You are the salt of the earth

This sermon was preached Sunday morning, February 5, 2017, at CSMSG, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Music at the 9:15 choral mass included the Charles Wood (1866-1926) anthem, Expectans expectavi (“The sanctuary of my soul”). Listen to a recording here, and see the words here.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us, we beseech thee, the liberty of that abundant life which thou hast manifested to us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of theHoly  Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As I was preparing for this sermon today, I spent some time in a nearby coffee shop. One of the things I was doing there was reading through a commentary on what various ancient and medieval Christian authors had to say about salt and light.  

As I read, I started noticing the table next to me having a more and more heated conversation. Two men were talking about current events, and one of them was trying to convince the other of something controversial. The argument carried on, and finally one man said to his friend, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news!” That seemed to end the conversation, or at least the loud part of it, and I refocused on my reading.

I’m sure you’ve heard most of the symbolic meanings of salt already: it’s a preservative, a flavoring that makes food worth tasting in the first place, a cauterizing agent. But St. Jerome makes a very interesting, relatively uncommon reading: he recalls that armies carried salt on campaign with them. When they finally won the battle and had reduced their enemies’ cities to ruins, they would sow the ground with salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again, and the desolation of the place would be a reminder of the victor’s total conquest.

Of course St. Jerome meant that God in Christ has conquered the devil, and that you and I are the salt God sows in the devil’s territory to keep down the weeds of sin and wrong. But as I read all this I couldn’t help but remember the last word in the argument I’d overheard, “You wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news.” We are always tempted to sow salt of our own, not in the devil’s fields but in each other’s, especially from opposite sides of whatever great arguments have currency in our own day.

St. Jerome was certainly a great saint, but reading of the salt of the earth was a very sensitively human one, deeply aware of our obsession with scorched earth policies and winner-take-all kinds of games.

“You watch the wrong news.” It was Jerome’s belief, and just about everyone else’s up until the Enlightenment, that the senses were the windows of the soul. What we hear and see, smell, touch, and taste, enters the mind itself through our ears and eyes and all the rest, which function literally as windows and doors, allowing traffic between our inner life and the outside world. From the mind, the things our senses perceive enter the soul. And in the process they can be recognized, known, and, ultimately, loved.

It doesn’t make much sense scientifically, but the philosophy allows for a particularly beautiful kind of relationship between ourselves and the world: the more we see of the world, the more it is a part of us, and we of it. And likewise the more barriers we put up between ourselves and what’s out there, the more stunted and anemic we become, while the world, likewise, is also impoverished by our isolation.

This is the context in which some of Jesus’ other statements might make a little more sense: “Let those with eyes to see, see; and those with ears to hear, hear.” One of the ways of understanding the gifts of the Gospel is as a clarification of our sight, to see things as they are, and to love them as we ought.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a former parishioner at another parish, telling me about the wonderful things God had done in his life this past Thanksgiving. He and his daughter had been estranged for years, after many misunderstandings and mutually-inflicted injuries. They hadn’t spoken in no one remembered how long. Then out of the blue one afternoon in early November, he received a note from her, saying she and her family would be nearby for Thanksgiving, and would he join them? In his letter to me, this father said his first thought was, “I’d rather die, thank you very much.” But after some serious thought and honest self-examination, he decided he would say yes. He went to Thanksgiving expecting no great miracles or even civility. But in the event, after much talking, many tears, and forgiving all around, he found he had regained his daughter, and she her father. Truly it was an answer to prayer, and for that matter a prayer he hadn’t dared to make in years.

What does this have to do with the senses? If this father had decided to write off his daughter because she “watched the wrong news,” so to speak, because she had the wrong idea of him and would never change, healing could never have come. As it happened, her decision to invite him to Thanksgiving, and his decision to go, allowed that each of them, themselves, was for the other the only news they needed: this person who had become a stranger could again be known and loved if only they both agreed to drop the barriers of injury and suspicion which impeded their senses and closed their minds to further possibility, which closed the doors of the soul between a daughter and her father.

“You are the salt of the earth.” With all respect and great deference to St. Jerome, his image only goes so far. If we are sown by God to poison the devil’s fields, we only turn traitors and serve the devil if we poison each other’s instead. William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury of the last few centuries, a prolific scholar and a saintly man, served only two years as Archbishop before his death, but they were perhaps two of the most crucial years in his century: 1942 to 1944, the deepest, darkest nadir of the Second World War. Among many other things, Temple is famous for his quote: “The Church is the only society in the history of the world which exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members.”

“You are the salt of the earth.” Temple would not have been comfortable recommending poisonous behavior of any kind. He had seen more than his share of poisonous activity in his life already, both by nations and by individuals. For him, the Church’s vocation to be “the salt of the earth” was not Jesus’ way of flattering his disciples into good behavior. Rather for Temple, for the Church to be “the salt of the earth” meant that the Church, we, you and I, had a responsibility not only to one another, but to the whole world as well: to be the sort of people with whom forgiveness is possible, despite whatever barriers might exist between us, be they never so real, painful, or arresting; to be the sort of people in whom a father and his daughter might be reconciled; to be the sort of people in whom enemies might become friends; the sort of people who refuse to close their senses to one another but keep the highways open between souls, that love may abound to the glory of God.

“You are the salt of the earth.” Back in that coffee shop, this means we ought to be people who aren’t afraid of the news; who aren’t afraid of it, and who also aren’t merely spectators. “You are the light of the world.” This isn’t flattery either, but the same vocation. Salt of the earth, light of the world. Jesus is calling us to be people who refuse to put our heads in the sand, who refuse to “sit this one out” (whatever “this one” may be for you), and who commit ourselves to making the world worth tasting to begin with, who make the world worth seeing in the first place.

We do this by our God-given freedom to know strangers, to forgive friends, and to love enemies, and thereby to create new possibilities for life and growth where before there had been only ignorance or despair. This is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Because for us, Christ has taken the scales off our eyes: his Cross looms large in each of our senses. We see there the glory of God to transform sin, pain, injustice, estrangement, defeat, and even death itself into the bed of hope, the dawn of eternal life. There at his Cross we see tied the indissoluble bonds of holy affection which unite in one family those who formerly had no knowledge or need of one another. And this is the beginning of the Church.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Christians are people who taste and see, first and foremost, that the Lord is Good, and that this is what makes life worth living. Our vocation is no less for each other and for the whole human race. Salt and light: to make the earth worth tasting, the world worth seeing, and life worth living: that all may see and know; that knowing, we may also love; and that loving, we may all be saved.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.