Homily – Epiphany 5, February 5, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
I speak to you in the name of the one true and living God, whom we name Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
“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 underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Jesus spoke these words from the perspective of a first century Jew living in a Mediterranean climate. He and those who wrote the Gospel of Matthew did not experience the great Vancouver Salt War this winter. Perhaps you were one of those wise people who had an old bag of de-icing agent in your store cupboard before all the snow began. Many didn’t, because many make a reasonable assumption that we don’t usually get arctic conditions in the Lower Mainland. But when the snow came down and the freeze set in, supplies ran low. Stores ran out. Those who had salt hoarded it or jacked the price. Municipalities panicked. When the City of Vancouver attempted to distribute free salt at certain locations, chaos ensued. People pushed and stole and got angry: all over a bucket of salt that they could throw underfoot and trample on.
In our modern society, salt is more often a culprit. Too much salt in your diet is bad for you. Even though every human body needs it, we ingest far too much with refined foods. In fact,we do not realize how precious salt is until we need it for a specific purpose, like melting ice off the sidewalks. But throughout our human history, salt has been essential. It is a commodity based not on its scarcity but its usefulness. It doesn’t just add flavour to food, it preserves food from spoiling. It is an anti-bacterial agent and a cleanser. It is also an irritant, as any of you know who have got too much in a cut or in your eyes when swimming in the sea. And it is, as we rediscover every winter, a catalyst for reactions: dropping the temperature at which water freezes so we can keep ice off our pathways. So when Jesus compares us to salt, he is not talking about food additives. It is a good thing to be salty.
Actually, the expression “I’m salty” is current slang. Yes, I had to ask my children what it meant. It means to be upset and dissatisfied at someone or something that has happened, along with the expectation that the outcome should have been different. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus himself is salty. He tells those listening that he has not come to bring a different message than they already have through the law and the prophets. But he has come to bring God’s purpose to completion, something that the teachers and followers of the law have not been able to do. Jesus words awaken a longing for the kingdom of heaven. We should be dissatisfied and upset with the status quo because it does not yet reflect God’s purpose. We should be irritated and catalyzed to work for change: to injustice, to degradation and waste, to selfishness and corruption.
Jesus tells each of us, “you are salt of the earth”. We have saltiness within us, in the very make-up of our being. And that potential has to be put to use in our living. From a chemical point of view, it is impossible to split the sodium atom from the chlorine atom and still have a molecule of salt. It is just as ridiculous to say that you or I can stop being salty. We were created by God to make a difference in the world. It is part of who we are. The hyperbole that Jesus engages with the examples of salt and then of light simply underscores the importance of our conduct for the coming of the kingdom.
We are called to fulfill our calling by following the path of righteousness: loving God, loving our neighbour, loving ourselves. This past Thursday, February 2, may have been celebrated as Ground-hog day in North America, but it is also a festival that goes back to the very early Church. On Candlemas, as it is sometimes referred, the infant Jesus is brought to the temple at Jerusalem. According to the Jewish custom, he was symbolically redeemed with a sacrificial offering. While the family was at the temple, an elder named Simeon saw Jesus and prophesized that here was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel”. There was also a prophet present called Anna, who spoke that in this child all would find the redemption of Jerusalem. Even at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, he was recognized as the one who would be the means of revelation and redemption. In the light of his life, we find righteousness.
That dedication to righteousness begins for us in baptism. This sacrament is a moment of alchemy. Salt meets water. What we were made to become is activated and made manifest in the waters of new birth. In a few minutes, the parents and godparents will be bringing Norman to the font. In so doing, they, and we, are proclaiming the love that God has for this little one: in his creation and in his redemption. And we are witnesses to the magic of what happens when salt meets water. Norman: you are salt for the earth. And you will never lose your saltiness, because from now forward you will be reminded of the promises made for you. You and every Christian are called to work for good in the world, to bring in the kingdom of heaven, with God’s help. Amen.