Monday, February 17, 2014

You Are Salt, You Are Light

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 58:1-12; I Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

A fascinating part of the Super Bowl for me is the commercials. I want to know what’s worth spending a million dollars a second, or however astronomically much that airtime costs. But certainly they have become part of the performance! In the opening seconds of one of these frothy concoctions, I expect to experience something very familiar but very surprising, a quick roller coaster ride that cleverly engages my imagination and gets a reaction, whether that’s a laugh, a groan, a smile—or maybe an action, like reaching for a Bud (which for me would be a raging success, since I don’t drink beer), or upgrading to an Audi (which isn’t going to happen) or putting yogurt on the shopping list (the likeliest action for me).

I caught just part of the Super Bowl, last Sunday night. Two commercials held my attention. One was for Radio Shack, the one where the characters and cultural icons of the 80’s sweep through the store, stripping the place of old products no longer serving the future, and announcing a new inventory, a clean sweep. Since I seldom go to Radio Shack and haven’t an electronic bone in my body, I didn’t feel like I had a horse in that race—though I can imagine using a similar concept in a commercial for the Church, aiming it at people who are pretty sure there’s nothing here for them.

The other I really liked, even if I don’t eat Cheerios. Sweet-faced Gracie is hearing her Dad explain that the three of them are about to become four, because a baby is coming. With each reference to a family member, Dad slides a cheerio to the center of the table; then Gracie slides one more, and announces that a puppy is coming, too. The surprise kind of skips a generation: it’s Dad’s and Mom’s eyebrows that get raised, not Gracie’s—she’s a step ahead. She knows the story, and she’s writing the script. She knows something is being asked of her, and she drives her bargain.

Commercials tell us various things. Starting with the message, You are a consumer. Now consume this. Take in this message and let it work on you, either in the next 30 seconds (grab a Bud) or in the next 30 months (buy an Audi). You are somehow part of the little world of this commercial, stay tuned and discover how our message relates to you and your desires, your appetites, your self-image, your priorities.

Well, here is a commercial on behalf of our sponsor today: “Christians feed on scripture. Holy scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn to study or use scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of God, feet washed in company with the Son… Come to the Table and eat this book, for every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies.”

That’s from Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation with the Art of Spiritual Reading.

So, let’s return to that Gospel. It’s only fair that Jesus, having asked his disciples who they think he is, should tell them what he thinks they are.

Salt and light. He could have said to them, “You are self-actualized self-differentiated agents of generativity evolved to a high enough degree of awareness and insight that I may be able to use you…” But he doesn’t. He says, You are salt. You are light.”

He could, as a not far-fetched alternative, have said to them, “You are smelly fishermen, oily tax collectors, and generally low life Galilean peasants who haven’t a clue what God is up to and if you ever intend to rise from your sorry state you’d better catch every pithy saying I toss your way, figure out what I mean, and shape up.”

But he doesn’t. He says, You are salt. You are light. And by the terms of the Gospel, he’s saying that to you and me, to us.

I wonder what we can hear in these two mighty metaphors. For one thing, they tell us what Jesus requires of us: not that we try harder and harder to be salt and light, but that we trust him at his word that we are salt and light. His disciple Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, our second reading today, speaks of what God has revealed to us through the Spirit, the Spirit that searches everything and is deeply at home in what is truly human. What is revealed to us is how God has set in motion a new reality, a new creation in Jesus whose word we accept and whose power we trust.

That power is already at work in us—salt and light—and he calls us not to more and more self-exertion but to learn how to demonstrate his Spirit and his power. Which is not a matter of lofty words in theology or of mad-man cleverness in advertising, not a matter of successful organizational planning, and not a matter of filling our calendars with more and more commitments that prevent us from ever committing our hearts to anyone (or discovering what the truest desires of our hearts are).

He called Paul to have no more elaborate mission plan than knowing among the Corinthian Christians nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, recognizing him in every person, hearing his wisdom in and above the many philosophies and value systems competing with one another for airtime in that world that was the context of the early Church. Read commentaries on Paul’s letters to Corinth and see how easily the Church divides in a welter of conflicting views and opinions, how essential it is that disciples base their faith not on human wisdom but on the power of God. And this required of Paul that he approach the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” performing the mission entrusted to all disciples by being salt and light.

Of these two metaphors, light needs little explanation two thousand years later. Even with electricity and headlights penetrating the night, we readily get it, that a sleepless sufferer longs for sunrise, that a profound choice presents itself, between cursing the darkness and lighting that one small lamp that will drive the darkness from a room.

But salt? In Hebrew culture, eating together was called “sharing salt”. The food on that table may have been preserved with salt. Salt was precious enough that it was an object for ritual sacrifice, and a symbol representing loyalty and covenant faithfulness and ritual purity.

I think of a recent New Yorker cover: a pudgey French chef standing in the doorway of his cafĂ©, earmuffs in place and a wooly scarf around the neck of his white uniform, in his left hand a little bowl of salt, while with his right he pinches and sprinkles just a little salt on that icy sidewalk… it’s not all about money these days: salt still carries its own preciousness.

Neither salt nor light is inert. By their nature, the one is salty and the other shines: Jesus picks images of how faith by its nature expresses itself in works, discipleship in mission, learning by doing, glorifying God by allowing God to ignite us, putting our salt on the table to be used, our lit lamps on the table to help us all see each other clearly.

Matthew places this little teaching portion of chapter five in his Gospel right after the beatitudes in our Lord’s sermon on the mount. There’s something clearly chosen about his pairing salt and light, the one representing chemical reaction permeating matter, the other presenting electromagnetic radiation—both express a fully embracing presence, full engagement, the comprehensive indwelling of the Word made flesh, the pattern of all mission in the world.

Both express how Jesus will fulfill the law and the prophets: through the salt and light of his disciples, his friends, his allies. “I have come not to abolish but to fufill.”

Nonetheless, Matthew records the risk inherent in our discipleship: that our salt may become so mixed with other elements that it loses its chemical grip and has nothing more to give. Are these words of judgment directed at believers who lost their missionary zeal and sat on their laurels? Could be, but I’d hope for something better from Jesus: words of understanding that we all will need, when our salt must mingle with grief and loss, when we face periods in life when depression claims the energy we once had and yearn to have again, or illness sidelines us, family dynamics become draining, disillusionment hits in our workplace—or loss of a workplace— and flattens our peaks and fills our valleys.

Lighting a lamp and then hiding it under a basket: another image of the risk of discipleship, not to mention a fire hazard to all in the house. But the bucketed flame works as an image both of too private a discipleship that lacks the oxygen of community, and too institutional a discipleship that can squelch the Spirit who plunges into what is truly human.

It may seem as if these altogether human circumstances threaten to abolish salt and light in us. But remember that his promise is to fulfill. His powerful good news is not, “You have potential to be salt and light, if you will just keep trying harder and harder,” but, “You are salt and light.”

So, in seasons when our salt gets mingled and our light bucketed, it’s time to practice a more sheer trust, time to do that walking in weakness that Paul speaks about, time to do whatever connects us to the Spirit and power of God, to share salt with others, and share light.