Sermon – February 9, 2014

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyYou Are the Salt

by Reverend Joseph Connolly

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“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt were to lose its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored?” — Matthew 5:13.

Many parishioners have heard me say this, but those of you visiting have not. [1] (Slight pause.) The denomination in which I grew up was Roman Catholicism. I grew up as a Roman Catholic. With a name like Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr., that’s pretty hard to hide.

The neighborhood in which I spent my childhood years was one of German, Irish and Italian immigrants— the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. When I was young many families were already second, third and even fourth generation in America. But German and Italian was still spoken in some homes and a hint of lilting Celtic brogue was heard in others.

Now, I have always thought the very name of the Roman church I attended as a youth had the potential to traumatize me for life. Did it? Probably not. But the name of the church which could have had that kind of potential was… Fourteen… Holy… Martyrs. (That’s all right— I knew a nun by the name of Sister Mary Crown of Thorns.)

I was reminded of the church this week because a pastor friend in the mid-west posted a picture on Facebook. It was a picture of a church sign on a snow covered lawn. The message on the sign said: “Whoever has been praying for snow, please stop!”

What caught my eye, however, was not the message about the snow. What I noticed was the name of the church on the sign: “Fourteen Holy Helpers.” (Slight pause.)

Ever since the advent of Internet and the accompanying searches I had, on occasion, tried to find some reference other than my childhood church in Brooklyn to Fourteen Holy Martyrs. I had found none.

But I had never heard of “Fourteen Holy Helpers” or tried an internet search for “Fourteen Holy Helpers.” I immediately pulled up GOGGLE and searched.

Boom— there it was: Fourteen Holy Helpers. (Quote:) “The Fourteen Holy Helpers,” a Wikipedia entry said, “are a group of saints venerated together because their intercession is believed to be particularly effective, especially against various diseases. This was a group of Nothelfer (“helpers of those in need”)— catch the German Nothelfer, “helpers of those in need,”— to whom one would pray for assistance with disease. And they originated in the 14th century in the Rhineland, largely as a result of the bubonic plague: the Black Death.”

The description said all of the fourteen except one were considered to be martyrs. But it was also clear not martyrdom but helper was the dominant theme. [2]

Well, having found this, something out of my childhood which I had always thought of as strange and puzzling, suddenly made sense to me. You see, that church was established in 1887 through the efforts of immigrant German Catholics. The Fourteen Holy Helpers were from the Rhineland.

I e-mailed my brother and sister with the Fourteen Holy Helpers Wiki entry. My sister, in return, reminisced. Our parents, she wrote to me, always said the first thing the church did when it was founded was build a school.

But, she said, it was a very strange school building. Her reference was to the fact that the church building in which Fourteen Holy Martyrs was located was odd, since one building housed both the church and the school. The structure was some four stories tall and the church, itself— the worship space— was in the basement, down a short flight of stairs.

There were stained glass windows in the church, which started at street level, about six feet up the wall. Some sun came in, but it was at an odd angle. The structure above, those other four stories, housed an elementary school.

I wrote back to my sister. “Given when the parish was founded— 1887— the historical fact is,” said I, “it made sense to build a school with a church, not a church with a school. Catholics, you see, were rarely allowed in public schools back then.”

“Even if they were, the King James Bible was a part of the Public School curriculum in that era. Catholics had their own version of the Bible— the Vulgate— and did not want their children influenced by something approved by a King of England. That would have especially been true of the Irish immigrants.”

“The real reason so many Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals— hospitals were also a place Catholics might not be welcome— the real reason so many Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals were started in the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century is discrimination against Catholics was rampant. Remember,” I continued, “the Knights of Columbus was founded as an insurance company in 1882 because Protestants would not sell life insurance to Catholics.” (Slight pause.)

Now, my guess is that’s one reason I had never heard the words Fourteen Holy Helpers. The history of these immigrants was that they felt like martyrs. And when, for them, times changed— and times did change— the name did not. Generations have long memories and sometimes repeat things not knowing why. (Slight pause.)

These words are recorded in the work known as Matthew: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt were to lose its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Slight pause.)

So, does discrimination still exist? The obvious answer is yes. Rumor to the contrary, society is not perfect.

Further, society often seems to find ways to pick on those we loosely call the outcast, the oppressed. Indeed, even the very existence of those terms— outcast, oppressed— addresses a broken world. Society seems intent on expressing anger by creating enemies. This tendency also addresses a broken promise— a promise made by Christianity— the claim we are all children of God.

So, what can we do about the fact that society often acts in unfair ways? How can we deal with the fact that society often seems to separate us rather than unify us? (Slight pause.)

Another friend posted a saying on Facebook this week: “No one expects you to save the world. Otherwise you would have been born wearing a cape and tights. Just do the best you can.” (Slight pause.)

I don’t think there would be any doubt about this. Few of us feel called to save the world. Indeed, if one claimed that kind of grandiose call, then one’s sanity Would be questioned.

I think another truth is most of us would rather be helpers than leaders and we clearly would rather be helpers than martyrs. So perhaps the real questions we need to ask concern how— how can we be helpers? How are we helpers? How do we help? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest the Prophet Isaiah has the answer to those questions (quote): “…you will be called the Repairer of Breaches, / the Repairer of Broken Walls, / the Restorer of Streets, / the Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods.” [3] (Slight pause.)

You see, anyone can slay a dragon. That’s because slaying dragons does not define heroism. Try, on the other hand, waking up every morning and loving anyone and everyone you meet. That takes real heroism. (Slight pause.)

Our work, our call, is not to judge. Our work, our call, is not to figure out if someone deserves something. Our work, our call, is to lift the fallen. Our work, our call, is to restore the broken. Our work, our call, is to heal the hurting.

So, how does that get done? How do we do that? After all, lifting those who have a fall, restoring those who have been broken, healing those who have been hurt sounds like a lot of work, does it not? (Slight pause.)

I believe lifting those who have had a fall, restoring those who have been broken, healing those who have been hurt is really a lot simpler than it sounds. It is work. But is simpler than it sounds. First, we need to put aside our own agendas.

Why? Not because we, ourselves, fail to have issues. We need to put aside our own agendas so we can listen deeply to another person. That cannot happen when we get in the way. We need to put aside our own agendas so we can be fully present to another person. That cannot happen when we get in the way.

When we listen, when we are fully present— that is when we can start to help each other. That is when we can start to lift those who have had a fall, restore those who have been broken, help heal those who have been hurt.

Next, we need to remember God is in charge. And we need to remember, if we are willing to listen to and to do the will of God, God will use our hands to be helping hands. If we are willing to listen to and to do the will of God, God will use our feet to go to places where need exists.

The mission to which God invites us is not to save the world. The mission to which God invites us is one where we help. The mission to which God invites us is one where we recognize every person we meet is our brother or sister. The mission to which God invites us is one where we recognize every person we meet is a member of our family.

So, do me a favor. Look around you. Just turn your heads— take a look. Every person here is a member of your family. And every person here has a need. (Slight pause.)

You see, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth;….” If that’s true, if we are the salt of the earth, we are called to help each other, to reach out to one another, to be one family, to be the family of God. Amen.

02/09/2014
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Another story about a Facebook post: I saw a cartoon this week of a line of people coming to a fork in the road. The sign pointing to the left fork said: ‘Justice, Peace, Love.’ The sign on the right fork said: ‘Burgers 99¢’. And everyone was going to the right fork, headed to burger land. You see, the world is broken. Can we fix it all, the whole world? No. But maybe if we occasionally take the fork in the road that says ‘Justice, Peace, Love,’ it might help our world just a little.”

BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry the peace of God into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of the Word of God in our actions. Let us recognize that the transforming power of God is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.

[1] This was “Bring a Friend or Family Sunday.” As an enticement, the coffee hour was also a “Sweet Tooth” coffee hour, when people brought deserts of their choice. Note: there were some “non sugar” items.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteen_Holy_Helpers

[3] Isaiah 58:12b.

 

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