Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 9, 2014
I talked with Bill Bicknell this week about his old Golden Retriever named Jooncie. Now that’s not the same dog that many of you have met out in the parking lot last summer. That’s a young Golden Retriever named Willow. Jooncie is much older and has most of his life behind him now.
Golden Retrievers were bred in Scotland long ago to track, flush and retrieve birds. They are very intelligent, love water and have long hair with a dense inner coat… all of which equip them well to the tasks they were bred for.
Bill told me about the first year he took Jooncie hunting. He can still remember the day it all clicked for Jooncie. He had been taking the dog out with him on hunting excursions but Jooncie just couldn’t figure out that he was supposed to be doing something. He would follow behind Bill, just sort of tagging along for the fun, clueless as to both the purpose of the trip and his part in it.
Then one day it all came clear for Jooncie. After a frustrating morning, Bill and the dog walked a field near Driscoll. They came upon some birds right away that flushed, but didn’t fly very far away. That was the opportunity Jooncie needed.
He lit out ahead of Bill, followed the scent and flushed the birds, just like he was supposed to. He repeated the behavior numerous times that afternoon. In the course of that day, Jooncie figured out the task that Retrievers were bred for so long ago. And he figured out that he and Bill were a team, each with his own role. He threw himself into the teamwork with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.
It’s a pretty wonderful thing to see an animal like that discover what it was made for. When it happens we know that we have witnessed a moment of grace and beauty. It’s like seeing young birds launch from the nest for the first time and take to the skies where they belong. It’s like watching Salmon swim upstream to spawn in a ritual of life they have been doing since long before humans appeared on the earth.
You see such a thing and you know that you’re seeing life as it was meant to be. That’s a beautiful thing… life as it was meant to be.
One of the most misunderstood concepts in the Christian faith is the idea of holiness. For many people, “being holy” means being set apart from or elevated higher than others. Some think it means being completely preoccupied with religious thoughts, deeds and doctrines. Or they might imagine that being holy means having an otherworldly glow about you… or being worthy, while others are unworthy. Some think of it as a special, extra quality that one gets by being hyper-religious.
But all that is wrong. And it’s damaging to hold such ideas because it makes holiness into something divisive and unnatural when that’s not what it is.
In scripture… both the Old and New Testaments… the idea of holiness has to do with the purpose of our being. Simply put… something is holy if it is functioning as it is meant to function… living like it is meant to live.
I once heard a theologian describe how a pitch in baseball can demonstrate holiness. When a pitcher throws a curve, he holds the ball with a special grip and moves his hand in a specific way in order to give the ball certain spin. If done right, the ball takes a sudden dive as it approaches the plate, making it hard to hit. When a curve-ball does what it’s supposed to on the way to the plate, that’s a thing of simple beauty… and a good analogy for holiness.
God created us for life and intends that we know and use and share the rich gifts that make life good and strong. When we do this… it is a thing of great beauty. It is holy.
In scripture there are a number of important characteristics that are associated with holiness among God’s people.
First holiness comes from belonging to God… and knowing that we belong to God. In both the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded again and again that we belong to God. And because we do, it is God’s will that we are holy… that we live as God created us to live.
Also, in scripture we see that holiness means living out of relationship with God. That means not living for ourselves. It means not just making our way through life by following thoughtless whims and pursing selfish desires. It means listening to and learning from God… being changed and healed and strengthened by God. Fixing our minds on those things that God points us to: Love… forgiveness… mercy… patience… honesty… generosity… humility. These are the wonderful gifts of God’s Kingdom… the fruits of the Holy Spirit… that make it possible for to be who we are meant to be and live as God created us to live.
Another important holiness theme in scripture is this: Holiness means being a light to others. It is the nature of holiness to benefit our neighbor. Holiness is at work in us when the bonds that connect us to others in our midst give strength and life, not harm and grief.
In today’s Gospel lesson, even though the word is not used, holiness is at the heart of what Jesus is talking about. He calls on the multitude of people listening to him to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
He wants us to think about the qualities of salt and light. He points to the value they have in this world. Their value lies in the very essence of what they are and in the affects their qualities work in the world around them.
Salt gives flavor… it preserves food. Light enables us to see so that we can… simply function. Salt and light have no value… no purpose… apart from these powerful qualities.
Jesus calls on us to recognize that we too are created for a purpose that only a fool would ignore. We are created to possess and share qualities of life and love that fill God’s world with good things.
Why would we live without these wonderful gifts that are meant to define the human creature and shape human community? Why would we deny what we were created to be? It doesn’t make sense, like lighting a lamp in a dark room and then putting a basket over it doesn’t make sense.
Holiness isn’t about being separate or more religious than others, it’s about becoming who we are meant to be. What God wants from us is not some holier-than-thou effort or attitude. He simply wants us to become strong and healthy children of God… mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, workers, friends, helpers… who understand that all life belongs to God and that all we have and can be is a gift from God.
He wants us to order our thoughts and actions… our lives… so that we can bring his gifts into our lives and share them with others. He wants us to be light and salt.
He wants us to be like Jooncie the Golden Retriever. That is, he wants us to awaken to the beautiful reason we are alive and dive into life with purpose and enthusiasm. In that way, God is able to bring us together in community and we are free to share generously with each other the love and gifts God gives to us.