Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fifth after the Epiphany, 2011: Salt and Light

Isaiah 58: 1-12; First Corinthians 2: 1-6; Matthew 5: 13-20

Grace and peace this winter morning, as we have in this past week crossed the midpoint of our season after the Epiphany, which happens every year more or less at the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, Candlemas, on February 2, the 40th Day of Christmas. And as Groundhog Day in Punxatawny gets everybody thinking about spring, so we begin to move in a transition in the themes of the Church calendar, with our eyes turning toward Ash Wednesday and Lent and Holy Week, now just over the horizon. With a very late Easter this year we have still a couple of weeks before we come to the traditional “pre-lent” Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, but we’re on our way in that direction in any event. Turning our attention from the Manger to the Cross.

We continue this morning with the well known words of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew, as we began last week with the Beatitudes. Having just spoken about the inheritance of blessing that would come to his friends as they remained true to him, despite sufferings and persecution, hints of the cross for all of us, there is this shift of tone. A gentle and personal word. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Jesus and his disciples didn’t have much need for snow shovels, and the imagery Jesus intended was obviously about salt as preservative and flavoring, but here in Pennsylvania we know that salt has its non-dietary purposes as well, as it works in chemical reaction to break up and melt the hard crust of ice that forms on roads and bridges and sidewalks. And that’s a great image too, when we think about what Jesus is sending his disciples out to do—what he’s sending us out to do.

To be lamps in the darkness, to be salt for a world bound up in the icy prison of self-interested desire. –That wonderful line at the end of Psalm 12: “O Lord, watch over us . . . the wicked prowl on every side, and that which is worthless is highly prized by everyone." But then, what we heard in God’s word in the Prophet Isaiah: “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

A word for us about vocation and identity as we come forward to the Table this morning and then as we scatter out into the day and into all the corners of our lives—home, family, school, work. The message of the reading from Isaiah, and from Paul to the Church in Corinth, and then in Matthew: that what God accomplished in Christ at the Cross has implications for us not just in some very abstract way in the discussion of great theological ideas, but in terms of the lives that we live day by day, and how we organize ourselves, the impact we allow ourselves to have on others. Sometimes this in a direct and conscious and focused way. Sometimes in such subtle ways that we don’t even really know it’s happening.

I know Mitch Albom wrote about this in his book Five People You Meet in Heaven. And I confess I really didn’t read this book. I think I just spent about 15 minutes looking at in while we were shopping one evening at the old Barnes and Noble over in Squirrel Hill. But the idea as I recall it was that you would meet in heaven the five people whose lives you had had the greatest impact on. And the surprising thing was, for the one character I was reading about, anyway, the surprising thing was that some of them were more or less strangers. People who had hardly made an impression, but whose lives had been profoundly changed by something that you had said or done. People whose very lives you may have saved. But strangers.

The point simply that this is a big story we’re living in. God’s story. And we each do indeed have some important and meaningful and perhaps even essential role to play as it moves towards its conclusion. And sometimes we catch a glimpse of what that role might be. Sometimes we have a sense of what God is doing in and through us. Perhaps we can have a sense of having been a part of it in a positive and constructive way. And perhaps we sometimes look back on how we have conducted ourselves and discovered that we were in some moment or other part of the problem rather than part of the solution—as that certainly is the case for all of us at some point or other.

Thinking about how sometimes things that seem big and important to us in the moment turn out when we look at them later to have been essentially meaningless, and how other things that seemed at the time inconsequential, trivial, have in later times appeared to have been extraordinarily important. And how terrifying, in a way, it is that we really can’t tell the difference for sure in the moment.

What we can do I suppose is treat even the smallest moments and situations and opportunities of life as though they might be big. There is this wonderful and in some contexts famous line in the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 31, about the characteristics of the Cellarer of the monastery. He’s what we might call the property manager, in charge of all the furnishings and equipment. And the line is, “the Cellarer will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” Every plow and screwdriver and bottle-opener, with the same care, even let’s say the same reverence, as the paten and chalice used for Holy Communion. The same reverence.

And so, a moment of vocation and identity, as we move on through this winter season, as we receive the Holy Gifts at the altar ourselves this morning and then go out into the world to be salt and light, signs of God’s love, God’s power, God’s care. Reflecting him, carrying him out, in word and action, in big ways and small ways, day by day. Salt and light.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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