At the Feet of the Rabbi: Salt & Light

Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness.

The source of this saying is the Mishnah, Avot 1:4. The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic thought from 200 BC to 200 AD that still forms the core of Jewish belief today. The second line is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” and is understood as humbly sitting at the feet of one’s teacher.  From this arose a widely-used idiom for studying with a rabbinic teacher, that you “sat at his feet.”  Paul says he was educated “at the feet Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3)  Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” in Luke 10:39 suggests that he was her rabbi too.  Read literally, the saying sounds more like it’s describing the idea of “powdering yourself,” like a woman powdering her face.  I played with my grandmother’s powder as a child and it got all over the place and covered everything.  Like Ganny’s powder, the disciples were walking through clouds of dust billowing up along a dirt roadway, the dust was getting into all the nooks and crannies of their hearts and lives.

That is the whole point of this sermon series, to be at the feet of our Rabbi, Jesus, and to walk in his dust.  Our text today is part of the larger Sermon on the Mount and one of the more famous portions.

Hear now the word of God at the heart of Jesus’ teaching:

Matthew 5:13-20

13“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 underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Remember my saying last week that the “Sermon on the Mount” is an artificial construct?  Jesus didn’t know they would call the first section “The Beatitudes,” he was just teaching the disciples the way they should be in the world.  The Beatitudes start off really impersonal.  “Blessed are those…” But verse 11 gets more personal, “11 “Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Then chapter 5 continues, “YOU are the salt of the earth…YOU are the light of the world.”  We each sit at the feet of our Rabbi and he personally calls us to be salt and light to all the world.

Raise your hand if you ever read the play Romeo and Juliet or have seen the many film adaptations?  I admit that it isn’t one of my favorite Shakespearean works.  I find it melodramatic and completely unnecessary, but I digress.  You know the story, these two teenagers start a relationship and find out they belong to opposite sides of a huge family feud.  Juliet is a Capulet, and Romeo is a Montague, and they’re falling so deeply in love that they’re ready to throw away all of those labels, and lose their last names if necessary. That’s when Juliet famously says: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I love that line because Shakespeare is hinting at a much bigger idea. It’s the idea that what we name something or call something doesn’t determine what it is. If we called a rose a “Stink-daisy,” wouldn’t it still be one of the most beautiful, delicate and sweet-smelling of plants? Yes. Wouldn’t a bunch of us hope to have a yard full of Stink-daisies? Absolutely. Because what we name or call something doesn’t determine what it is. Instead, the true essence or character determines it.

That’s big, y’all, because the first thing that comes out of Jesus’ mouth, this is directly from God in flesh, from our personal Rabbi, is this: you are priceless and have great purpose; there’s power in you like no other. Maybe you didn’t hear it that way, but in Jesus’ context, that’s exactly what salt and light represented. Their essence was to be these unique, rare, valuable things, that were incredibly useful. Our Rabbi looks at us straight in the eye and says, “I have called YOU.”  My yoke is easy and my burden light.  If you follow in my ways, you will ALWAYS be enough. I want you to hear that from Jesus. As salt and light, YOU are no accident, but God-made, with God-purposes in mind.

The crowd didn’t know what to say. Why? Because in their world, they’d been drilled by how sinful and naturally evil they were. The scribes and Pharisees had taught that only the most devout who kept every rule could earn God’s favor, and these crowds near Galilee were not in that club.  They didn’t make the cut. I think that’s why Jesus feels the need to say this whole second section here – to reassure the people that he isn’t rewriting the law or inventing a new religion, but that he is the ULTIMATE fulfillment and the scribes and Pharisees themselves aren’t truly holy enough, not in the right way, for this yoke.  Remember Matthew is writing for a particularly Jewish audience and Jesus IS the fulfillment of all the prophets foretold.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you want to be salt and light, you’re going to need to DO, DO, DO.” Instead, he tells us this is what we are, and our only job is to “BE.” Doesn’t it sound heavenly to simply be?  Be with no pretense, with no façade, not worrying about public opinion or how it will look or will they understand.  Simply resting in God’s love.  Knowing who you are and Whose you are.  That would be a relief to so many people.

The truth is that salt and light don’t DO a lot, in and of themselves. When we enjoy a great meal and want to compliment the chef, we don’t say, “You know, that was the best salt I ever tasted?” or “Do you think you can give your recipe for that salt?” No. Because the salt isn’t made to do the DOING of the meal, it’s meant to compliment the main course by being there in the mix, and as my grandmother has always said, you can always add more salt, but you can’t take it away. If someone visits your newly-renovated, newly-decorated home, how would you feel if they said, “Well, now, the thing I really love is your light. Where did you get that lovely light that’s shining through the windows?”  You want to hear about the colors you painted or a particular piece of artwork or the accents or how you set the furniture…maybe the windows and fixtures but not the LIGHT itself. Because the light isn’t the focal point, it’s what allows us to experience the main attraction. In the same way, I think Jesus is letting us know that all we have to do is BE, and in fact if we think our job is to DO and DO and DO then we’re probably just trying to eclipse the real focus, which is God Almighty. If we can just rest on God’s grace alone, then we are BEING who God designed us to be, we’re merely helping enhance the world’s experience of God, and draw attention to God.  If we move and breathe and follow our Rabbi than we ARE going to BE salt and light.

AMC was showing a marathon of the movie Groundhog Day on Groundhog Day.  I never knew how much Mike loves the movie.  It was in the middle and I tried to stay awake, but inevitably the monotony put me to sleep.  I knew the concept of Groundhog Day that the weather man played by Bill Murray lives the day over and over, but I didn’t know how he got it to stop or why, so we watched it on Saturday. Mike did say a lot of the lines and he started laughing before it would get to a funny part because he was remembering along with the movie.  As much as I’ve teased him about the movie being annoying,I ended up really liking the movie.  Part of that, was when he let go and just simply was, taking opportunities as they come, he didn’t have to DO anything to impress Andy McDowell’s character.  He doesn’t need to showboat to get the girl.  He’s not even trying.  At the end of the movie, it just comes naturally.  It flows naturally from him in a humble way.

I want following Jesus to be as natural to us as breathing.  I want us to recognize how much Jesus invites us just to be, to live out of our God-given essence.  He’s real with us. He lets us know we have a choice.  To be the essence and nature of what God means for us or not. In other words, even though God’s grace saves us and redeems us into roses, we can still choose to look and smell and act more like a Stink-daisy. It’s really easy to do. So, our Rabbi issues our greatest warning: don’t choose to lose your true taste. Don’t choose to dilute your true flavor. Don’t choose to cover your God-given light. Don’t do it. Just BE, through and in me.

That, my friends, is just one part of a pretty powerful yoke.

The question is, will this be a yoke that we take up for ourselves? Will we call ourselves “Christians” only in title or label or name, or will we BE disciples who live out of the God-given, Christ-redeemed essence and character that follows the way of our true Rabbi?

Mary Louise Rowand, writes an article titled “We Know the Words – We Need Lives to Match!,” in Bread Afresh, Wine Anew, “It is very easy in our eagerness to serve Christ through our complicated organizational structures, through what we call (ugh!) “the business of the church, ” through our conventions and assemblies and proclamations and creed … it is very easy in all this to forget the primary reason for our existence. Hence the need for Dostoevski.

“Dostoevski, that most outstanding of all modern Russian writers, in his finest novel The Brothers Karamazov [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990], recognized this condition in the church of his day. In the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” [249-262], he expresses his feelings in a chilling and terrifying story. The setting: the days of the Spanish Inquisition, in Seville. Jesus has just returned to earth. He has come to Seville and is walking toward the massive Gothic cathedral in the vast square. A funeral procession is also slowly moving toward the cathedral steps. The only child of a noble citizen has died. Her little casket is being carried to the cathedral. Suddenly, the people see Jesus and they recognize him immediately. He has come back as he promised. Here he is among them now, the one to whom all their prayers and hopes have been directed. He can give new life to this innocent little girl as he did long ago in Palestine.

“The people call to him, and he goes to them. They cry out, ‘Heal this child!’ The mother falls on her knees in front of him. ‘Have mercy on me. If you will, you can put new life into my child.’ He pauses, then raising both hands high into the air, he cries out to his God, ‘Let this child live!’ And to the utter amazement of everyone, the child moves, sits up surrounded by all the flowers, smiles and calls out to her mother. The people begin to chant, ‘He has come to us! He has come! He has come!’

“However, standing in the shadows of the cathedral is the Grand Inquisitor, the powerful cardinal of the church. What he has seen he does not like. He sees Jesus’ arrival not as an occasion for rejoicing, but as a threat to his authority. So the cardinal has Jesus arrested and placed in a solitary prison cell. Late that night, the cardinal comes alone to visit his royal prisoner.

“‘Why have you come?’ he demands. ‘We no longer have need of you! We are now in charge of your church. We know how to run it well. Why have you come back to disturb our peace and authority? Leave us now. Do not come back. We have no need of you!’ Dostoevski has Jesus look long and lovingly into the empty eyes of the cardinal … and then, Jesus stands, walks across the cell, and kisses the cardinal lightly on his thin, bloodless lips. Then Jesus walks out of the cell, leaving the cardinal alone with his great cathedral ….

“Why do we come here to worship, Sunday after Sunday, 52 Sundays a year, for five, 10, 30 years – or a whole lifetime? Getting up early Sunday morning, getting ready, getting the children dressed, driving over in all sorts of weather, sometimes not feeling too well ourselves, angry at the government, worried about our health and financial problems, dressed in our best and on our best behavior, walking into the building, greeting friends, singing hymns, praying prayers, reading scripture, listening to sermons, bringing our offering, taking the bread and cup. … We call it the worship of God, but why do we do this?

“I’m sure there are many reasons, but deep down inside I feel we do this in the hope that we might get to know Jesus of Nazareth better. We are seeking our primary source! And to know him better, perhaps our lives will be better, perhaps the world will be a better place. In reality, are we not here seeking Jesus?”

We ARE seeking Jesus.  We choose to sit at the feet of our Rabbi.  We are chosen by name to give salt to people whose lives are bland until they hear the Good News of Jesus.  To bring light to a world of darkness.  The British Art Critic John Ruskin lived in the days when English villages were lighted by lamps along the street. One evening, he watched with a friend as a lamplighter moved slowly on a distant hill, lighting the lamps along the street. Ruskin said, “There is what I mean by being a real Christian. You can trace his course by the lights that he leaves burning.”  If we have our Rabbi’s dust on us, his yoke, we will be love.  We will be hope. We will be peace.  We will be joy.  We will be salt.  We will be light.

 

 

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.