5 Epiphany Year A 2-9-14
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Ps. 112:1-9; 1 Cor. 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
This is a day acceptable to you, O LORD. Go before us, our Vindicator, and let your glory be our rear guard, so that our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly. AMEN. [from Isaiah 58:6-8]
Salt preserves. Without it, meat and fish become dangerously rotten very quickly. With it, they can last a long, long time to provide us with nourishment. Look around you at this congregation. Who are the preservers of our life together? Who has been feeding us a long, long time, literally, and spiritually? Who are the ones who remember who is suffering, and reach out to them? Who picks people up for surgery, and fetches them again afterward? Who consistently calls our attention to the needs of the world, and organizes us to respond to those needs? Who shows up to pray and read in our liturgy, or bear the cross? Who simply consistently shows up for worship and fellowship and all the “currencies of blessing” that sustain our missional ministry? You KNOW these people!
Salt intensifies. You know when you are tasting salt in a dish, even though salt has no taste of its own, because it makes all the other flavors stronger. Look around you. Who intensifies the savor of our spiritual community? Who has a gift for enabling us to FEEL the Spirit’s presence and power? Maybe with words; maybe with kindness; maybe with humor or insight; maybe with a capacity for real and substantive empathy with others; maybe by bringing musical or visual beauty into our life together; maybe by the sheer power of prayer. You KNOW these people!
Salt is necessary to life. That’s why it’s the first thing given when someone has been dehydrated; they’ve lost not just their moisture, but their salt balance. Never did I know this essential nature of salt in our bodies until my sister was diagnosed with the ear trouble called “Meniere’s disease,” a fluid build-up in the inner ear which not only interferes with hearing but can destabilize your entire balance system and cause horrendous vertigo and nausea. No one knows how to cure it, but lowering your salt intake can lower the amount of fluid in your ears and make a significant difference. Well my sister – being my sister! – is nothing if not determined! So when she was told to lower her salt intake, she virtually cut salt out of her diet. She read every label and consulted every restaurant’s recipes and refused salt everywhere she went. Until one day she collapsed at the office and was rushed to the hospital on the verge of a stroke! Thank God, she DIDN’T have a stroke, but they quickly determined that she was dangerously low on salt! Her ears might have been benefiting, but the whole rest of her system was seriously out of whack!
Look around you at this congregation. Who makes our congregational life WORK? Who is mobilizing quietly in our congregational “blood stream,” keeping the systems running? Making sure we have enough wafers for communion and that the flowers get sent out to the frail and the suffering? Keeping the wood polished and the paper products stocked? Managing our insurance and applying for grants and loans for restoration? Remembering to put the names of those in need of prayer on the Healing Pray-ers list, and then remembering to pray for them! Looking after our babies in the nursery and keeping them safe and happy there? Bearing communion to those who can’t physically join us? Adding up the numbers, Sunday after Sunday, and pledge statement after pledge statement? Often the folk who are salty in this way are nearly invisible in our common life, because they go about what they do in a very un-self-advertising way. But if you think about it, you KNOW these people!
Your Vestry has just spent Friday night and Saturday on retreat, preparing for leadership at St. James’s in the coming year, a year full of opportunity and fraught with uncertainty, as the building project comes ever closer to beginning, and as we all wonder what will happen in the episcopal election on April 5th and whether I will remain your rector or become your bishop. We will be commissioning them for this leadership this very morning, blessing and praying for them, and I hope you will keep them in your prayers as the year unfolds. Having just spent two days with them, I can testify that this is a truly wonderful, strong, capable, differently-abled group; God has provided for us the currency of gracious leadership most generously.
And they are really clear that the preserving, intensifying, essential salt of their call to leadership in the congregation of St. James’s isn’t just for St. James’s alone. To leap to Jesus’ other metaphor from the Gospel of Matthew today, the purpose of their salt is so that we as a whole congregation can SHINE IN THE WORLD BOLDLY, a lamp on the lamp stand, not hidden, but visible, a testament to God’s generosity of blessing, radiant with the glory of Christ’s self-giving love. Because although we are here at St. James’s clearly to refresh and renew our own faith, to pray for each other and comfort – con-fort, strengthen – each other in the power of the Holy Spirit, to “speak God’s wisdom to each other,” as Paul tells the Corinthians, “so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God,” that’s only the beginning. All this is just to prepare us to be the Light of the World, to both ILLUMINATE and EXPOSE the ways in which the world is going about its business. To expose how unaware of God’s presence and power most people are as we attend to the world’s daily operations, relying on “human wisdom,” a wisdom inadequate to the real needs of the world, and relying on our own human strength, a strength inadequate to the challenges we face. As Paul earlier warned the Corinthians, God has said “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” [1 Cor. 1:19b] And later, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The light of such exposure is not accepted gratefully by a world determined to rely on its own resources. Some of the time that we are called to “let our light shine before others,” it’s a searing light, a light that lays bare injustice and uncharity. Sometimes the light is a light that calls the ungenerous and the self-preoccupied to account.
But equally likely, the Light we bring is a gentle and a healing light to those who have been injured or bruised by the world’s unconcern or underestimation, who have been in the shadows of the world’s inattention and neglect, or who have languished under the world’s crushing exploitation. It is an ILLUMINATION of the value of those whom the world has overlooked or oppressed.
Our Vestry is prepared to lead us in doing all of the above at St. James’s, refusing to be hidden under the bushel basket of our frustrating lingering “in diaspora,” church school here and food pantry there and offices somewhere else, while our poor old parish house sits, huddled and pathetic, awaiting its transformation into an accessible, hospitable and welcoming community space embracing our church and garden, in the redevelopment.
Maybe our long sojourn, pressed together in our worship space, has heightened a charism – a gift – God gave us long ago, a gift that God has burnished brightly within us even in the long years when our parish house was falling down around our ears, linoleum crumbling, window frames porous, heat escaping through the open pores of our roof and sewage cascading into our basement classrooms. Paul names this singular charism of St. James’s with poignant eloquence when writing to the elegant Corinthians. “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. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
So it is at St. James’s. For we, in our visible frailty, proclaim Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. It is precisely our human shortcomings, so clearly on display at St. James’s, which make God’s own forgiving love manifest in us. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The steadfast loving kindness of God in Jesus Christ wells up in us precisely through the cracks of our imperfection. Hence Paul’s words challenge us, like him, not to rely on our strengths merely, but to illumine and expose our own weaknesses, as he says he did coming into the highly elite and capable community of the Corinthians – the ancient Greek equivalent of Cambridge, cosmopolitan, urbane, wealthy and powerful – so that the Light we shine with is Christ’s Light and not our own.
Pray for your Vestry & clergy, dear friends, as we embark on leadership this year. Pray that we may know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And that in so knowing, we your leadership may invite us all to be salt and light of the world, come what may. AMEN.