Posted by: dacalu | 11 February 2020

Salt and Light

Yesterday I had the joy to worship with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle, WA. We celebrated the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer of the Day

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 58:1-9a (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice”)

Psalm 112:1-9 (“Hallelujah! Happy are they who fear the Lord”)

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” AND “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?”)

Matthew 5:13-20 (“You are the salt of the earth.” AND “You are the light of the world.”)

Sermon

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 1-2)

We face a great temptation in the church,

             a temptation that has been with us since the Enlightenment,

            perhaps since the time of Christ.

We are tempted to think of physical and spiritual matters separately,

            to say that what we do with our bodies is not what we do with our souls,

            to say that what we do with our money is not what we do with our values,

            to say that our politics are separate from our beliefs.

But that is not the gospel.

Jesus was physical and political.

            He did not occupy another world; he occupied this one, tangibly.

            He did not ask us to escape these things, but to transform them.

This is, for me, the great and terrible mystery of Christianity.

            We are not replaced, but transformed.

            Water and bread and wine are sanctified.

            And the concrete, tangible, fallible community,

                        becomes the body of Christ.

It is so easy to make this complicated.

            And there is a mystery there, a deep mystery.

            It is worth meditating on the wonder of it,

                        and the surprise.

            But first we must come to the simple truth of it,

                        the literal, visceral, day to day truth of life in Christ.

So, let us begin there.

You are salt.

And you are light.

Both are strangely magical,

            because of what they do.

Salt preserves food by extracting the water,

making it inhospitable to micro-organisms.

Flesh that decays becomes flesh that lasts.

Salt enhances flavor, interacting with other tastes

            in the cells of our mouth,

            making both sweet and sour more intense.

In Matthew’s time, salt was mined from the ground

            and evaporating sea water.

Think about that for a moment:

            a powerful substance revealed by drying out water.

It’s not entirely clear how salt could lose its flavor.

            Matthew may be referring to impurities,

                        occurring naturally or added my merchants

                        to make money.

            Or, he could be thinking more metaphorically.

In any case, if salt lost its savor,

            it would be nothing but white sand.

Salt, I suspect, does not care whether it is salty,

            but we care.

We use salt daily.

Its interactions with other chemicals matter.

Or, consider light:

            little packets of energy flying from the Sun.

Sunlight powers the wheat that turns air and soil into food.

It powers the grapes that turn soil and air into drink.

We rarely look at light,

            but without light, we could never look at anything else.

Light has power.

            It enables. It stimulates. It reveals.

We eat the light, and bathe in light, and use the light, daily.

And so, when Jesus says we are salt and light,

            I think he is telling us about our importance.

We may be valuable in ourselves,

            but I’m not even sure what that means.

Our value comes from our relationships –

            first with God and then with one another.

God makes us powerful, like salt and light.

            God makes us important through our concrete, physical, daily interactions.

There is something magical about that.

            It may be thoroughly scientific,

            but it is also wonderful and surprising and deeply important.

We must look within to see ourselves truly.

This is not a spiritual metaphor.

            Well, it is a spiritual metaphor,

                        but first it is a physical truth.

Consider your body,

            tissue by tissue, cell by cell, atom by atom.

All of it physical, material, tangible.

            All of it scientifically tractable.

Take it apart piece by piece,

            and nothing remains:

            no mass unaccounted for,

            no energy unaccounted for.

In truth we are mostly empty space with very simple energy fields,

            holding protons and neutrons and electrons together.

Taken apart, we are as nothing.

            But put the pieces together and something interesting happens,

                        something miraculous.

The parts interact,

            and we interact,

            and we have power.

What is that?

What are humans that God cares for us?

What are humans that we care for one another?

These are not secrets of Christianity;

they are mysteries of science,

wonders of daily life.

All humans know them.

Many religions,

            indeed, many Christians,

would claim that our faith requires something added,

something separable,

something “spiritual.”

Maybe it does.

But that is not the point,

            and that is not the gospel.

The gospel is this:

            that God’s spirit moves in matter,

            that molecules like salt and waves like light have power,

that the atoms and cells and tissues come together

            and have meaning.

Water from a stone.

Light made manifest.

God made flesh.

Miracles are not spirituality without physicality.

They are not faith without science.

They are important because they occur here,

            in our world, in our daily lives.

Isaiah knew this when he wrote:

“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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Light is not light when it does not shine.

Bread it not bread when it does not feed.

And we are not truly human unless we love one another,

            unless we shine,

            unless we feed.

And we cannot claim true worship,

            unless we do so with bread and wine shared,

            the symbolic and spiritual and tangible bread and wine of the altar,

            the symbolic and spiritual and tangible food given to the hungry

                        on our streets and in our world.

These are not separate things.

            They are never distinct and apart.

Break up the liturgy into words and actions,

            gold and silver and incense,

            individuals standing and sitting and kneeling,

            books of prayers and ritual acts.

Dissect our worship into its pieces,

            and nothing remains.

It is only mass and space and energy.

Separate it from the community,

            separate it from the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan,

            separate it from money and politics,

            separate it from the plants and animals and the environment,

            and nothing remains.

It becomes a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13.1)

Or, as Shakespeare would have it:

“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth V.5)

Christians start with the same atoms, the same cells, the same words.

We value the same space and matter and energy,

            but we put them together in a new way.

We say that God was such a being as us,

            a rock and a wave,

            a tree and a vine,

            flesh and blood.

Is not an accident, but the essence of Christianity

            that matter matters,

            that science matters,

            that relationship matters.

There is a power in the way we are put together.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9)

We are never less than physical.

We are never less than political.

We are tangible and real,

            and we work out our faith day by day,

            encounter by encounter.

When we separate faith from daily life

it becomes less spiritual.

If you are anything like me, you are stressed.

            You feel the strain of the economy and you worry about money.

                        You worry that financial demands will separate you from the love of God.

            You feel the strain of a divided nation.

                        You worry that partisan politics will separate you from the love of God.

            You feel the strain of daily life,

                        making a living, taking care of children and parents,

                        cooking and cleaning and caring for the world.

                        You worry that all of this will separate you from the love of God.

But nothing can separate you from the love of God.

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

We will disagree about how to spend our money,

            as individuals, as a church, and as a nation.

We will disagree about which policies and doctrines to pursue.

            What is right? What is true? What is compassionate?

But we must never forget that God meets us precisely there,

            where light becomes food,

            where empty space and atoms and energy come together,

            where we cease to be alone

                        and start to be the body of Christ,

                        the messy, material, magical body of Christ,

                        at work in the world.


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