Rev. Seth Patterson
February 5, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 5:13–16
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. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your God.
A new Confirmation class has begun to gather early this year. They are wonderful young humans and I am honored to be able to go on this journey with them. They also seem to be highly skeptical, and rightly so. Confirmation is typically the time in a young person’s life—and the lifecycle of a religious community—when the important traditions, beliefs, and stories are passed down to a younger generation. In many places, this has often meant using absolute terms. We are this. We know that to be true. You are now this. Maybe this is why these 8th graders eye me cautiously; they are afraid I will tell them who they are supposed to be, that somehow they are wrong or bad if they don’t adhere to some imagined standard.
That is not how Confirmation goes here at Plymouth. I do not tell the young people what they should believe or who they should be. Rather, Confirmation here often centers on questions. We encourage our young people to explore, to doubt. We invite them into the process of disordering the orderly because that is also a central identity of this Plymouth community. But this disorder isn’t the goal either. Doubt is essential for faith, but doubt itself cannot be the place we land. My hope is to help them practice knowing the order, questioning it into disorder and then working to transform into reorder.
This idea of the movement from order to disorder to reorder came to me from the American Franciscan priest and contemplative Richard Rohr. In his book The Wisdom Pattern—Order, Disorder, Reorder, Rohr says this:
Order, by itself, normally wants to eliminate any disorder and diversity creating a narrow and cognitive rigidity in both people and systems. Disorder, by itself, closes us off from any primal union, meaning, and eventually even sanity in people and systems. Reorder, or transformation of people and systems, happens when both are seen to work together.
Rohr sees as essential to the path of wisdom and holistic faithfulness a movement from order through disorder to reorder.
This attempt at transformation is not only about our larger faith journeys, but also how we receive the words that we call scripture. We can read it in a way centered in order. This typically means that we read in the way of tradition or in a straightforward way without much concern for historical context, translation concerns, or the lenses of other traditions and people. We read it only as it comes to us in our language using only the lens of us and our tradition.
From a reading of order, this passage today from the 5th chapter of Matthew is lovely and fairly straightforward (which is not always the case). It immediately follows the Sermon on the Mount and can be read as talking to each of us individually, exhorting us to continue our path of good discipleship. Good Jesus followers never lose their saltiness, they never hide their light, they are like a city on a hill, always seen from a great distance. Good Christians let their light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your God. You are the light of the world and you will be rewarded for your faithfulness. And if you happen to lose your direction and saltiness you will no longer be good for anything and will be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
We here may be in the habit of bouncing over the order way of reading, but I caution us from dismissing it out of hand. Rohr doesn’t suggest that order is bad or wrong, rather that we shouldn’t end our journey there. All journeys need a beginning, and order is our starting place. And order is often the place where more conservative traditions hold firmly. Order may be comfortable, but it can also a place of control where thick lines can be drawn between me and you, us and them. Order can easily settle into singularity, rigidity, and close-mindedness.
A disorder way of reading starts to examine it from more angles and pull it apart. This is where we give ourselves permission to question anything. When was this book likely written, by and for whom, and with what agenda? What did the words likely mean in the original language and how have different translations in different languages tilted the original intention? For example, the Greek that we typically translate as “salt of the earth” can also be stated as “the earth’s salt.” How does that change our reading? We can ask: Did Jesus really say all this and who was he talking to and were they listening? Who was this Jesus person and what were his intentions, agendas, and goals? Was Jesus a real person or the fictional amalgamation of many similar Messianic, revolutionary, anti-Roman figures? The questions in disorder can go as far as we wish to go. Disorder is a time of exploration and dismantling, taking apart the machine to see how it works. This can be fun and stimulating but also disorienting and unsettling. This is the place many progressive traditions find themselves. There is energy in questioning everything, but one can also find yourself surrounded by all of the dismantled pieces without any idea of what to do now. This is the place where so many people abandon the journey. If everything can be questioned, then what is the point?
The point is that it doesn’t have to be the end of the journey! There is another step: reorder. This is where you take all of those pieces of the dismantled tradition and orthodoxy and reassemble them into something meaningful for you or for us. This can be difficult for many because it can feel like entering uncharted—some would even say dangerous—territory. I cannot tell you how to reorder things for yourself. This is where your own work of meaning-making happens, and it doesn’t happen instantly. This is a process, a journey of its own. I cannot tell you—no one can tell you—what this reorder is for you or for us, but it can be helpful to hear how others have done it for themselves. As an example, I have begun to make meaning out of this passage at this particular moment like this:
- I find it meaningful to know that the Greek “you are…” is plural, not singular. This is not for me to do alone, but a collective enterprise.
- If I am part of the earth’s salt, then I did not have to make myself so. Salt is salty because it is salt, because the earth made it so. If I am part of the light of the world, we are not the source of the light, God is. We don’t have to do anything with that freely-given love other than not hide it away. Our role is not to create the light but to stop it from being hidden away.
That is my reorder today. It doesn’t have to be yours, but sharing the way that we make meaning of the questions can help others reorder their own way.
This practice of order, disorder, and reorder carries such great wisdom that it can be applied beyond faith. Think about climate change. Order is found in the way that we have inherited a fossil–fuel centered world. That can feel easy and comfortable—and we are being told that it is a source of control that will have disastrous consequences. Disorder is where a lot of our climate anxiety shows up. We begin to pull apart the order, and there are few easy answers, but we start to see how the engine has been put together. Reorder is what we do about it. Dismantling toxic systems is necessary, but if we do not rebuild we just find ourselves lost in all of the pieces. Reorder is how we participate in the building of a new system that works for the mutual benefit of us all.
It is also incredibly important on this first Sunday of February to remember how our own transformation is possible. Black History Month especially reminds us of the tragic consequences of the order of white supremacy. None of us invented this system, but we have all been inheritors of its violence. In order to begin to help remove its stranglehold on our society, we tend to spend a lot of time pulling it apart. This is essential work as the only way to move from order to reorder is through the dismantling work of disorder. And I often hear from members of this community that this disorder work settles onto them as guilt. To work towards reorder is a way to use those feelings of guilt and helplessness and rebuild. How you reorder is up to you. How we reorder is up to us. It won’t happen overnight, but transformation is not only possible, it is the hope.
Where do you see the movement of order, disorder, and reorder playing out in your life? In the life of this community? Where do you cling to order because it is comfortable? Where do you sit in disorder and feel exhilarated and unsettled? Where have you begun to reorder something and can feel a transformation occurring?
May we continue this adventure together and be a model to our 8th graders as they approach this work intentionally for possibly the first time. May we let the 8th graders be models for us as they do this work individually and together. For there is no wrong time in our life to find transformation.