This week I celebrated the 19th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I posted something on Facebook, as one does, and received lots of loving and positive messages. It reminded me, not that I needed reminding, of what a joy and a privilege it is to serve as a priest, and especially to serve this congregation. I belong to enough clergy groups to know and appreciate how blessed we are at St Paul’s.
Jesus offers us two metaphors to play with today: salt and light. You are the salt of the earth, he says. Salt is the world’s most common condiment. It adds flavor, preserves, and cleanses. It can also kill living things, raise blood pressure, and create unbearable thirst. The industry of harvesting salt from the Dead Sea was an important economic reality in Jesus’s day. Salt has been used as currency, hence the word “salary”. We take dubious information with a grain of salt. We add salt for exorcism when we bless holy water. In the ancient Jewish world, a “salt” covenant was regarded as especially solemn, and today in the Middle East the saying “there is salt between us” means that we are friends. Salt changes the properties of a thing: it has an effect; it has power.
Jesus uses the metaphor of salt knowing that all these connotations will resonate in his listeners. You are the salt of the earth: you are people who can and will change the properties of your environment. You are needed and valuable. You can be a powerful force for cleansing the world of evil, just as salt water draws the infection from a wound.
And you are the light of the world. Like salt, sunlight can act as a disinfectant. When we bring a lie to the light we see it evaporate. Light overcomes darkness. Light banishes secrecy and deception. Light and truth go hand in hand. For ancient Israel, truth was ultimately to be found in God’s Law, and true freedom lay in obedience to that law. Jesus echoed this conviction when he said in John’s Gospel, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” So it’s not a big step in today’s Gospel passage from “you are the light of the world, let your light shine”, to “I have come to fulfill the law”. Jesus embodies God’s truth. He fulfills the Law. He is the great light from which we draw our own light.
Jesus’s words take us back to the prophet Isaiah, who details the behaviors that will cause our light to break forth like the dawn. We are to share our resources, to shelter the homeless, to offer dignity to the destitute, to honor every human being equally as a child of God. We are to be repairers of the breach, reconcilers and rebuilders of our broken society. This is literally prophetic ministry, and to embark upon it is to place ourselves, with Jesus, in the line of the prophets, who dared to speak truth to power, who risked even their lives in the cause of justice and compassion.
Jesus says he comes to fulfill the Law, the same Law to which Isaiah refers when he reminds the people of God that it’s a hollow practice to observe the letter of the law in one regard, for example taking a fast day, while breaking the law in another by oppressing one’s employees or failing to care for your hungry neighbor.
God’s law is the law of love. Love God, love your neighbor. Isaiah condemns the nation that forsakes that ordinance. The nation forsakes the ordinance of God when we demonize refugees and those of other faiths, when we fail to provide life-saving health care, when we tolerate the abuse and oppression of workers in our midst.
God calls us to a fast from inaction. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” One yoke under which we labor is the yoke of sin. The collect we prayed at the beginning of the service begged God to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We have suffered this bondage throughout the history of the Christian church.
The church has a dismal history when it comes to the law of love. We have told women to endure abuse as a road to saintliness. We have supported the institution of slavery as a Biblically sanctioned way of life. We have condemned LGBT people for the way God made them. We have often justified our actions by claiming they are part of God’s Law, twisting the words of the law to legitimize our sin.
I am grateful to serve a church that sincerely attempts to heal the wounds of the past and to observe the spirit of God’s law, as it is summed up in the two great commandments. Our baptismal covenant holds us to a high standard of behavior. We live out our covenant by honoring the dignity of all, by seeking and serving Christ in others, by confessing our sins each week and engaging in the common life of the church.
But we have more than God’s law to consider. We also have human law, and sometimes the two come into conflict. Faithful people have sometimes chosen conscientiously to break the human laws that seem to fly in the face of God’s law. Churches around the country are creating sanctuary networks covenanting to shelter immigrants and refugees who are threatened with unjust, but legal, deportation. This might be what it means to bring the homeless poor into our house. Our neighbors in Standing Rock see the Keystone pipeline’s route through their ancestral burial grounds as a transgression against God’s law, in which we are commanded to care for the earth and to honor our elders. So they are willing to break human law by standing in the path of the bulldozers. Perhaps this is what it looks like to loose the bonds of injustice.
What issue might be so critical for us at St Paul’s that we would risk prosecution by committing acts of civil disobedience? Would we continue to provide showers and breakfast for those who live outside if the city passed an ordinance forbidding it? Would we stop traffic with demonstrations outside the local offices of federal agencies and representatives if a federal edict came down delegitimizing same-sex marriage or contraception? Would we join in protests if the national guard were deployed to keep us off the streets? These are questions we may need to wrestle with over the coming months and years.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” We are the light of the world. We are to let our light shine out, and the darker the times the more our light will be needed. Others look to St Paul’s to lead the way, to set an example. So, recall our mission statement: Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All. What can each of us do right now, in this moment, to live into this mission? Can you love Christ by asking his blessing on a person with whom you differ? Can you serve others by helping a newcomer near you find her place in the hymnal? Can you welcome all by shaking the hand of someone you didn’t expect or even want to see in church today? Yes, yes you can do all those things. See how easy this is?
We will let our light shine out in the world when we welcome members of Ohr Shalom Synagogue and the Islamic Center of San Diego to our Sunday forums in Lent.
We will be the salt of the earth when we speak out with our neighbors against environmental abuse and religious immigration tests, when we live our lives with integrity and compassion.
We will fulfill God’s law of righteousness when we love our neighbors by feeding them, clothing them, giving them sanctuary from a hostile world.
When St Paul visited his flock in Corinth he upended their expectations. They were sophisticated, cosmopolitan, a little jaded and cynical. Paul declined to wow them with eloquence or clever arguments. He simply brought the transforming love of Christ into their midst and stood as a living testament to its power. He was salt and light to the Corinthians.
Friday morning I found myself following an old yellow truck into Hillcrest. It had a lot of bumper stickers, one of which read “Earn your salt”. I think the admonition harks back to the ancient Roman legionaries who earned their pay or salary in pounds of salt, meaning “earn your reward” or “be worthy of the call.” It seems like an appropriate motto for today as we reflect on being the salt of the earth. So, people of St Paul’s, let your light shine forth in the world, and earn your salt!
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5 2017
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges