January 15, 2017 – Second Sunday after Epiphany
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse
Scripture: Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Isaiah 40:28-31; Matthew 3:1-12, 5:13
When John the Baptist was still in the womb, his mother, Elizabeth, was visited by her cousin, Mary. According to the story, when Mary came into view, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt, apparently in response to the wonder of the child Mary was carrying. Now, I don’t know how many of you have experienced a live being, the size of a bowling ball LEAPING inside of you—hopefully only the ones of you who have actually been pregnant–but I can tell you from experience that it is not necessarily the most fun thing that can happen. A baby who behaves like this in the womb is apt to become an interesting person—mine went to France, Elizabeth’s became a prophet. And prophets, while they tend to be interesting people, do not tend to be easy people to be around. Their call, to listen to the voice of God and translate the messages of God to the people, often puts them in conflict with social norms. Jeremiah was always walking through town with yokes on his shoulders, Elijah and Elisha have fires and dry bones coming to life, and with John you have this annoying call to repentance and preparation for the one who is to come. People followed John and were baptized by John—but you don’t hear a lot of stories about people having John over for dinner—he’s about as popular as, say, an English teacher or a minister at a cocktail party. He’s difficult and has weird food issues and wears weird clothes and he’s, well, he’s salty.
What does that mean, to say he’s salty? Like many of the phrases that have moved from the Bible into popular language, the phrase “salt of the earth” has drastically changed in meaning from its original context. Generally speaking, these days, people are hard pressed to tell whether a phrase came from the Bible or Shakespeare or some internet meme that went around in 2013. “Salt of the earth,” which is not Shakespeare, but in fact is a direct quote from the mouth of Jesus, has come to mean someone who is solid—hard-working, good, honest, God-fearin’ folk. “He’s the salt of the earth” means he’s probably not an intellectual, but he’s a good guy. That is not the context out of which the phrase originates, however. Matthew 5:13 comes right after the Beatitudes, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In the book of Matthew, this sermon is Jesus’ introduction into ministry—he preaches it just after he is baptized and has called his first disciples, the sons of Zebedee. Its beginning oration is a list of things that are, things centered around the verb of existence and status, the verb “to be.” Those who are poor in spirit are blessed, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them; those who are mourning are blessed, because they will be comforted. Jesus is, in the most literal sense, telling it like it is. And then he says, directly addressing the crowd, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” That’s an interesting thing to say, isn’t it? Especially when its followed by a metaphor about being light, and how no one hides a light under a bushel basket. We’re salt. We’re meant to be salt. What does that mean?
Well, what does salt do? For one thing, it is necessary for life—if we don’t have enough salt, our bodies don’t function properly. Not enough salt, we can die; too much salt, we can die. You have, at the ends of your pews, baggies of pretzels—pass them down to each other, would you? Now, taste the pretzel without salt. I mean, it’s fine, right? If your doctor told you that, for sake of your heart’s health, you had to cut back on salt, you could eat this pretzel and it literally would not kill you. It is neither aversive nor pleasant—it is bland and boring and mealy, but not as bad as stinky cheese. Now taste the salted pretzel. Honestly—there’s no comparison, right? The salt hits your tongue with a sharpness, a kind of flavor that wakes everything up! It makes your mouth water a little bit, and so the pretzel is easier to eat; it engages those taste buds, so you pay attention to the flavors. It is interesting, inviting, flavorful, pleasurable—so much better than the other pretzel as to be something completely different. There’s a card in your bag of pretzels—look at the picture of salt. Its edgy and sharp—there’s not a soft space on it. It comes in one of the most stable shapes in the universe: a crystal, a collection of connected cubes—not completely indestructible, but strong, resistant, complex and interesting. That is salt. That is what salt is. And we are supposed to be salt. And for a person to be salty, well, it would mean that person shares some of those characteristics: strong and resilient, but maybe also pointy and interesting; sharp, distinct and the opposite of bland.
Tomorrow is the official celebration of a salty person in our cultural history. I’ve found it interesting, over the last 20 years, to watch how the Martin Luther King Day has evolved in the culture. It’s interesting, in one way, because there is no Malcolm X Day, no James Baldwin Day, no Stokley Carmichael Day. One of the ways that we, as a culture, made MLK Day palatable to a still deeply divided country is by forgetting about the salt behind King’s message. Because King did not vilify white people as Malcolm X and other leaders did, he was invited into more spaces with white people; because he was killed by a white man, King’s fate triggers more guilt than many of the other leaders. Malcolm X spoke bluntly, very similarly to the messages of John the Baptist. Malcolm X saw black people in America as victims of Christianity, not its beneficiaries. Theologian James Cone quotes Malcolm X as having said:
Wherever you find dark people or non-white people today…trying to get freedom, they are trying to get freedom from the people who represent themselves as Christians; and if you go to them and ask them their picture of a Christian, they’ll tell you “an exploiter, a slavemaster.” In America the definition would be one who promises you equal rights for a hundred years and never gives it to you. Cone 169
Compare this with the message of John the Baptist when he sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Mt 3:7-10
These are guys who pull no punches, they add no honey to their message. They offer no solace, no forgiveness, short of absolute surrender. Clearly, they bring some salt to the table.
When we celebrate Martin Luther King, we often forget the pointedness of King’s message, and the pushback he constantly gave to white ministers, and other white leaders who kept telling him to wait. What many of us continue to miss is that the theology of Martin Luther King, which is firmly rooted in the theology pervasive in African-American Christianity, was forged, as James Cone points out, “in the struggle to make sense of their lives in a nation of white so-called Christians. When blacks read the Bible,” Cone says, “they heard a message of freedom and applied it to their own situation in America. They refused to accept white people’s attempt to limit the Bible’s message of freedom to a spirituality removed from the everyday relations between black and white people.” (Cone 123-4) In April of 1963, King responded to an article published by several white ministers, who castigated him for his direct actions, which, they said, led to violence. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is exactly that, reminds the ministers that “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privilege voluntarily.” He goes on to speak directly about the church in America and says,
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. (Letter from Birmingham Jail The Atlantic Monthly, July 1963)
In Montgomery, Alabama, you can visit the little house where King and his family lived when the movement was just getting started. You can see the kitchen where he experienced a vision from God, which told him that “God is with the movement.” And you can go onto the front porch and put your hand on the divot that was left in the concrete when white men put a bomb on his porch with his wife and his young daughter inside. In later years, when another bomb was left on his porch but did not explode, King said,
Tell Montgomery that they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the Promised Land, and it’s going to be here in Montgomery. The old Montgomery is passing away and segregation is dying. Cone 125
Like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, both John the Baptist and Jesus were salty in their own ways. John’s bluntness and antagonism got him noticed by Herod, who beheaded him on the whim of a teenaged girl. And Jesus’ message to people that God loved them and cared for them, and that the work of the temple should be for people, and not make others rich on the backs of the people got him noticed by the temple elders, who turned him over to Rome, whose leaders and systems found it easier to torture and kill a man than to ask for truth or justice. Once every year, we remember Martin Luther King by having a day off, which is not a bad thing. But it is not the answer to the call we are given in Matthew; is it not the same as being salty. We live in a world of immense comfort and protection—we are very rarely called on to risk anything at all. We fill that void of adventure in our lives with movies filled with danger and action; with video games where we can actually choose to die so that the game will reset and we can play all over again; we escape in adventurous romance or fantasy and neglect the muscles that are built when we have our own adventures, when we permit ourselves to truly experience risk in service of something that really matters.
I remember the first time I ready Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, how I loved the character of Neville—this clumsy nerd of a character whose grandmother didn’t even like him. There’s a moment when Harry, Ron and Hermione are leaving the dormitory at night and Neville catches them. In a moment of true heroism, Neville stands up to them and tells them he won’t let them leave—he is ineffective, and Hermione simply strikes him with a petrification spell—but at the end of the book, Dumbledore, ever wise, awards 50 points to Gryffindor, Neville’s house, for the courage it took for him to stand up to his friends. Neville begins flexing those muscles of heroism in the first book, so that by the end of the series, it is Neville who leads the battle against evil at Hogwarts, it is Neville who kills Voldemort’s snake, the final horcrux, and it is Neville who earns the right to the sword of Gryffindor, which responds to courage and nobility of heart.
I know that for those of you who did not read Harry Potter, that all sounds like gibberish, but here is the point: we are not called to be good, we are called to be brave. We are not called to be rule followers. We are trained to be rule followers, but that is not our calling. People often invoke the Apostle Paul when talking about obeying civil laws or paying taxes, and it’s true—Paul does talk about obeying the rules. But to invoke that passage forgets that Paul is not only regularly arrested, both by Jews and by Romans, but he is beaten, multiple times, and eventually, beheaded for continuing to disobey laws which ask him to go against his call to teach people about God and the love of Jesus for us. Paul encourages us to obey all the rules that we can because he knows that, inevitably, if we are listening to our call, we will run afoul of the powers that are over us. “Don’t get in more trouble than you have to!” he is saying. Because we are called to be salt. Strong, courageous, pointy, tangy, flavorful.
This, this that we do here, this is for us to be fed, to grow, to nurture each other, to celebrate God. These hours, these are the way we gather the strength to go out into the world and provide the salt that holds our corporations accountable for their actions, the salt that stands up to power when necessary, the salt that defends the nerdy and the hopeless and stands up to bullies and dares to say, “I don’t care what you do to me—you will not stop me from standing up.” Being here doesn’t make us good any more than being in a bathroom makes us toilet paper. This is our meal, our fuel, the wine glass filled up so that the work we have to do out in the world can happen the way God wills it to happen.
When our group was in Cuba, we spent time with a lovely family with a legacy of ministry. Yudit, daughter of two ministers, and Piri, her husband, left a comfortable home where they lived with their families, to go minister and build a church in the tiny town of Zulueta. Their daughter, Rachel, is 16 years old and lives with them, her two younger brothers, and her grandmother in a space not much bigger than a couple of the bedrooms in my house. When we were with them on Sunday, we were having Sunday School, ready to discuss the story of the woman who touches Jesus’ robe and is healed. Our teacher wanted us to play a game that would divide us into groups. “We’re going to make a cake,” he said, “and you are all ingredients.” He pointed to some and said, “You are the eggs,” to others he said, “You are the sugar.” He pointed to Rachel and said, “You can be the flour.” Rachel shook her head and said, “No, I am the salt.” This was a bit of a private joke, because later, in worship, Rachel and the other young adults presented a short drama in which each represented a saying of Jesus—and, indeed, Rachel was the salt.
But as we watched them over the days we were together, we observed this young woman in this place: she hugged and welcomed the older ladies and made them feel at home; she sat and laughed and told stories with the teenagers and young adults, and spoke in sign language with the deaf men; she taught the younger girls a dance, and danced with them both as leader and as encourager. This is a young woman who knows who she is—she does not allow others to tell her that she is something she is not. Rachel is the salt and the vibrancy and pointedness of who she is surrounds her and gives her power over the hardships with which she lives. Following rules is easy. Anybody can follow a check-list. But it is bland and soulless—it does not provide flavor or meaning to life. We are called to be salt. And there are people out in the world thrown from their houses by war or by greed or by hatred or by fear. There are people out in the world who are made vulnerable simply because of their identity. There are people out in the world who are publicly vilified, not for behaviors they can change, but for things beyond their control. And we are called to stand, we are called, sometimes, to knock over tables, we are called to be abrasive and, even offensive. We are called to kindness and patience and laughter and joy, whether the world is kind to us or not. We are not called to be fragile, subject to anger at the slightest implication that someone does not agree with us; we are called to be strong, and courageous. To be Gideons and Davids—ill-prepared, perhaps, but willing to stand anyway. We are needed out there in the world. We are needed when truth is hard to come by, and when the lines between right and wrong become horribly blurred. We are needed. Because we are the salt.