February 5, 2017
I wish that our Gospel reading today was about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. Because instead of having 5 husbands, I have 5 sermons, and my present sermon is not really my sermon.
But instead today we get Jesus talking about salt and light. And in the end, maybe that’s just what I needed to hear. Maybe it’s just what we all need to hear right now. It just might take some time working on it to get to the point where we can begin to figure out what to do with it.
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells the crowds gathered before him. Or, from another translation, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…. You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
The light part sounds familiar, we’re used to hearing, singing, praying about light. And we know what light does. It allows us to see, produces warmth, creates growth and energy. It’s a symbol of wisdom and joy and goodness. It’s also an important metaphor for the people to whom Jesus spoke. The people who were called to be God’s light to the nations.
Salt is a less familiar metaphor. In Jesus’ day, salt wasn’t just used for seasoning. Back before refrigeration, it was used to preserve food. It was also an antiseptic, used to cleanse wounds. And salt was a sign of hospitality and friendship. Eating salt together at the table was an expression of fellowship and peaceful relations. Salt was also intimately involved with their religious experience. Salt was part of every Temple offering and sacrifice because it symbolized the covenant between God and Israel.
So salt and light. And we, the crowds gathered around Jesus a few millennia later, are included in this too. We, too, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
And at first hearing, I thought that seemed easy enough. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that recent months have made abundantly clear how hard it is to be salt and light. Because we aren’t alone in this endeavor. Other people are involved, and sometimes other people can make it tricky to be salt and light.
In particular, for me, my task as a preacher has gotten a whole lot harder in the last couple months. In the old days, I would sit with the readings for the week and it wouldn’t take long to figure out the piece that was calling me. I would research and pray and imagine and before long I knew what angle I was going to take and, pretty soon at least, what story or modern application I could use to make it real. Hopefully, my sermon would inform, or inspire, or challenge you in some way. And all would be well. But recently, my sermon work has been agonizing. And this one was the worst so far. Because in order to talk about salt and light, I had to figure out what it means for me to be salt and light. And that is no light task right now.
Thankfully, John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon who was bashed and bloodied in the march toward integration, has been with me for my process this week, and he has been a great imaginary companion in my weeklong struggle. His interview with Krista Tippett re-aired recently in honor of Martin Luther King Day and I’ve been thinking about it all week. He was very helpful as I worked on my five different sermons for this morning.
My first sermon was about our call as Christians in the public square in our current national atmosphere. I came out of our Diocesan Convention last week fired up by our bishops’ willingness to get arrested to protect the vulnerable. I thought it would be fun to imagine and write a top ten list of God’s executive orders. Starting, perhaps, with God’s executive order to the people of Israel once they finally made it into their own land: You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
As I swirled ideas in my head I thought about the piece in John Lewis’ interview when he talks about growing up surrounded by segregation and racial discrimination. “I didn’t like it,” he said. “And I would ask my mother and my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why. They would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’” But that advice didn’t work for Lewis. Because, as he explained, “attending church and Sunday school, reading the Bible, the teaching of the Great Teacher,” he knew that “the way it is” had to change. There are some things that our faith compels us to work to change.
The problem with this first sermon was that thinking about all the things in the world that need work, and all the ways we aren’t living up to God’s call, ended up completely stressing me out. If this is going to be substance, rather than just rhetoric, there is so much big work to do in the world and that makes me feel incredibly powerless and a little desperate. And I didn’t want to leave you all feeling that way too. And so that inspired my second sermon about the worry and anxiety I’ve been feeling myself and seeing in others over the last few weeks. I’ve had a constant onslaught of emails and social media reminders to make phone calls, sign petitions, attend meetings, write postcards. As a politics major whose first career plan was to be the first woman president (which is still possible, I might note), I love witnessing the level of civic engagement growing in our country. But, for some reason I find that the more I do, the harder it is to imagine that what I do makes a difference. I find myself more cynical than I used to be. Which I really don’t want to be.
So I loved what John Lewis had to say about that. He said the core of his action was always “this belief that somehow and some way things were going to get better, that you had to have this sense of hope, a sense of optimism, and have faith. You have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.… You just have to find a way to make it real. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe — not maybe, but it would happen in somebody’s lifetime. But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time.” In other words, we must, as faithful people, live as if the dream of God is already real.
The problem with that second sermon came when I remembered that today would be Scout Sunday and so there would be people here who didn’t already love me and give me the benefit of the doubt and so might not hear the Gospel shining through either of these first two sermons as much as they’d hear judgment or politics. And so my third sermon was about how we need to learn to speak to each other differently and listen more gently, more spaciously, than perhaps we have gotten used to doing. I’m guessing that you, like me, are inundated with angry rhetoric and reactionary us-them talk, especially on social media. Trenches are being dug all around us, full of accusations and shoulds and judgment. A friend of mine received a bomb threat yesterday because of what I would have said was a pretty mundane tweet. I’ve seen seminary acquaintances accusing each other of losing sight of the Gospel. The scorn and contempt and demonization of the Other is making dialogue harder every day. Where can all of that possibly lead but down?
But John Lewis has advice for us here, too. “In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being…. [W]hatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
The problem with my third sermon became evident when it led to a heated discussion with my husband who reminded me that many people aren’t in a place where they can hear that message as anything but Pollyanna nonsense. (Except his words weren’t quite so polite.)
And so my fourth sermon was about how hard this call we have as Christians is to be salt and light. That this Christianity business isn’t for wimps. That Jesus and his disciples had hard lives and we are called to the serious work of discipleship. And that it won’t come quickly or easily but is a calling that we grow into over our lifetimes, if we’re lucky. And that probably if we think we have it figured out and it’s going swimmingly, we are headed in the wrong direction.
And John Lewis spoke to that too. “First of all, you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence…. [It’s] love as steadfastness. Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls.”
The problem with my fourth sermon was, I’m sorry to say, my complete lack of authority to speak as if I know what I’m talking about. My Christian life has always been fairly easy. I’ve never had to give up much for it. I get paid to be a Christian. I have the best job on earth, with a rector who supports me as I figure out my ministry, and a parish that forgives me just about anything, as far as I can tell. Who am I to preach about how much Christianity requires of us?
And then, just as I was starting to think there was no way to make any of this work, and beginning to imagine myself up here reading you all The Butter Battle Book or something, it hit me that these four sermons are all one. These four sermons are the slow, hard, frustrating work of me figuring out what it means to be salt and light in this complicated, nuanced, fraught time we are living in. Tensions are high, fears are real, relationships can easily be upended, our words and actions have consequences, and that’s exactly why being salt and light matters now more than ever. Our faith is critically relevant to our walk in the world. And we are in the midst of learning as we go how to walk in love, just as Jesus’ disciples did in their time, and John Lewis and his compatriots did in theirs, and as Christians throughout the ages have had to do in their own times and places. How we go forward together is part of how we live as salt and light.
And maybe at this moment figuring out what that looks like is the most valuable gift we can give the world.
Because, when you think of it, both light and salt get their value largely because of their relationship to other things. The way they transform or affect something else. Our calling to be salt and light isn’t something we do within ourselves, or something we do only with people that agree with us, or with people that make our lives easier. Our salt-seasoning and light-bearing mostly happens out there, amongst other unpredictable people, in the wide, diverse, unruly world.
And it isn’t even optional, not really. Jesus doesn’t tell us we ought to be salt and light. He tells us we already are salt and light. That is who we are created to be. Each one of us is of great value – and we are created to give our distinctive flavor and bring our unique light to all of our lives, so that by our presence and witness we transform the world around us. We are created to live courageously and generously. No matter what we do or where we live or who we know, this is our vocation, our identity. To show God to the world and to help the world see the way out of fear and hatred.
But that’s another sermon. Amen.