Year A, Epiphany 5
Isaiah 58:1-9 and Matthew 5:13-20
When I was first ordained, I had a conversation with someone at a clergy event…well I suppose it was more of an argument. At one point I said, “That’s just not realistic.” He responded, “It really bothers me when people say something in our faith is not realistic. There are a lot things in our faith that are not realistic. That does not make them untrue.” That statement made an impact on me. While he was no doubt wrong about the argument itself, he definitely won that point. Consider the Christian story. A baby was born to a virgin. Kings from the East followed star to find the baby who was in a manger. This baby grew to be a man who healed people, brought people back from the dead, walked on water, turned water into wine, and on and on. He gathered a small band of followers who were mostly fishermen. This man Jesus, died so that people he did not know could be saved. He came back to life and later floated up into heaven. A religion was created from this small group of followers and now claims the greatest following in the whole world. Is any of that realistic?
Of course not! That is an indictment of Christianity, or really any faith. People say it’s like believing in dragons or magic. There is nothing real about. It’s just there to make us feel better, or worse to give certain people power and dominion over others. That’s what some people say. If you are here in church, it is very likely that you already believe the unbelievable. You might have a hard time believing it all, but there is something that draws you to Jesus and to faith…something that is extraordinary. So you keep coming back to this house of worship. Many of us find holiness in these walls with this community. We are emboldened by the prayers and the music. But when we leave this sacred enclave, often our faith becomes private and personal. It is still real, but it is real only in a corner of our lives.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? ….“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid…” Referring to people as light is not a new concept for most of us. We sing. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” We might describe someone as “lighting up a room.” Light is a good thing. It enables us to see where we are going and what we are doing. Light gives us hope.
Salt is a trickier metaphor. When we think of salt, we think of something that is not good for us or something we have to cut out of our diet because we have high blood pressure. We use it to season food that is bland. It’s a common ingredient. Nevertheless, it is something that almost everyone has in their kitchen. It can be quite handy. It can bring out the flavor in those bland things. It adds a little zest. Have you ever had french-fries without salt? They are horrible! With salt, those are some tasty treats.
Salt had slightly different purposes in the time when Jesus was telling people, “You are the salt of the earth.” It was used to preserve food. It was even used for heat. They did not have gas or electric ovens like we have today. They didn’t even use wood because it was hard to come by. The stuff that was very abundant was camel or donkey dung. This could be used as fuel, but only if you were able to mix salt with it. Salt was essentially the catalyst that caused the dung to burn. While this is not the most appetizing image, it is clear that salt, like light, had and has an important purpose. Salt and light, by their very nature do something. Part of what Jesus was saying to his followers and to us is that we have a purpose. We are here on earth to do something.
You might think, well that is great news, but what are we supposed to do? The answer to that is in the reading from the Old Testament, the Book of Isaiah. In this story, we hear all about what people are doing. They are fasting. They are humbling themselves by rolling in ash and wearing sack cloth (which is an incredibly itchy fabric). They are doing all the important rituals to get God’s attention and gain his favor— but God is not listening, or if he is, he is not responding in the appropriate way. In fact when God does respond to these displays of piety, God tells his prophet Isaiah, “I don’t want these symbolic gestures. I want these people to do something….to do something for the other people in their midst. I want them to help the oppressed, to share food with the hungry and bring homeless people into their homes.”
What was really irritating God about this situation is that these people were fasting and spending all this time rolling around in ashes. They were so busy making these grand gestures, other people had to do their work. And the people who were doing their work were the people who were their servants and slaves. They were people who did not have the luxury to say no to the people in power. These people who were doing all these rituals were also using it as an opportunity to argue about who was more godly, who was more holy. They had totally missed the point.
I know I sound critical of this pious group and I should not be. I am a priest. I am all about ritual. I know that it is easy to get lost in the ritual and the rules and forget what we (the people of God) are really about. It is a lot easier to talk about God than do the work of God. It is easier to describe the light than to be the light. What God was asking of his people hundreds of years ago is what he still asks of us today: to help the oppressed, the share food with the hungry and bring homeless people into our homes. That is a lot easier said than done, especially when most of us cannot agree on the best way to do those things.
This is one of those times when Jesus and the Bible don’t seem very realistic. I cannot let a homeless person in my home. I mean, it’s one thing if we know them, a friend or family member who has fallen on hard times. But I cannot welcome just any person into my home. It’s dangerous.
Unfortunately I don’t know what the answer is. On the one hand, I believe that we are called to do things that do not make sense to the world, things that most people would say is totally unrealistic and naïve. On the other hand, I don’t know the best way to do those things, or I am too scared to do them. This is the best answer I can come up. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He did not say, “Once you have reached paradise, you will be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” He did not say, “Once you have studied, discerned and come up with a practical solution, then, then you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of world.” No. He is telling us all, right now, just as we are, that we are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
But here is the hard part, we have to share the light. The light cannot be relegated to our Sunday morning ritual. We also have to act as catalysts in this world. That is all a huge responsibility and overwhelming. To be this light, to be agents of change, we need to gather our collective strength. Each person here has a way that they are being light and they are being salt. Tell me what it is. Send me an e-mail, stick a post it under my door, give me a call. Then collectively, let us find more ways to be salt and light. For awhile, let us suspend judgment. Let is not yet decide who is the brightest or who has the most zest. And maybe (and I know this is hard for practical Episcopalians) let us be just a tad, unrealistic. When it comes to our faith, pragmatism is overrated.