Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
February 5, 2017
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text: Matthew 5:13-20
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, I have a little quarrel with the Apostle Paul. Well, I tend to have a lot of quarrels with the Apostle Paul, but today I have a particular one – it’s the very first verse of our reading from First Corinthians. Here’s what Paul says:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.
My objection is simple: this is not true. If the Washington Post were to fact-check this claim, it would come up on the now familiar “Pinocchios” scale as “four Pinocchios.” Paul posing as a modest, naïve, inarticulate man of few words is laughable – as I’m sure it was to the Corinthians themselves. I can imagine them rolling their eyes as they read that sentence. Of course, they knew then as we know now that no one who has written at greater length, and often with more density, on the subject of Christ than Paul himself.
The question is: why is that a bad thing? Why does Paul represent himself as someone other than who he clearly was? Now I think that we know what Paul meant when he said that his method of preaching was simple – that the message of Christ crucified is so powerful, so stark, and so simple that it doesn’t need elaborate, flowery language to improve it. Yet that is exactly what Paul proceeds to do even in our brief passage: within just a few verses, he’s off to the races, going on about hidden and secret knowledge of God, the role and scope of the Holy Spirit, the lack of spirituality in rulers of his age, plus he freely quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, too, the authors of which felt no need to present themselves as anything other than lofty or wise. This is God we’re talking about – if anything is worth raising the level of our discourse, it is God, it is Jesus.
Perhaps I’m being a overly sensitive here, but that may be due to the reaction that I’m having to the dangerous mistake that many of us in our nation are making right now in assuming that if someone communicates in a few, simple, inarticulate words – or dare I say, tweets – that somehow this type of language is truth, simply because it is simple, and not “wise” or “lofty.”
The death of Christ on the cross, the love that God our Father and Mother has for each of us, and the power and personality of the Holy Spirit are all far beyond our abilities of comprehension. But language is the tool that God gave us to communicate concepts, revelations, and emotions; remember that we are made in God’s image and God created with words, so language is what we have to record our experiences, keep alive our traditions, and teach our children lessons. That’s what the Bible is: the record of our Judeo-Christian experience rendered in words, guided and inspired by God.
Our Bible contains the full spectrum of language, from the simplest to the most ornate. Today we see this range on glorious display. First we heard the powerful prose of the prophet Isaiah, as he exhorts Israel to be the embodiment of truth as against hypocrisy, to relinquish appearances and ceremony for the loftier goals of following God’s moral laws of compassion, righteousness and justice; these words speak to us across the centuries to us today.
The Psalmist echoes much the same message in a magnificent hymn to faith and righteousness, promising rewards, some material but mostly spiritual, for those who follow the path that Isaiah so eloquently set out. Then we heard Paul himself describe the ceaseless, deep searching of the Holy Spirit, sent to give us true wisdom about ourselves, about creation, about God. Notice that the common thread so far in all of our readings is truth.
Then we come to the Gospel, and Jesus’ deceptively simple little set of not really parables, more like metaphors or similes, on the seemingly mundane subjects of salt, light, and law.
I’d like to focus on just one of these for a moment, the one about salt. Now I’ve got to admit, that for years I didn’t have any idea why Jesus would compare us to a condiment. But in Jesus’ day, people hearing the word “salt” would have had a far different reaction than we do today, because it is only recently that salt has become the nearly worthless, innocuous commodity that we shake onto our French fries and then forget about.
For all of human history up until now, salt was almost unimaginably valuable, expeditions were sent out to hunt for it all over the world, wars were fought over it. It was used as currency, even payment for wages for thousands of years – the Latin word for salt is “sal” – as in “salary.”
Why? Salt is absolutely necessary to life; we die without it. And in the years before refrigeration, salt was the only was to preserve food. It kills bad germs, it purifies, it protects, it preserves; that’s why salt is used to ward off bad spirits – we still use it to stop the evil eye or curses. Salt is used in exorcisms; it was used in baptismal water for over a thousand years. It is also associated with fertility, truth, and wisdom: in the Roman Catholic Church there is both Holy Water and Holy Salt that is said to impart true wisdom: “sal sapienta.”
So when Jesus speaks of “salt losing its saltness”* he is saying that it has become corrupted, and lost its powerful, life-giving properties; it is no longer true, it becomes false. The same thing happens to us when we allow corruption into ourselves, we lose our true nature, we morph into creatures no longer recognizable as God’s own.
Have we lost our “saltness”? Is it that kind of corruption that we are experiencing today? Look at our increasing lack of respect for others, especially those who through no fault of their own are refugees from their homelands, because of war, persecution or economic oppression. Look at our rush to demonize those of certain ethnic or religious groups, the disabled, or women. Look at our unfettered lust for wealth and power, or the refusal to recognize commonly accepted facts as true, as many among us fall for lie after lie after lie. Look at our sneering at science and education as antithetical to life, healthy social policy, even religion. Look at our acceptance of an insatiable need for attention and approval as an acceptable motivation and excuse for misbehavior. Look at our promotion of expediency over integrity, and the refusal to consider that a political enemy might be a person, too, and might even be operating from perfectly respectable intentions and motives. Look at our shameless fanning of mob anger that feeds division preached over against compassion and inclusion.
It seems that we have indeed lost our saltness. We’ve become adulterated, corrupt. If we follow Jesus’ line of reasoning, are we now then good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot?
It need not be so. This is not the first time in our history when an eruption of injustice seems to have captured and chained our nation’s heart and soul. Our country has lived through the abomination of slavery, the mistreatment of Native Americans, the interment of Japanese Americans, McCarthyism, and more. But along side the perpetrators of those horrors there have always stood glorious examples of faith, character and endurance.
This is the first Sunday of Black History month, when we lift up the lives and the work of so many who kept moving forward on the road to equality, justice, and righteousness even when times seemed most hopeless. Today I’d like to remind us of the words of one African-American heroine – Sojourner Truth.
Unlike Paul who touted his unvarnished, uneducated simplicity, Sojourner Truth was truly uneducated, through no fault of her own – the double whammy of being born a slave and a woman meant that she never learned to read and write – but she did memorize long passages of the Bible and used them to preach. Her most famous address – really a homily – is “Ain’t I a Woman?” which sounds remarkably current right now. These are the opening words:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.
Oh, Sojourner had salt! Then she goes on to give us all a call to arms, especially us ladies:
. . . that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Church, it doesn’t matter whether words come from the educated or uneducated, the rich or the poor, black people or white people or whether they are lofty or simple. What matters is that they are true, what matters is that they build up and not tear down, that they create and not destroy, that the words are seasoned with God’s own salt, protecting, purifying, preserving.
In our day when we are surrounded by so much artifice, so much falsehood, let us choose to stick with truth. Let us guard our hearts and our souls from the corruption and adulteration that comes with the poisons of hate, ignorance and fear. And above all, let us resolve to speak truth, because that is the only way that deceit can be overcome.
And the church says: Amen.
* An earlier translation says, “If the salt has lost its saltness,” not “saltiness,” and our newer translation alters the meaning. “Saltiness” is an effect of salt; it does not refer to the properties of salt beyond taste. So for the purposes of this homily, I am using the older translation of “saltness.”