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Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Basics of Salt

You are the salt of the earth - Matthew 5:13-20
I love salt. Ask Ms. Conroy. Drives her nuts. Especially when I put salt on pizza.

I don't put salt on everything. Just the things I think should taste, well, salty.

She lectures me about how too much salt is not good for you. Bad for your blood pressure. I think she's concerned about something that isn't a concern. For me.

My blood pressure is fine, thank you very much. Her's isn't always.

I rest my case.

Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth."

When I went for a walk yesterday morning, I was remembering something I heard once, about a sermon the Reformation theologian Martin Luther preached about salt. I couldn't find it online and I didn't have time to research it in the library, but what I remember is that he preached on three purposes of salt.

Luther said that the purpose of salt is to preserve. The purpose of salt is to bite. And, the purpose of salt is to bring pleasure and tastiness to life.

I don't remember what Luther said about the purposes of salt, but I think any preacher - well, worth her salt - could pull something together with that outline.

YOU, said Jesus to his followers, are the salt of the earth.

YOU preserve. YOU bite. YOU bring pleasure and tastiness to life.

YOU, yes, YOU do what you can to guard the faith, to preserve the quality of life.

You - and I know this is difficult, but YOU - are to be honest enough to tell the truth in love, even when that "bites".

You, if you claim to be one of my followers, YOU are to are to lift up and celebrate the goodness of life.

That's a pretty tall order, when you think about it - especially the part about telling the truth in love. That really bites.

If you aren't doing those things, Jesus asks, what is the real value of your life in Christ? It's really as basic as salt.

Which brings me, interestingly enough, to a question of vocation.

I've been asked - a lot - what I'm going to do after this Proctor Fellowship. Will I go back to parochial ministry? Will I retire? Will I do interim ministry? Will I seek a position outside the church? Will I set up private practice as a pastoral counselor?

The honest answer is I don't know. Jesus hasn't told me. Yet. He will. He's just taking his sweet time.

If I were to return to parochial ministry, I want to be in a 'salt mine' kinda place. A place where I am one who leads in community where the people are focused on preserving the quality of life. Where truth is spoken in love, even when that bites. Where the goodness of life is lifted up and celebrated.

Let me give you an example. There was this one church, in Southwest Baltimore, which I visited one Christmas Eve. It was a Roman Catholic Church, interestingly enough, in a neighborhood which had been predominantly filled with Polish immigrants.

As so often happens in these neighborhoods, as the next generation of Polish Americans began to realize the Great American Dream, they began to move out of the neighborhood, leaving a faithful remnant of grandparents and a few of their children to "hold down the fort" while welcoming the newest wave of immigrants into their midst.

The Polish people in that particular neighborhood of Baltimore row houses liked the Vietnamese who began to move in. They admired their ethic of hard work, the focus they had on their families, and their devotion to the church.

Slowly, slowly, the neighborhood streets, the church and its elementary school began to fill with beautiful children with caramel colored skin, almond eyes and straight black hair.

The Vietnamese families settled in well, accommodating themselves to their new home, learning the American and Polish language and customs with enthusiasm.

So, Christmas Eve came. My friend, a Roman Catholic priest who worked with me on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic at the time, called me and said, "You have GOT to come and experience midnight mass here." So, not having a church assignment that evening, I went with him.

The church architecture was amazing. Try to picture the sanctuary. There, on the floor, in front of a HUGE marble altar, was a manger scene. Behind the altar, someone had fashioned a large, empty tomb on top of which was an empty cross, above which was a painting of a resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven, with angels and archangeles and all the company of heaven rejoicing at His coming.

Yes, it was, um, unique.

But that wasn't why my friend had wanted me to be in that church that particular evening. At the end of the service, my friend said, "Okay. Here it comes. This is what we've been waiting for."

Suddenly, the church lights dimmed and the ushers began to pass around tapers for us to hold. I knew what was coming - we were all going to sing Silent Night on our knees while holding lit candles.

Some traditions never change, no matter what tradition you hold. I mean, could it be Christmas Eve in any church without this candle-lit tradition? No, I think not. However, this little church had its own way of engaging in this tradition with one of its own traditions.

The church grew very quiet and still and dark and, suddenly, a very strange sound began to swirl above us.

Wheee-hooo! Wheee-hoooo! Wheee-hooo!

It sounded like an ancient pulley. I looked up toward the sound which seemed to be coming from the choir loft, but my eyes were momentarily blinded by a Great Light.

Someone was holding a flashlight on whatever it was that was on that pulley.

Wheee-hoo! Whee-hooo! Whee-hoo!

There, in the distance, I could make out a form. Yes! Yes, it was the Baby Jesus. It was a very plaster-of-Paris white Baby Jesus with golden hair.

He was on the pulley. And, he was headed straight for the manger that was in front of the altar, that was in front of the empty tomb, above which was the crucifix, above which was the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven.

Wheee-hoo! Wheee-hooo! Whee-hoo!

I don't know from whence they had come, but when I looked back at the altar, several beautiful Vietnamese children had taken their places at the manger scene. A handsome Vietnamese Joseph was reaching up to release Baby Jesus from the pulley, but he was having a bit of trouble letting Jesus off the hook, as it were.

He struggled a bit and some of the old Polish ladies, their heads covered with brightly colored scarfs which had been tied tightly under their ample chins and tucked into their long, black winter coats, began to gasp.

Finally, Jesus was "delivered" - from the handsome Vietnamese Joseph to a beautiful Vietnamese Mary who laid the Very White Baby Jesus tenderly in the manger.

As our candles were lit, the children's choir, filled with beautiful Vietnamese boys and girls from the church's elementary school, began to lead us in singing Silent Night.

After a few moments of disorientation, I began - slowly, slowly - to realize that, while I knew the tune, I couldn't make out the words.

Then, it dawned on me: these Vietnamese children were singing Silent Night in Polish.

So were their Vietnamese parents. Along with everyone else in the church. Except for me and my Roman Catholic priest friend. We were giggling so hard we couldn't sing.

As I looked upon this amazing scene - The manger. The altar. The empty tomb. The Resurrection. The Ascension. The Angels. The Vietnamese children, singing Silent Night in Polish - I began to be filled with a Christmas joy I had never before experienced.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is the Incarnation. This is why Jesus came among us. This is the miracle of Christmas.

It was a marvelous epiphany.

I know. I know. You can talk about hegemony. You can talk about cultural dominance. And, while you're at it, talk about how religion is used and abused. Go ahead, if it will make you feel better.

That's really not what was going on there. This was about something else entirely.

If I am ever fortunate enough to be called to parochial ministry again, THAT'S the kind of place I want to be.

A place where people love life so much they want to preserve all that is good about it. A place where the truth is spoken in love, even when it bites. A place where everything is done in service of a celebration of all that is known about what is good and excellent and delicious about life.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus said.

Luther said that if we are to become followers of Christ, we must strive to attain the properties of salt.

When we strive to do just that, each in our own unique way, I think we, ourselves, become one of the most understated glories of the manifestation of the miracles of Jesus.


A manifestation of the Glory of God.

An epiphany in the Season of Epiphany.

Who knew it could be as basic as that?


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Funny...I seem to feel I belong in the "salty" places myself. God only knows my language is salty enough!

I reflected on that "salty" over at my blog in a different way today, after watching the movie, "The King's Speech." When Bertie would get angry and curse a blue streak, he didn't stutter. Interesting.

Thomas Thurman said...

I love reading this blog. I am constantly surprised by beauty.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Doc - I'll head over to your blog. Great - albeit salty - minds, and all that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Why thank you, Thomas. Our being surprised by beauty is, I think, one of God's greatest delights.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

It is a beautiful story. You describe a moment of grace where two cultures meet. I pray that you do have the opportunity to shepherd a parish and experience many more of these moments. I would say, however, that such beauty is fragile and can be set off balance with surprising ease. I've seen what happens when someone admires a patch of wild violets and decides it could be enhanced by a few day lilies.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You're right, of course, MC. But so can congregations with great resources and affluence. Given my druthers, I'd rather this kind of congregation.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

Me too.

I pray we can all do our best to preserve "fragile ecosystems" and help them to thrive.

Jim said...

I knew there was another reason I love you. I salt my pizza too. If you can get to a Trader Joe's get their "Himalayan Pink Salt Crystals with grinder" and the pizza will sing!