Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a loaded metaphor which his listeners would have understood. In Jesus’ day, it was not unusual for guests sitting at table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of less or little consequence. And so the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Roman word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious salt crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting in part of salt – came to be known as his salarium, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.[i]
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God, with grain offerings, and in the incense used in purification sacrifices to give flavor to the “food of God.”[ii] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water.3 Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara in the centuries following Jesus’ life, merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. Salt has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.[iii]
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he asks what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” For some of us, Jesus’ question may be more literal and rhetorical, you feel spent or spilled and you’ve lost track of some of your inestimable essence as salt. How can your saltiness be restored? There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the nutrients that our bodies need. What does your soul crave?
- What would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness?
- What would bring melody and harmony to your soul to counter the cacophony of noise that ring in your ears?
- What would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach?
- What would be like salt, like the perfect seasoning, to bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant?
- What are you craving?
- To use the image of a salt shaker, what would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to for you to savor and be grateful for your gift of life. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth. You are salt, created to give a distinctive flavor to life, you like none other. By your presence, your witness, your gifts, you help others “taste and see that the Lord is good,” the language of the Psalms.
[iv]To use a pun, I’m saying don’t just flavor, but savor who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
[i]Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[ii]Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[iii]Salt also had a practical and symbolic function of purifying, suggested, for example, in the memory of Elisha’s making the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22); Exodus 30:35; See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22; Ezekiel 16:4. See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.
The story is told that Winston Churchill stuttered as a young child. This is the Winston Churchill whose later eloquence was probably the single-most important factor in saving western Europe from tyranny in the 1940s. Churchill stuttered as a self-conscious, frightened little boy. Now there’s a developmental theory that would say his oratorical brilliance as an adult developed as a compensation for his childhood sense of inferiority.[i] This “compensation theory” says that, for example, in our childhood or youth the challenges, say, of birth defects, of illness, of discrimination, of poverty, of family craziness, or of other unfortunate circumstances provide the very stimulus for all later higher achievements. In other words, this compensation theory would say that small, sickly, self-conscious, or sad children are driven by this principle of compensation to develop into towering leaders of activity and strength. Churchill would seem an example of it, and some of us here may identify with that very notion.
But there’s another “take” on why it is we grow into who we are, which is called the “acorn theory.”[ii] Growing up is not about compensation; it’s about recovery. Each of us enters the world, something like an acorn, with the seed of calling, with a sense of identity, with a vision of destiny. And so, of course Churchill stuttered as a child! Given this nascent, daunting sense as a child that his voice, his voice would be the instrument to save the western world, of course he stuttered as a child. Wouldn’t you? We may well have glimpsed our destiny or life’s calling when we were yet a child, but we might have avoided it, or denied it, or run from it. In Jesus’ words, we may have put the light of our calling under a bushel basket.
One day Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee. While they were at table, a woman “who was a sinner” entered the room with an alabaster jar of ointment. She began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet as she poured the costly ointment over them. We are not told who the woman was, or what had earned her the reputation of “a sinner,” or how she knew Jesus, or why she was weeping and anointing his feet. The gospel writer records only her simple act of profound love and devotion.
The Pharisee objected mightily to this woman’s presence in his house. He may have been irritated that she was distracting his guest and ruining his party. But it’s more likely that he objected to her very presence. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” For the Pharisee, that label had clear implications: it dictated how a righteous person would respond to her. Certainly a teacher like Jesus should understand these important social norms. Not only would he not have let her touch him, he would not have interacted with her in any way. To do so would compromise his own holiness.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i] Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii] Mary, then Jesus, change everything.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.
As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? This is a question that as Christians we must ask ourselves continuously. Who is this figure that stands at the heart of our faith? There is a tendency, a perfectly natural tendency, to focus on the humanity of Jesus, to see him, as it were, merely as a better version of ourselves. Jesus the good man. Jesus the wise teacher. Jesus the political activist. The one who hates to see injustice. Whilst none of these ideas are necessarily untrue, indeed they’re all right, by their very nature they only tell half the story. They only unveil half the picture.
Our Gospel reading today helps to shine light, perhaps give us some insights, into how the divinity of Jesus is manifested in his humanity. We hear of Jesus the healer. The miracle worker. The one who in raising the sick, and elsewhere in the Gospel of raising the dead, prefigures his own resurrection with the salvific importance that event has for all of creation. We hear of Jesus the cosmic warrior who, in casting out demons, is fighting a sort of proxy war on Earth in the constant, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. We hear of Jesus Christ seated on his throne of judgment, looking forward to the end of all things when those who will dine at the heavenly banquet will be separated from those who will be cast into the outer darkness where we hear there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. We hear of Jesus the dynamic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Messiah. The Christ. The one in whom all the hopes and expectations of Israel are met.
“Who do you claim to be?”
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
I find myself routinely struck by John’s almost continual emphasis on who Jesus is—a matter of identity so central not only to Jesus’ earthly ministry, teaching, and subsequent rejection, but also to our very lives and identities as people of God. And our pilgrimage of conversion, I think it’s fair to say, ultimately depends on this question of identity—of our identity, not as defined for us by the worldly clamor for competing creaturely goodness, or our traditions, our nationalities, or our social standing, but as a reflection of the image of the One who desires for us nothing less than a share of the Divine Wholeness.
From In the beginning was the Word, to the final admission that the author cannot possibly contain the importance of Jesus’ appearance in one volume, John’s Gospel narrates us into a salvation that depends upon our truthful recognition of who Jesus—and, ultimately, the One whom he calls “Father”—is.
I know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”
First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.