This past Monday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first American skaters to win an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing. They skated just about a perfect program, executing acrobatic lifts and moving in sync so closely they looked like mirror images of each other. Their achievement is the result of almost 18 years of training and skating together, starting back when they were nine and ten years old. It was thrilling to watch them on the ice, and really what maybe made their victory even more perfect and satisfying is who these two young athletes are as people. I found them both to be enormously appealing, Davis with her Disney princess looks and White with his mop of curly blonde hair, both using every opportunity with the media to talk about how much they appreciate each other, how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to work with each other over the years, and how grateful they are for their training partners, the Canadian silver medal winners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. There’s a kind of perfection that they have mastered on the ice together, and another kind of perfection that they seem to have mastered off the ice as well.
I didn’t get to see the women’s figure skating, but I read several stories online about Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova’s upset victory over Kim Yu-na of South Korea. Many viewers, including experts in the skating world, thought that Kim Yu-na showed superior skill and artistry. In fact, the official judges agreed: Kim received a higher score in the skill and artistry category. However, it appears that Sotnikova’s victory came about because of the complicated and difficult to understand scoring system. Individual jumps and spins are rated on their level of difficulty, so more difficult moves have a higher base value and can result in more points. Additionally, a skater can earn bonus points by executing difficult jumps later in the program, when the assumption is she’s tired. In an interactive feature on the New York Times website, Adam Leib analyzes just how Sotnikova won, with well-executed moves with somewhat higher base values, placed later in her program, which racked up the points and pushed her ahead of Kim. She also completed one more jump than Kim. Clearly, the decision was not popular with everyone, with millions of people signing an online petition to the IOC urging them to review the judging. Several commentators pointed to the number of skaters who fell on the ice trying to execute the more difficult jumps, and many people have questioned whether this new judging system isn’t negatively impacting the overall artistry of the sport. Furthermore, several skaters who actually fell during their programs ended up ranked higher than skaters who didn’t fall. It all raises the question: What should a ‘perfect’ program look like, a series of tough moves, or an integrated performance combining a variety of different factors and skills?
Throughout the games, the difference between gold and silver, or winning a medal or not, comes down to a few hundredths of a second, a few millimeters, a decision made almost subconsciously. Years of training and sacrifice and hard work go into the effort to achieve perfection for a few minutes, perfection that can be undone in a blink of an eye, perfection that can prove elusive even to elite athletes. Perfection is hard to achieve in any field; maybe it’s even impossible. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a musical performance I thought was perfect, or enjoyed a perfect meal, or seen a work of art that I might not like to see tweaked ever so slightly. There’s even something perhaps a bit unappealing about perfection - it seems un-human, robotic. And so the last verse of our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel is a bit jarring. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Frankly, it sounds impossible to achieve: how are we supposed to be as perfect as God? Is Jesus setting an impossibly high bar so that we aim high? Does he want to make us painfully aware of our human imperfection? Or is he saying something else entirely?
Our passage this morning is really the continuation of last week’s reading. You may remember that last week Jesus was trying to explain to his faithful Jewish disciples, folks who did their best to follow the Jewish commandments and laws in Torah, the first five books of the bibles, just what the kingdom of heaven is like. Some Jews wondered if the coming of the kingdom of heaven would mean that all those commandments and laws would be washed away and replaced with something else. But Jesus tells them, “No, I’m not here to get rid of the law; I’m here to fulfill it. In fact, the kingdom of heaven invites you to not only follow those laws, but to go above and beyond, to do more than adhere to the letter of the law, but to embrace the spirit of the law.” You may remember he says, “It’s not enough that you follow the commandment not to kill; you have to learn to let go of anger and resentment because they poison your relationships with others.” This morning’s reading picks up where we left off last week. Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jewish law had established this concept of “let the punishment fit the crime,” really as a means of trying to keep people from taking matters into their own hands and seeking retaliation. The rabbis who interpreted the law over the centuries had many problems with this concept of an eye for an eye, concerns that Mahatma Gandhi famously summed up by saying “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Jesus doesn’t put it quite that way, but he tells his disciples, “If someone hits you on the face, turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go a mile, go also a second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow form you.” I’m sure the disciples had the same questions and concerns about all of this that you and I do. Is Jesus really saying we should be doormats when we’re wrongfully attacked, that we should invite even more abuse?
Before the disciples can get a word in edgewise, Jesus goes on: “It’s not enough to love your neighbor. I’m asking you to love your enemies, I’m even asking you to pray for your enemies. Be like God, who makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Anybody can love those who love them in return. Even tax collectors and Gentiles do that. Be perfect, be perfect like God is perfect.” The Greek word translated as “perfect” in our bibles is telos. Telos can be translated “perfect,” but it doesn’t mean ‘without blemish’ or perfect in a moral sense. Rather, it describes a state of having grown up and matured, of having reached true wholeness, having reached our end, our purpose, our goal. A fruit tree achieves its telos when it grows mature and tall enough so that it can bear fruit. Similarly, we, human beings, you and I, achieve our telos, achieve our perfection, when we learn to imitate God. And how do we imitate God? By learning to respond to violence and hatred with love. Matthew Myer Boulton, a commentator I read this week, sums it up this way: “In the face of the most extreme opponents and acts of opposition, Jesus advises defiance--but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making. Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.” I want to be clear that this is not simply passive acceptance of abuse. We are not called to remain in abusive relationships, we are not called to accept suffering for the sake of suffering, we are not called to be doormats. Rather, we are called to creatively respond to violence and hatred and anger with love. The Message, a contemporary language translation of the bible puts it this way: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders began what was called the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. They planned a series of non-violent marches and sit-ins to protest racism and racial segregation in Birmingham. Seven days later, on April 10th, Circuit Court Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” The leaders of the campaign announced that they would disobey the ruling, and on April 12th, Good Friday, King was arrested and put in jail for participating in a non-violent demonstration. That same day, the Birmingham News published a letter from eight white Alabama clergy, ministers and rabbis. This clergy supported the goals of the civil rights movement, which was a fairly radical stance in that day and place. However, they wrote in their letter that they felt the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” The letter acknowledged that hatred and violence are not to be tolerated by either Christian tradition or by the political tradition of the United States. However, the letter went on to say, “we also point out that such actions as incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.” King read this letter as saying essentially, “Yes, of course racism and segregation are wrong. But your non-violent protests are making things worse. Take a step back and give us all a little more time.” King sat down in his jail cell and began scribbling around the margins of the newspaper, the only paper he had available to him. He began, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try and answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” He then, in the course of a very long letter, written over the next several days on whatever scraps of paper he could get his hands on, laid out the case for non-violent resistance. Unjust laws have to be broken, and those who enforce unjust systems of oppression must be resisted. Turning the other cheek and loving your enemy doesn’t mean accepting injustice; it means being an extremist for love in the way that Jesus was an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, return evil with good, pray for those who persecute you.” And in response to the plea for “just a little more time,” King wrote, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.””
Summoning the courage to stand up for justice and creatively use love to resist evil on the scale of Martin Luther King seems as impossible to me as one day winning an Olympic medal. So, I’d like to suggest a simpler exercise. This afternoon, take out a piece of paper. Write down the names of people you’re upset with. It’s probably easiest to start with those closest to you, because I know for myself it is those people who I’m closest to who I often seem to get angriest with. If you really can’t come up with a person, start with a resentment and see if that doesn’t lead you to a person, preferably a real, live person you actually know, not “those idiots in Washington” or “the totally unhelpful and rude customer service person at Time Warner,” but if that’s the best you can do, start there. Once you’ve made your list, sit quietly and do your best to pray for each person on it. If you can’t pray that they will be happy or healthy, see if you can at least pray that God will hold them in love, or if you must, pray that they will stop doing whatever it is that has upset you. Do this every day this week, pray for the people on that list. And then, see what happens. What happens to your resentment and anger? What happens in your relationship with those people? What happens in your relationship with God? If you’re like me, you won’t see a huge change over night. But over time, you may find that you feel better because you’re not holding on to resentment and anger. You may find that letting go of your resentment and anger frees you up to figure out new ways of responding, creative ways to respond with love. You may find that you begin to wonder about the people on your list, what they’re struggling with, what demons they may be fighting. You may even begin to have a sense of compassion for them. Over time, you may find that you’re feeling, well, maybe not perfect, but more like the child of God you’ve been created to be. Amen.
Chances are, a fair number of us here today have ordered something from Amazon.com at some point. You can buy literally just about anything in the world on their website: lawnmowers, iPods, art work, toys, diapers, shoes, bike racks, gun safes, 3-D printers, cameras, auto parts, janitorial supplies, light bulbs, bath fixtures, mattresses, candles, office furniture, step ladders, televisions, groceries, fresh flowers, lip stick, shoes, jewelry, watches, skies, fishing reels, and on and on. If you’re one of the millions of people who have signed up for Amazon Prime, your purchases are delivered free of charge to your door two days after you click the button confirming your purchase. And Amazon is more than just a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer like Apple, building its own Kindle devices, it’s a utility company like RG & E, providing server infrastructure to start-up companies (as well as to the C.I.A.), it’s a video distributor like Netflix, a literary magazine like The Paris Review, a grocery deliverer like FreshDirect, and someday it may become a package service like U.P.S. Amazon is an enormous and still very fast growing company: they hired about 30,000 people last year in the United States alone. So, it can be hard to remember that Amazon started out selling just...books. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, was no great lover of books. He was working on Wall Street in the early ’90’s, and when the Internet started taking off, he had this idea. Book stores are limited by their physical space: they can only stock a certain number of titles. There are way too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. But a bookstore in cyberspace could provide access to every book in print. Bezos moved to Seattle and started his website. He priced the books close to cost in order to increase sales volume. Amazon really took off, and I remember how fantastic I thought it was: so convenient, and the access to any book I wanted was just amazing. And in general, in the early years, most everyone agreed. Publishers thought it was terrific to have another way to sell their books, authors were excited at the possibility of more readers having access to their work, and readers loved the convenience.
I read an article this week in The New Yorker by George Packer called “Cheap Words.” Packer provides a sort of history of Amazon and how its business has impacted the publishing industry. First, of course, is the impact on bookstores. In the twenty or so years Amazon has been in business, the number of small independently owned bookstores has shrunk by well over 50%, going from about 5,000 in 1993 to about 1,900 today. And it’s not just the small independent bookstores that have had trouble competing with Amazon, the big chains have suffered as well, with Border’s closing its stores and Barnes and Noble experiencing shrinking profits. All of that is sort of what you’d figure, and probably is just the reality of changes in how we do business in the Internet age. But what was really fascinating to me is the impact Amazon has had on how books get published. Traditionally, authors would send their manuscripts or book proposals to publishing houses. Editors would read the work and decide if it was something they wanted to publish, and they’d work with the author to polish and edit their work, they’d figure out how best to market the book, and they would sort of take care of their authors over the years to help them write more books. Amazon has pushed the profit margins for publishers down so much that there is not much money for them to do that sort of work with authors anymore. Plus, Amazon makes it very easy for authors to publish their own work directly, by-passing publishers and editors all together. Some authors really like that, authors who had trouble getting published before, folks who are happy to have just a few hundred people read their work. But Packer says there’s a problem: if you’re a big name author, you’re fine. If you’re happy self-publishing and having pretty limited readership, you’re fine. But if you’re in the middle, and most authors twenty years ago would fall into that category, you’re really left out in the cold. Publishers don’t have the resources to help you develop your work and help you sell it so you can support yourself. The result of this for readers is that while Amazon initially provided access to more titles and brought down prices, it has in essence decreased the number and diversity of books available. Giving people access to books takes more than the basic rules of economics and good business practices: it takes investment in up and coming authors.
I think we run into this problem a lot. We think we’ve figured out how something works, what is important, what we are supposed to focus on, only to find out that our focus really needs to be elsewhere. Take nutritional information, for instance. Remember when margarine was supposed to be a healthy alternative to butter? When eggs were supposedly bad for you? When saccharine was better for you than sugar? And it’s not just nutrition or economics or good business, we get basic things wrong about life. I think that is what Jesus is trying to make his disciples realize in our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel. Unfortunately, our lectionary, that schedule that determines what parts of the bible we read on any given Sunday, chops off what I think is really the introduction to our reading this morning. Jesus is up on the mountain with his disciples talking about the kingdom of heaven, trying to explain to them how it works. In the verse right before our reading, he says to them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees were a group of folks within Judaism who did their best to follow the law, all of the commandments, not just the 10 big ones, but all 613 of the laws in Leviticus. These laws govern what faithful Jews can and can’t eat, what they can and can’t wear, who they can marry and how they can get divorced, and how they are to treat each other in all sorts of interactions, from business dealings to how to act in an ethical way in everyday life. All faithful Jews tried to follow the laws, but they are very complicated and it takes a lot of time and money to really follow them to the letter, so only the most dedicated and relatively well-off folks were able to do it successfully. These folks were the Pharisees, and they were generally well-respected, even if on occasion they could be a little full of themselves. So when the disciples hear that they will have to follow the law even better than the Pharisees, that can’t have been real welcome news; in fact, it sounds downright impossible.
But then Jesus goes on to explain what he means: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, I think Jesus is saying this: “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re angry with someone, if you’re holding a grudge, if you’re so ticked off that you want to curse them, you’re really not helping advance the kingdom. Don’t come to the altar and try and make things right between yourself and God if you haven’t already tried to make things right between yourself and those you live with.”
Jesus continues, “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re spending your days ogling people outside your marriage, if you’re online for hours at a time looking at websites that you’d be embarrassed to show your mother, if you’re daydreaming about your neighbor, it’s really like you’re already being unfaithful to your spouse. Keep your heart and your mind where it should be, and your body will follow. Get rid of those habits that lead you down the wrong path.”
Jesus then talks about divorce. I want to be a little cautious here, because really the understanding of marriage in the ancient world was very very different from today. Women were for all intents and purposes viewed as property of their husbands, and a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all simply by handing her a certificate of divorce: women had no such right. I don’t think that Jesus is saying divorce in cases where there is abuse or where a relationship has become toxic and unrepairable is absolutely wrong; rather, I think he’s trying to say this, “Yes, I know that the law allows you to divorce your wife for little or no reason, but really that’s not what marriage is for. Your wife deserves to be treated better, treated like a person and not like a piece of property.
Finally, Jesus says, “You know the commandment, “You shall not swear falsely,” but really, that’s not enough. Be upright and honest in all your relationships, in all of your business dealings, and there is no need to take oaths, or to promise in God’s name. Let your own words mean what they say, let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No.”
I’ve really come to love this passage as I studied it this week, and here’s why. I think Jesus is saying, “Look, the kingdom of heaven is not going to be brought about by everyone following a few rules. This life isn’t about following rules so that no one gets hurt; this life is a gift from God, and one of the chief reasons life is such a gift is your relationships with others. Those relationships, with your spouse, your family and friends, your neighbors, and those you do business with, can’t just be governed by a few rules. If you really want to get the most out of this life, if you truly want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, if you truly want to have life-giving relationships, you must be guided by love and compassion, that same love and compassion that God shows for you. Let love and compassion be your guide in this life, and you will experience the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
This week, I pray that we will examine our hearts and our minds as we go about our daily lives. Where are we holding on to resentment and anger is ways that are poisoning our relationships? How can we let it go, how can we make it right with others? How are we letting ourselves stray from our commitments to our spouses and our family and our friends, and how can we get back on the right path? How can we make sure our Yes is Yes and our No is No? May we be guided by love and compassion, and may we experience the kingdom of heaven through our relationships. Amen.
This week of course is the beginning of the winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. I’ve enjoyed the reporting from the games, about the inspiring backstories of various athletes, the analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the new rating system for figure skating, and particularly, as I was four years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that sport which only seems to be on TV during the Olympics: curling. On Wednesday morning, I heard a story about one of the many problems that Sochi has faced preparing for the games, one that they seem to have overcome with the help of a company from my hometown in Michigan, SMI Snow Makers. NPR interviewed SMI’s project manager Ian Honey. Honey has one objective: make sure that there is enough snow for all the outdoor events in Sochi. It’s not a particularly easy task, because temperatures in the winter in Sochi can be in the 50’s, and the snowfall varies year to year. Last year, as it turns out, there was ample snow in Sochi, and so Honey’s team stockpiled some 16 million cubic feet of it in ten huge piles high up in the mountains, covered with giant isothermal blankets to keep it from melting over the summer. Honey’s team also built two man-made lakes to hold water so that they can make more snow this year. They’ve installed about 450 Super Pole Cat snow machines on the mountain. In the past few weeks, they’ve spread the snow from last season out on the slopes as a base, and then pumped 970 cubic meters of water through their snow machines, making enough snow to cover 920 footballs with a foot of snow. As jaw-dropping as that figure is, I was really bowled over by what Honey said next. Honey moved to Sochi four years ago to get this project underway. Four years of work to ensure adequate snow coverage for the next two weeks, after which, he’ll come back home. He says, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.”
I thought about Honey’s story throughout the day on Wednesday as I shoveled and re-shoveled and then shoveled again my driveway and sidewalks. The main story of the Olympics, the reason most of us tune in, is of course the athletes, who train and work and sacrifice for years in order to compete for a few seconds in the spotlight in front of the entire world. But the reality, of course, is that the Olympic Games represent the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of people, many many thousands more than the athletes, thousands of folks who toil in obscurity to build the stadiums and the housing and the hotels and all the infrastructure necessary or the games. There are thousands who work anonymously to make sure that there is enough food and that the lights and water work (anonymous until there are problems, of course). There are thousands who work to make sure that the rest of the world can view the events from the comfort of their own living room. And I wonder about these thousands and thousands of people, who don’t go home with medals, who aren’t on the broadcasts, who won’t receive endorsement contracts for their performance, I wonder how they understand their work and their contribution. Are most of them like Ian Honey, looking back on four years halfway around the world from home and able to say, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.” Or do many of them struggle to see and take pride in their small part in the overall success of the Olympics?
I think this is a struggle many of us have, about our jobs, about our contribution to society, about the meaning of our lives. The problems of the world seem so overwhelming, and we are after all such small players in the grand scheme of things. Most of us sincerely want to make a difference, want to make the world a better place for people in need, what to leave our planet in good shape for those who come after us, but it can be hard to see how our well-meaning efforts, our small contributions, and our own personally responsible recycling efforts are making any real difference. There are a number of possible responses to this. One which is particularly widespread in the age of social media like Facebook and Twitter is to become a sort of public exhorter on issues that you care about. If you’re online at all, you’ve seen what I mean, those people who weigh in at every turn about how terrible and awful this, that, and the other thing are. I often don’t disagree with them, at least not completely, but I get tired of the constant haranguing. Another response is to sink into a sort of despair of ever having a positive impact and maybe even just give up. The difference we can make is so minimal, why even bother?
I think then, the good news of our gospel lesson this morning is that Jesus offers a different and life-giving way to look at our lives. Starting last week and for the next few weeks, our gospel readings come from Matthew, from a passage known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just started his public ministry, and he’s been traveling around Galilee, calling people to repent, calling people to turn their lives around, to change direction. He’s invited some of his friends, Peter and Andrew and James and John, to leave their jobs as fishermen and to follow him in his ministry. They have traveled throughout Galilee, teaching and talking about the kingdom of heaven and curing people who are sick. Great crowds have started following him around, and when he sees them, he takes his disciples up on a mountain and sits them down and starts to talk to them. I imagine that the disciples are pretty drunk on the heady excitement of the crowds and being away from their dull lives as fishermen, but I’m guessing at the back of their minds they’re beginning to wonder what all of this is about. Plus, there are the letters from their wives, wondering when they’re coming home, and if they’re not coming back, when they’re going to send some money so their children will have something to eat. Teaching and healing is great, but it’s not paying the bills. When Jesus sits them down, I wonder if they don’t think, “Finally! He’s going to tell us what the plan is, what the rest of our lives are going to look like.” They’re right, that is what Jesus is going to do, but what Jesus says is not what they expect to hear. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” And on and on. Jesus tells them that when the kingdom of heaven comes those who are downtrodden will be lifted up, those who are on the margins will be brought into the center, those who are sick will be made whole, those who are hungry will be fed with good things, those who are broken-hearted will be comforted. That’s not bad news, the disciples think, in fact, it’s pretty good news. Who hasn’t felt downtrodden or been an outsider, who hasn’t been sick and in need of healing, who hasn’t felt empty and been hungry for something that really satisfies, whose heart hasn’t been broken time and time again?
Then, just as the disciples are wondering if there’s some kind of catch, like maybe the kingdom of heaven is where we end up when we die, but that this life is still going to be full of misery, Jesus tells the disciples what their role in the kingdom is. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Now, ever since I was a kid I was confused about this saying of Jesus, which also appears in somewhat different form in Luke and Mark. What confused me is that I had never heard of salt going bad, of salt losing its taste. Over the years I’ve read dozens of commentaries on this passage, biblical scholars who practically turn themselves inside out trying to explain what Jesus means, trying to find some way to explain how salt might lose its taste. Salt was important in the ancient world, probably even more important than it is today. Salt of course is used as a flavor enhancer, and was an important preservative in the days before refrigeration. It was used in Jewish religious rituals as a purifying agent during sacrifices; in the Roman empire, it sometimes served as currency (the word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word for salt). “Sharing the salt” is a sort of Hebrew way of talking about sharing a meal and table fellowship.
It’s probably impossible to determine if Jesus was referring to one particular quality of salt, such as preserving, or flavoring, or purifying. But one thing is clear: it is the very quality of saltiness that gives salt its identity and purpose; if it loses that quality, it is no longer salt. So when Jesus says to his disciples way back then, and by extension when he says to us today, “You are the salt of the earth,” I think what he may be saying is, “The very quality of who you are, who each of you are, your own collection of talents and skills and abilities, your quirks and your rough edges, your own unique outlook on the world, the unique flavor of your thoughts and contributions, are all essential to this world. They are your gift to the world. They make this world what it is; they make life better for everyone, they are an essential part of the kingdom of God. The only way you can become un-essential to the world, the only way you can become useless to the kingdom, is if you choose not to be who God has created you to be, if you choose not to share your talents and skills and abilities. You, each of you, are the light of the world, each of you are a gift. Don’t hide yourself under a basket, don’t lurk in the shadows. Be who you are, be who God has created you to be.”
That, I think, is the good news today and everyday. We may not end up on TV, we may not get gold medals, we may not even feel like something special, but we are, all of us, the salt of the earth. We are the salt of the earth when we send encouraging notes to friends, when we pick up the phone to call someone to ask how they’re doing after their operation, when we buy a few extra boxes of macaroni and cheese for the food shelf to help make sure no one goes hungry. We are the salt of the earth when we organize support groups for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, when we knit mittens for kids who need them in this frigid weather, when we shovel our neighbor’s walk. We are the salt of the earth when we take communion to folks who can’t get to church, when we provide transportation for people so they can get out to events, when we faithfully say our prayers for those on our prayer list, when we use our skill and time and talents to make our worship welcoming and uplifting. We are the salt of the earth when we visit people in the hospital and in the nursing home, when we help out in Sunday School to make sure our young people get a sense of being grounded in God early in life, when we use our professional training in engineering or management or finance to help build up our church and other non-profits, when we give freely of our time and resources to make this world a better place for others. May we remember that God has made us the salt of the earth, and may we be a light to the world. Amen.