2/2/11

salt of the earth

The text that we're hosting in the sermon this coming Sunday is Matthew 5:13-20. It begins with Jesus' announcement: "You are the salt of the earth". Since this is the title we have given to the Christian Seasons Calendar that University Hill Congregation publishes it seems a good time to hear Jesus out when he makes this outlandish claim. On some levels I get it. We've become a minority voice, an alternative community, odd people even if that wasn't what we imagined our future would be in the 1950's. But this odd identity still feels, well, odd. When I read the name that I gave this blog I cringe a bit at the word "holy". There's something about the word that feels like it should be reserved for the divine, not used of human speech. I remember coming out of a movie years ago and bumping into an acquaintance who bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Hey, here's the local holy man". I wanted him to be quiet, tone it down, leave me alone. Not me. Yet that is who I am - by my calling set apart for God's use. Holy. It is what Jesus is saying of all of his followers when he announces that his apprentices "are the salt of the earth"

In "The Cost of Discipleship" Dietrich Bonhoeffer notices that Jesus doesn't say "You must be the salt" or "You have the salt". We don't get to decide whether or not to be salt nor is the salt a message that we carry. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: "The call of Christ makes those who respond to it the salt of the earth in their total existence". That is how the phrase is used when people speak of someone as the salt of the earth. I think that they mean that something about the whole person was at once simple and basic yet essential and life-giving. It is not often that people say that of churches these days. Which is exactly where text will lead the sermon since Jesus moves immediately to the danger of unsalted salt. Much of the church we know has become as bland as mashed potatoes - reduced to generic communities of faith where spirituality is practiced and all are welcome. The distinctive, risky, costly call of dying to the way we live in order to live the way Jesus dies (a cruciform life) is regularly silenced in the name of being a user-friendly church.

Bonhoeffer makes an interesting move as he traces the passage. He says that "Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call." He notices that the church's invisibility may be the result of fear of the consequences. On the other hand, it may be undertaken deliberately in order to achieve some success or another ("a missionary purpose for example, or a sentimental humanitarianism"). Or this invisibility may be rationalized in the name of a humble theology of the cross over against a proud "Pharisaic ostentation". He calls this last form of invisibility "sinister" in that "the very failure of our light to shine becomes the touchstone of our Christianity." What I find most extraordinary about Bonhoeffer's reflections on this text are his listing of those good works of the disciples that are to be seen by the world. He says that "the good works are poverty, peregrination, meekness, peacableness, and finally persecution and rejection. All these good works are a bearing of the cross of Jesus Christ ... if the good works were a galaxy of human virtues, we should then have to glorify the disciples, not God."

I am glad it is still only Wednesday. Something is percolating in me but it is not yet clear what it is. I hope that the something is good news by Sunday!

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