Anchored in Christ

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
on the occasion of my last Sunday
Sunday, February 6 / Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 5:13-20

On Friday, I was following an interesting conversation on a clergy list-serv to which I subscribe. It concerned Jesus’ reference to salt in this morning’s gospel:

“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 under foot.”

The first post on the list-serv was from a university chaplain who wrote,
“I ran across some references to an article by a guy named John Pilch saying that Jesus' reference to salt in the Sermon on the Mount wasn't about salting food, but rather about the use of salt to make the dung patties used in earth ovens burn hotter. The salt eventually loses its catalytic property and then gets thrown out.”
She then went on to ask if anyone else had heard of this use of salt. She also included a link to some beautiful pottery which the site claimed was fired with dung. As you can imagine, the responses poured in – as only they can when a group of young-ish clergy put their heads together around such interesting topics as salt, dung, and catalytic properties. One contributor responded with a link to this tidbit from a lectionary resource for Catholics

“The properties of salt make this verse difficult to translate. Salt has various uses: a seasoning, a preservative, and an ingredient for fuel ….”
Perhaps most fascinated by its possible application for fuel, the same link explains that process. Apparently,

“Young family members [presumably the only ones curious enough to touch dung] would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were light [sic] in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface.”:[1]
Now, unable to curb my enthusiasm for this fascinating exposition on salt, I eagerly read the next post which assured us that Bruce Malina suggests the same use for salt in their resource, Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, for which the e-mail writer helpfully provided a link to so that we could purchase our own copy of Malina’s book. Tempting as that offer was, I passed it by and instead spent a few minutes Googling Malina to learn that he is a Franciscan and a New Testament and Early Christianity Professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

By now, as you might imagine, I was on a quest for knowledge. After all, the price of gasoline is sky-rocketing and Andrea and I will soon be driving about 850 miles west in our move to Evanston. By my calculations (28 miles per gallon per car, $3.10 per gallon of gas), this trip will cost us more than $180 in gas prices alone. Just imagine our savings if we could figure out how to capitalize on this primitive technology of creating fuel from salt and dung? Sure enough, on the website of Perfect How To instructions are available for the creation of electricity and batteries from these simple and readily available ingredients.

It was at this point that I realized that I had strayed from my initial task: trying to understand the reference to salt in this morning’s gospel reading and so I returned to my clergy list-serve for what would prove to be the final comment in this discussion thread – and, perhaps the most poignant (not surprising, written as it was, by a former Diocese of New Jersey priest, The Rev. Raewynne Whiteley, now Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Long Island). Rev. Whiteley wrote: “Personally I wonder if we sometimes over think this. I remember a kid from youth group once saying, ‘if it's not salty, then it's not salt’.”

Profoundly simple: "If it’s not salty, then it’s not salt.”  By extension, if a lit lamp is placed under a bushel basket, it will no longer be light, but dark. Jesus’ disciples are the salt of the earth. Jesus’ disciples are the light of the world. As salt and as light they are a community of faithful followers of Jesus; however, they are to live out that faithfulness, not in isolation from the world, but in the world. They are to live out their faithfulness in a world where salt risks losing its saltiness when it becomes mixed in with, watered down by, or otherwise trampled into the earth by competing values which are frequently hostile to the gospel. They are to live out that faithfulness in the world where a light on a lampstand is clearly visible to those around and as such will sometimes draw people closer to the light to learn more, to experience more, and even perhaps to become more a part of this faithful community; but, at other times, this same light will sometimes serve as a spotlight on those who are already living as the light in faith and who by virtue of living their lives according to an other-worldly set of values put themselves daily at risk for the gospel of Christ.

Salt. Light. Common elements in the world, things that everyone knows something about, images which we can experience in our everyday life, images that can serve as a keystone or anchor to our life in Christ together and as individuals.

This week, as I’ve been packing up my offices here at St. Mary’s and at St. Barnabas, I’ve come across a number of items which I’ve collected that I realize serve as important keystones in my life. Everyday objects that I see nearly every day that serve as anchors for my life in Christ. And this morning, I’d like to share some of them with you

The Staples ads began featuring the Easy Button about 4 years ago. At the time, the ads struck the imagination of the parish administrator at Church of the Transfiguration [Kathy Cortese] and I one afternoon as we wondered if there might just be an easier way to get a task done. The next time she went to Staples, she found a display of Easy Buttons and bought one for me and one for herself. Anytime a problem seemed too big, too insurmountable, too complex, we’d stop and push the Easy Button. It never made the task easier, but it did give us an opportunity to stop and laugh together.

Whenever I begin to feel isolated in my work, I simply push the Easy Button and am reminded that we do not live our faith alone. We are called to live out our faith in community, to be encouragement and strength for one another, to challenge one another, to hold one another accountability, to build one another up, and, whenever possible, to make our ministry fun!

This sign was a gift from a parishioner at St. Mary’s [Holly Best], received shortly after my arrival in South Jersey. I had shared with you my early effort at pumping gas at the WaWa in Rio Grande when I was stopped by an employee who informed me that what I was doing was illegal. In disbelief, I laughed at him, assuming it was some kind of joke, only to realize, he was being serious. And so, somewhat embarrassed (and mystified by this odd little bit of Jersey culture), I got back in my car. Since that time I have come to appreciate not having to get out of my car on rainy days or on cold days or on windy days or on any day and now use the time at the pump to enjoy my caramel macchiato from Starbucks or to talk on my phone with a friend.

But the sign also reminds me that faith is inculturated. Inculturation is a fancy theological term that means simply that God is already present and active in a culture. So, when I am called to serve in a particular place and at a particular time, I am being invited to share the Gospel in a way that allows it to grow in the native soil. How I live out and share the Gospel of Jesus in Stone Harbor and elsewhere in Cape May County where “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas” may indeed be very different than how I live out and share the Gospel of Jesus in Evanston where, despite 2 - 3 feet of snow and sub-zero windchills, I will need to get out of my car and fill up my own tank.

The first winter in Stone Harbor, you may recall a few tearful moments at the Christmas Luncheon at the Lobster House when Fr. John suggested that, in my honor, we should sing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” First, you have to remember that the winter of 2007 – 2008 was nothing like last winter and was, in fact, even less white than the winter we’ve had already this year. I’m just saying. . . the tears were completely justified! In any event, it wasn’t too long after that – perhaps that Christmas or maybe for my birthday – that Fr. John gave me this snowflake to remind me of my home.

Since then the snowflake has hung in my office window where the light could shine through it. As I took it down a couple of days ago to prepare for the move, I laughed as I realized there would be plenty of snow to greet me where I’m headed. But, don’t worry, THIS snowflake will have a prominent place in my new office because it has come to represent something much more than the Midwestern snowfalls that I love. This snowflake reminds me of the true meaning of home. Home is where your needs are often met before you even know you have them. Home is where you feel safe and secure when the world around you feels a bit too chaotic. Home is a place that when you leave, remains with you forever. Home is where you love and where you are loved. Andrea and I are blessed to have many places we call home – not the least of which is right here with all of you.

A sign, a button, a snowflake . . . these are just some of my anchors, just a few of the things that remind me of what is important in my ministry and in my life in Christ. Jesus said you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. What are the keystones in your life that remind you of the centrality of the Gospel? Discover what they are and keep them close at hand. And remember “if it's not salty, then it's not salt.” Don’t over think it.

[1] Permission for use. All materials found in are the property of Larry Broding (Copyright 1999 -2007). Viewers may copy any material found in these pages for their personal use or for use in any non-profit ministry. Materials may not be sold or used for personal financial gain.