What does it mean to be spiritual? (a sermon from 1 Cor. 2:1-16 and Matt. 5:13-16)

What does it mean to be spiritual? There is, of course, no one answer to that question. Such a question doesn’t solicit an answer like, “What is 2 plus 2?”  Our text raises the question today because Paul writes about being spiritual and being unspiritual. Based on Paul’s words here and the text in Matthew I can say three things about a healthy spirituality. Now, what I have to say is not any more exhaustive than what Paul says to the Corinthians is exhaustive. So, what can we say about being spiritual by looking at these two texts.

The first thing I would like to say about being spiritual, is that authentic, healthy spirituality is rooted in gratitude. Paul writes, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12). I think anyone who is spiritual, anyone who is being led by the Spirit understands that all of life is a gift, that we are alive because of the generosity and goodness of God.

I’m sure I have told you about the monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word in their journey of obedience.  There was, however, one exception.  Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who headed the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service.  After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words.  The words he spoke were, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left.  Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his two words were, “Bed hard!”  After another five years, he returned for a third time. This time his two words were, “Want out!”  The Abbot responded, “I’m not surprised, all you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

That is what we do when we lose sight of the beauty and goodness of life. And sometimes life is hard and finding beauty and goodness may be a difficult work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. said once to his congregation that his mother had taught him to always give thanks to God for what is left. Everything can go wrong, but if you are left with air to breathe, be thankful. Some years later, after he had lost two sons, and his own wife had been shot to death right before his eyes at the organ in Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Dr. King was saying the same thing, “Thank God for what is left.”

When we lose a dear loved one or friend or something of great importance to us we can allow that loss to make us bitter and angry, or we can choose to be grateful for what time we did have with our loved ones and friends. We can be thankful for what is left. Even with all its pain and disappointment and grief, we can be thankful for life, knowing that there is both pain and joy.  

The second thing I draw from these texts about the spiritual life is that community is essential to a spiritual life. If the spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed or nurtured in community. When Paul says that the Spirit enables us to understand and receive the gifts bestowed on us by God, the “gifts” that Paul is particularly talking about are the gifts he mentions in chapter 12 of his letter – gifts that build and enhance community life. Paul primarily has in mind the contributions the various members of the church community make to the overall good and well-being of the community. And the gifts he does mention in chapter 12 are by no means exhaustive. They are simply representative of the kind of gifts God gives to a church community so that the church community can be about God’s will.

Being spiritual is always about more than my own spirituality. A couple of years ago I was doing some research on this topic and I came across the SBNR (Spiritual, but Not Religious) website. I read on the home page: SBNR.org serves the global population of individuals who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. But then as I looked closer I noticed that the last posting was dated June, 2012. It looked to me like the site had been started and then abandoned, which, I think, illustrates the problem being spiritual, but not religious. Healthy, transformative spirituality is hard to sustain and practice without a faith community. I believe we need the encouragement and the challenges that spiritual relationships give us. We learn from one another.

Stephanie Paulsell teaches at Harvard Divinity School and writes for The Christian Century. A few years ago she gave a presentation at Georgetown College and in her presentation she shared how she was mentored by an Episcopal priest at the University Church where she attended graduate school. She assisted him at the altar on Sundays as they celebrated the Eucharist. After several weeks of assisting, the priest asked her to take a turn as celebrant, to actually lead the Eucharist (what we call Communion).

She loved what the priest did at the altar on Sundays - she thought it was beautiful and mysterious – but she had grown up in a different tradition with a very different ritual of Communion, and so she had some real reservations. She thanked the priest for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” The priest said, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do this in order to find out what it means.”

I love that response. The priest is saying, “We don’t have all the answers. We are learning together. We are on a journey and we are learning from one another.”

Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in an article for TIME: “To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.” A healthy faith community can provide a window. Rabbi Wolpe says, “Together is harder, but together is better.”

So a spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed and nurtured in community, and lastly, it is expressed through works of mercy and justice. I am glad the lectionary paired this passage in Corinthians with the passage in Matthew where we are called to be salt and light. Being spiritual is not about being spiritual. What I mean is that the goal is not to be spiritual. We are not called simply to be spiritual, we are called to be servants in God’s kingdom. Our spirituality determines what kind of servants we will be. Even narcissists and tyrants are servants – they serve themselves. Jesus says that we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Salt had multiple uses in the ancient world and so the image conveys multiple layers of meaning. Salt was used to represent loyalty and fidelity and hence we read of salt covenants. Salt was utilized in the ceremony to symbolize commitment. Eating together was called “sharing salt” and it expressed binding relationships. Salt was used as a means of seasoning food, giving it spice and flavor. And it was used to preserve meat. A preacher could preach a whole sermon on what it means to be the salt of the earth.

We are also called to be the light of the world. We are called to be a lighted city on a hill. Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And what are these good works? They are the works of mercy and justice we talked about last week. One NT interpreter points out that with these images – salt and light and a city on a hill – Jesus “strikes a death blow to all religion (or we could say spirituality) that is purely personal and private.” If we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world then we can’t keep our spirituality to ourselves.

In his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It Robert Fulghum tells about the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where the Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could – they could be salt and light, they could be a city set on a hill.

Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum decided to break the silence, “Dr. Padaderos,” he asked, “what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took out his wallet and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of a quarter.

He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place. He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not possible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it off. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — into deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get/reflect light into the darkest, most inaccessible places he could find.

As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child wasn’t really a game at all, it was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the source of light, but that the light of truth and understanding, the light of forgiveness and peace, the light of mercy and justice would only shine into the dark places if he could somehow reflect it.

He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”

This is what we too are about. We do not generate the light, we are not the source of the light, but the light is what sustains our very life. It is the light of God and when we engage in works of mercy and justice we allow the light to shine through us, to illuminate the love of God in the world.

The purpose of lighting a lamp and putting it on a lampstand, says Jesus, is so the light can give light to everyone in the house. When the divine love is allowed to flow freely in and through us, then we function as salt and light. As salt and light we will be faithful to our covenants and commitments. We will add spice and flare to our communities. We live out and preserve the values and virtues of Jesus. We will light up our workplace, our homes, our relationships with the love of God. We will form communities of salt and light where all people are accepted and welcomed, where words and works of mercy and justice are spoken and accomplished. 

When you think about it, the question is not, Are we spiritual? We are in a sense all spiritual. We are all spiritual beings and we manifest in our lives and relationships, through our words and deeds, some kind of spirituality. It can be a God-like spirituality that is life affirming or a demonic kind that is life diminishing. The real issue is: What kind of spirituality is it? If we are learning from Jesus, then it is the kind that will make us the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

I believe a healthy, authentic, and transformative spirituality will be rooted in gratitude; it will be developed and nurtured in community; and it will be expressed through works of mercy and justice. Given these components – on the basis of these criteria – how would you rate your spirituality?

Our good God, help us to see that we are all spiritual beings, that there is no opting out of spirituality, that we all express some kind of spirituality. May ours be of the kind that helps and heals others, rather than hurts and alienates others. May ours be of the kind that is liberating and transforming, not enslaving and debilitating. May ours form Christ in us. Amen.


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