largely occupied by Russian and mercenary Forces.

“You are the salt of the earth;” says the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew (chapter 5 verse:13). It’s a declarative sentence, stating a fact that’s true of those who follow Jesus. The crowd listening to Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount hears Jesus state that people who follow him are the “salt of the earth.”

“What does that mean?” I’m supposing listeners on that hillside were asking themselves. They would have known the precious physical preservative powers of salt. They would have known that if salt had lost its savor, it was no longer be fit for purpose and would be good for nothing but to be discarded.

Imagine the questions that a listener would have had: How really am I like salt? Did I hear Jesus properly? Did Jesus say that symbolically, if anyone listening to his sermon was like salt that had lost its taste, they were good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot?

No, Jesus was making a factual point. Jesus was preaching that salt of the earth people add taste, preserve, purify, season the world with love and good deeds.

Who me, salt? Yes. Even on a low salt diet, you and I are salt that seasons actions and speech. Salt that speaks words with wisdom and grace. Salt that is palatable, adding flavor to the world about. Salt that tastes of God’s goodness and blessing. Salt that seasons the world with love. We, sources of spiritual nourishment for others, adding flavor to the world around.

The next words Jesus speaks form another declarative sentence: “You are the light of the world.” Matt 5:14

The listener might have been familiar with light as a symbol of God. Various references in Psalms describe God as covering himself with light as with a garment” Psa 104:6; “his countenance is light,” Psa. 4:6; even darkness is not night to him, Psa 139:12.

In Revelation 22:5, disciples are called “the light of the world.”

As believers, we are light, light that illuminates the world, light not under a bushel, but light that gives light to all in the house. In the same way, light shining before others.   

Hubert embodies salt and light

I’ve just read a book that has been on our shelf far too long. It’s Jesus in Back Alleys, by Hubert Schwartzentruber (DreamSeeker Books, 2002). Hubert takes pains to say the publisher, not he, chose the subtitle: The Story and Reflections of a Contemporary Prophet.” The story sparkles with the salt and light of the author.

All modesty aside, Hubert reflects incisively “on forty-five years as a minister seeking faithfully to preach the good news of peace.” In the last chapter, “I Would Do It Over Again,” Hubert notes, “I hope this book has made clear how many times in my ministry I discovered that God uses the weak, the powerless, the poor, and the nobodies to become somebodies and powerful forces for justice. I need to underscore again that my best teachers have been the gangs in the street, people in prison, victims of unjust systems, and those who have been forced to live on the margin.”

In the Foreword, Mary Lou Cummings writes, “Hubert’s life seemed to intersect with many dramatic changes of the last fifty years: he grew up on a farm, speaking both German and English. But a call to ministry took him and his young wife June to spend formative marriage years in a St. Louis, Missouri, ghetto housing project. There they learned to love a new Jesus—one they met on the streets, at the funerals of gunshot and police brutality victims. They met Martin Luther King and learned from African-American community leaders. Still later, Hubert worked in Mennonite denominational offices, helping the church bridge culture gaps, teach peace in the face of the Vietnam War, and explore new forms of outreach.

“After the death of his wife June, children Lorna and Michael now being adults, Hubert married Mary Rittenhouse, a former St. Louis volunteer, and moved to Pennsylvania. Here because of his gentle, courageous pastoral leadership, he was asked to chair a study group which might bring together various positions on homosexuality that had arisen in relation to Germantown Mennonite Church, of which Hubert was overseer. Once again, the man who should have been peacefully retired was embroiled in the middle of the culture’s messiest controversy.”

Cummings continues: “Although he writes this small spiritual memoir on paper, Hubert wants to ‘care in stone’ one truth he has come to know: it is a sin to discriminate against any person created by God. The man who felt the heat from a KKK cross burning, heard bullets crash through his car window, and cried in public when his church voted not to include women as possible pastors, can still cry over injustice, prejudice, and religious apathy.

Further, ”As he says, ‘We may never keep people guessing as to whose side we are on. Nor can we wait till we have all the answers before we can walk with . . . those who are oppressed. The answers come as we are walking.’”

Hubert seasoned his ministry with compassion and love in action. He shone a light on what God would have Christ’s followers be and do.

(At this point in the message, I could have inserted another example of a person who embodied salt and light: Simon Gingerich, a resident of Evergreen Place. I’d have added the following:)

Simon embodies salt and light

Yesterday Simon Gingerich’s extended family hosted a celebration here for Simon’s 100th birthday. It was a wonderful reunion for many. Simon served as a pastor, followed by appointment as Secretary of Home Missions at Mennonite Board of Missions, during part of the time Hubert and June Swartzentruber served under the Mission Board in St. Louis. For more than 30 years, Simon also served on the Board of Directors of Greencroft Goshen. All official connections aside, Simon lives his life as salt and light. We acknowledge and celebrate his reach into our hearts and influence in the lives of countless others.

He is part of a line of people who continue to show us how one’s individual and community life centers in following Jesus. So too, can we, residents of (Healthcare / Evergreen Place), be and do salt and light.

You already are salt and light, Jesus declares. As representatives of the church, we are to season the world with love and blessing, to light the world around us with the grace, joy, and peace that Jesus commissioned the church to be and do.

  1. Tell your story. In conversations at the dinner table or elsewhere, share who has helped you the most, who taught you about the faith, who has walked with you through hard patches. Who has been and is salt and light to you.
  2. Encourage one another. Give thanks to those faithful ones who remind you that you are the salt of the earth, and that you are the light of the world. That may simply mean a smile or a pat on someone’s shoulder.
  3. Pray for peace in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Praise God for Jesus’ teachings and example that calls followers, “the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.” Amen



4 thoughts on “A canceled worship service

  1. John —

    Thanks for sending your incisive sermon — illustrating salt and light through the lives of Hubert and Simon (“The answers come as we are walking . . . .”) I hope you can give this at CMC as well! Your statement, “salt of the earth people add taste, preserve, purify, season the world with love and good deeds” assumes two realities: a world out there, contrasting with a radically different reality: the church of committed disciples — which demands separation. I just read yesterday that the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, states that “you don’t have to be complicit in a culture of destruction.”

    Looking forward to more of your reflections . . .



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