Year A, Epiphany 5 February 5, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You are the salt of the earth.”
The Sermon on the Mount… We heard the opening last week, the ontological statement of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is how the world truly is. When we are broken, weak, the more we mourn or are poor in spirit, the more God is open to us and loves us. Love is the force that gives us meaning and governs the movement of our lives and spirits, just as it makes the trees grow and the birds sing and the seas rumble and sets the planets in their courses. Like you may have learned at summer camp, “It’s love that makes the world go ‘round!” Truly. Jesus lays out a baseline of how the world and we are when we fully surrender to God. A good start to a sermon.
After the Beatitudes, we have find two little transitional couplets, “You are the Salt of the Earth” and “You are the light of the world”. (We’ll come back to those). These are followed by the heart of the Sermon, a long ethical discourse in three sections. The first concerns Jesus and the Torah. We hear the first part of that today; His reassurance to Israel that Jesus came not to replace the Torah, the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. We’ll hear more on the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law next week. The second section concerns Jesus and religious practice; how to pray, give alms and conduct ourselves in relation to God. The final section concerns daily life and the challenges of society we all face, from our relationship to wealth, to being judgmental to the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So one way to think about the Sermon on the Mount is that it starts by telling us about the Commonwealth of God, the true state of how the world is supposed to be (and is if we just acted like it), and then offers the ethical discourses on how to get to that Promised Land. Connecting them are “You are the salt of the Earth” and “You are the light of the world.” These four verses are very important, for they describe where we, the faithful listeners, those gathered at the feet of Christ are right now; not how we will be, or how we are supposed to be, but how we are right now.
How are you right now? That is a serious question. How are you doing. I’ve started our class on the Book of Revelation with that question the past few weeks and have heard kind of a groan each time. I have been having a lot of conversations with people here and out in the community and the upset and consternation is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Some folks talk of losing weight because they aren’t eating or sleeping well, while others are gaining weight for similar reasons. There is stress in relationships. The news is distracting some us from our families and work. I had to turn off the wi-fi when writing this to keep from flipping to the news every 10 minutes. The news cycle is swirling in overdrive trying to keep up with Twitter. You can smell the ozone as the circuits overheat and the anxiety is palpable. If you ever need to talk, give me a call. Yes, yes I am busy, but never too busy for you. Truly.
But that is not all that I am seeing. Oh there is plenty of the hateful stuff, some manifesting as public policy, some as hate flung at individuals, specific identity groups and just out into the universe. Some folks are coming to conclusions about things that I just can’t understand. A lot of my prayers are reserved for them. The world must seem so scary and hostile, really lacking security. It is easy to behave poorly, or at least un-mindfully when you are scared and under stress, especially when principalities and powers of the world are confirming your fears and giving license for all sorts of reactions.
I am also, though, seeing people wake up, as if coming out of a deep sleep. The world has been fading to black since the horror of 9.11 and our horrific and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in response. (I suppose we must add Syria and now maybe Yemen, too)? Over the past eight years, though, we have been lulled into complacency by what many have considered a friendly face at the helm, but those scales are falling off. (Or the hurricane force winds of change are blowing them off)! There is engagement. Folks are talking, reflecting on their part in things, thinking about repenting! About changing the direction of their lives! Five hundred priests showed up at Standing Rock! Millions around the globe marched in the largest single protest ever; in the history of the world! 10,000ish here in little old Eugene. Now obviously it would have been better if we had more of that passion before the election, Bernie mustered some, but for a lot of reasons that petered out and we were left with the two candidates with the lowest approval ratings of Presidential candidates ever. Right or wrong that’s how it was and too much of the nation slumped into apathy or paralyzing disgust. Ben Franklin wrote An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure because we need constant reminders. In very short order, though, a lot of people are giving a lot of their attention and intention, are really searching for a way to make the world better or at least keep it from getting a whole lot worse. And that is really, really good. This is very, very exciting. This is exactly what we are supposed to be doing right now.
“You are the salt of the earth…” “You are the light of the world…”
When we are perfected or purified; once we have fully emptied ourselves, kenosis, as St. Paul wrote to the folks in Philippi, when we have surrendered ourselves completely to the will of God we will inherit the Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven will be ours, we will be comforted. No doubt about that. But until then, or whilst we follow the Way of Christ to the Commonwealth, we are the salt of the Earth. We are the light of the world.
What does it mean to be the salt of the Earth? _______ Being thoroughly decent. Being wholesome. Now there’s a word that we just don’t hear enough: Wholesome. Conducive to physical or moral well-being. The salt of the earth are regular people whose presence is conducive to physical or moral well-being. Jesus is telling His followers that that is not only what they were (what we are), but that that’s what the world needs, a heaping dose of it. The Salt of the Earth. Being thoroughly decent, wholesome. The world needs you! The world needs us! It always has, and right now it is just more obvious. Jesus is calling!
Just the simple presence of people doing the right thing, trying to do the right thing, trying to be decent and wholesome, that makes the world a better place. It is grounding. Stabilizing. It sets roots and builds community, resilient community that can withstand the buffeting winds of chance and history because communities of decent, wholesome people are reliable and trustworthy. Resilience! That is what we need now, in this very moment. And resilience grows when you can trust that the people around you have good intentions. You can breathe. And Lordy, do we need to breathe right now. Deeply.
When the world starts to contract, and anxiety edges up, sort of like it is now, suspicion and defensiveness can creep in. That is the enemy’s victory, us divided against ourselves. Us curled up around a screen, focused inwards in despair, or outward with suspicion and hostility. That is exactly the opposite reaction than we need.
The church was founded in a time of tumult and anxiety. It was an age of “desolating sacrilege.” The church, though, in as hostile an environment as you can imagine set roots, it grew, it survived. There are a lot of reasons for this. One of them, one of the ways God’s will manifested was that the early Christian communities took care of each other. Really. They cared for each other physically when they got sick, with alms giving when they needed a hand, with supporting each other emotionally, spiritually when disaster struck. There were plagues, epidemics that passed through the Empire and some scholars posit that Christians survived at higher rates because the communities came together, concentrated resources and cared for each other. The first Holy Order were deacons, servants, who took the offerings and distributed them among the poor in and around the fledgling church communities. The word “Hospital” comes from medieval Christians who invented the concept of places where people could find shelter, rest and care when they were in need. The church made it because people were sustained by the church, sometimes being cared for on a sick bed, sometimes with money to get by another month, but mostly by simply being propped up by the wholesome and decent folks you saw each Sunday morning.
That is one of the things that I do love about church, the wholesomeness of it all. Good clean fun. Places you can bring your children or grandchildren and not worry about what they will be exposed to (besides the inevitable third cookie). The church is (well can be, is supposed to be, this one is) a community, a for-real community, a gathering of people with a shared common good in mind. Look around you right now. This is what He was talking about; not too good, not too bad, but just right.
He is telling us that we don’t need to be saints to follow Him on the Way to God. We don’t need to be brilliant or successful (though you probably could be and still be welcome, though He is less clear when it comes to being too rich and wanting to stay too rich). Being the salt of the earth means being our whole, true selves and being the community that we are, without pretense or posturing. Decent. Wholesome.
If we are the salt of the earth, we are also the light of the world… Where being the salt is how we are, being thoroughly decent, being wholesome, being the light of the world is shining that outward, being a wholesome example. It is evangelistic. It is communicating and inviting others to the warmth of your little fire.
And that light, it purifies! I don’t think there is an iota of wholesomeness in bag of Stay-Puff Marshmallows or a bar of Hershey’s chocolate, not when measured by any organic, whole-food, really any nutritional/economic standard; bereft of wholesomeness. But squeeze them between a Graham Cracker with your cousins over the fire that Nana built by the lake… that’s fruits of the light of the world shining and making the broken whole.
“The Salt of the Earth.” “The Light of the World.” Jesus is talking to us where we are. We are the people He has. Maybe not the people He wants, or that we will become, but we are who He has. And all He asks is that we listen to Him, and try to be ever closer to Him in thought, word and deed. That’s what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is about. And it is for us. You.
We need all types if this world is going to come about. We need the revolutionaries to keep the fires stoked. (Not everyone with a black mask is an enemy or is lashing out mindlessly). We need the thinkers and writers, public intellectuals to frame the debate. We need policy makers and influence-rs to do the technical work, protecting or laying legal foundations for the common good. We need artists and musicians to show us the truth in its many colors. And most of all, we need the salt of the earth. We need grandma’s cookies and grandpa’s stories. We need moms and dads teaching their kids right from wrong. We need neighbors keeping an eye on each other, and kindly decent people to volunteer to help out our homeless neighbors, to keep the church doors open, to bring a casserole to someone coming out of surgery. The world, this nation, it’s not out there, it’s not what we peer at through the 3 by 6 screen in our pocket. It is right here. Right now. It is what you see and smell and taste, and it is who you know and how you treat them.
That’s the salt of the earth. Jesus’ people. Decent. Wholesome. Doing what needs doing. Giving the time you have for what needs to be done. I’ll end today with the poem I shared in the newsletter this week. It is called “A Time to Talk” by Robert Frost and I think he puts it as good as anyone the fruits of being the salt of the earth. Being this kind of person, decent and wholesome, friendly and kind, getting your priorities right, that’s going to go a long way in keeping us all together, building our resiliency as individuals and as a Christian community, and giving our society a foundation of rock upon which we can build the world Jesus Christ intends for us to live in. And being this way, we will be in a posture to begin on the divinely hard work of making the Commonwealth real that Jesus lays out in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road And slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don’t stand still and look around On all the hills I haven’t hoed, And shout from where I am, 'What is it?’ No, not as there is a time to talk. I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, Blade-end up and five feet tall, And plod: I go up to the stone wall For a friendly visit.