Sunday, February 9, 2014

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 9, 2014] Washington National Cathedral



            When my wife Kathy and I were first dating, we would often argue in a playful way about figures of speech we didn’t quite understand.  (Not, perhaps these days, a thrilling hookup strategy, but it worked for us then.  Washington’s perfect power couple:  a priest and a librarian.)

            Anyway, each of us had a cliché we just couldn’t figure out.  For Kathy it was “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good”. Does that mean that an ill wind does no good for anybody?  Or does it mean that even an ill wind does good for somebody?  We would go round and round about these questions late into the night, in conversations fueled by cigarettes and Gallo Hearty Burgundy.  My cliché was the term, “salt of the earth”.  When my relatives used this phrase they usually meant by it someone who was solid and totally unremarkable.  I never heard it used to describe someone who might be, well, interesting. But when I would come upon it in Matthew’s Gospel, “salt of the earth” seemed to mean something entirely different.

            Though Kathy and I still battle about figures of speech we do so during daylight hours and over decaf coffee. Kathy still expresses dismay about ill winds that blow nobody good, and I still throw up my hands when I hear someone described as salt of the earth.  And don’t get me started on “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth”.

            Today’s Gospel is from Matthew, and it gives us part of the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes.  Our passage begins with this inscrutable observation from Jesus:

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 under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

Now when you hear this, forget for a moment what your grandmother meant when she called someone the “salt of the earth”.  What, here, can Jesus actually mean?  It’s easier to answer this question if you’re at all familiar with Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating 2003 book, Salt:  A World History.  Salt (formally known as sodium chloride) does several things.  It preserves.  It adds flavor. And it has other, less obvious, uses.  Salt is necessary for the life of our animal cells. In pre-modern cultures salt was used as currency. More than that, salt has religious significance.  According to Kurlansky,

Salt was to the ancient Hebrews, and still is to modern Jews, the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.  In the Torah, the Book of Numbers, is written, “it is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord,” and later in Chronicles, “The Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, even to him, and to his sons, by a covenant of salt.” [Mark Kurlansky, Salt, “Introduction”]

            When we hear Jesus tell his followers, “you are the salt of the earth,” we need to understand the many associations that salt has for them.  Salt is at once a preservative, a spice, a life-giving mineral, and a sign of the holy.  To call someone “salt of the earth” is to say something much more powerful than merely to call them reliable if rather dull.  To call someone “salt of the earth” is to remind them just how important in the scheme of things they really are.

            The Sermon on the Mount has always been a challenge for Christians.  In it Jesus says so many things that go against our conventional wisdom:  blessed are the poor, turn the other cheek, love your enemy.  It is in the context of this sermon that Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth.  If we are to hear this saying as more than a backhanded compliment, what can he possibly mean? Let’s listen again:

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 under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

            One way to get at this inscrutable phrase is to ask whether Jesus is speaking to us as individuals or as a community.  Does he mean that you, personally, are the salt of the earth?  Or does he mean that we, together, are?

            Let’s start with the idea that he might be speaking to us as a group.  After all, he does use the plural pronoun “you” here.  We, Jesus’s followers, are the salt of the earth.  Translation:  we, together, are necessary for the world’s life.  We are its preservative.  And more than that:  as the salt of the earth, we are the ones who seal the covenant between God and the world.  The church—not the institutional church necessarily, but the company of those who follow Jesus—is necessary to the world’s flourishing and survival on God’s terms.  And “saltiness”—our taste, our zest—is central to who we are.  We bring a perspective, an attitude that enlivens the human community.  Without us, everything would spoil.

When we hear “salt of the earth” applied to the Christian community, we get a fresh understanding of what we’re here for.  Many people think that the church exists to bless and reinforce the status quo.  We’re the ones who are supposed to tell you to eat your vegetables, pay your taxes, and floss.  Many people want to confine religion to the realm of ethics and appoint us the hall monitors of human behavior.

But when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth he is reminding us of what religious communities actually do.  Just as salt flavors your food, so we bring out the deep essential meaning of life.  Just as salt keeps things from spoiling, so through our prayers and witness we keep the world from turning solely to its own devices and desires.  Just as salt seals covenants, so we remind both God and the world of why we need each other.  When we hear Jesus call us, collectively, the salt of the earth we remember why we’re here: to show the world what it means to be fully human and fully alive on God’s terms.

But there is another, personal, aspect to being called the salt of the earth.  When Jesus addresses us together, he also addresses us as individual people. You are the salt of the earth. I am the salt of the earth. Hear that in all its power and depth.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are salty in the sense that you have a flavor, a taste, a point of view, a perspective that is unique.  Part of your job as a human being, as a follower of Jesus, is to bring the fullness of yourself into all you do.  Human beings sin both through arrogance and through self-doubt.  We all know what it is to make too much of ourselves—you can’t live in Washington for five minutes without seeing multiple examples of inflated self-regard.  But we forget that we can also make too little of ourselves.  The world needs your saltiness.  As Jesus says, “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 under foot.” [Matthew 5:13]

But your saltiness consists of more than the gift of your individuality. You are salt of the earth in other ways.  You are vital to the life and preservation of the world. You are a sign of God’s covenant with us.  When we hear Jesus call us salt, we should take in the holy and precious essence of who we are.  God has become one of us in Jesus.  Human life—your life—is endowed with a meaning and purpose beyond what you can see on its surface.  As a follower of Jesus, you are a sign of what God is doing in the world.

As nice as that is to hear, we should remember that Christianity is not merely a self-esteem workshop.  Christianity is about the ongoing redemption and blessing and transformation of the world.  Each of us is unique and precious not only for our own sake.  We have been given gifts—symbolized by salt and light in Jesus’s language—so that we may bring God’s life and healing to each other and the human community.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are unique.  You are precious.  You are a walking sign of God’s covenant with the world.  Your job—my job—is to bring all that  you are—your saltiness, your zest, your unique perspective-- into your life with others so that God’s purpose can be worked out in and through everything you do. 

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 under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

I’m not sure that I will ever completely understand this phrase, but I do know this.  The great gift of following Jesus is the opportunity to try and live life on God’s terms.  Of course we don’t always make it and usually fall short.  But there is a beautiful and crazy nobility in the attempt. Don’t sell yourself short. Live into the fullness of God’s vision of who you can be.  That is a high calling.  But it’s a calling we are up to, because before we were Jesus is, and he is the true salt for us all. Amen.

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