Claiming our context, Salt and all

February 9, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

5th Sunday after Epiphany – Year A RCL

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12), 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16), Matthew 5:13-20

About ten years ago, while working at Chase Bank, I was selected to participate in an Executive Women’s Consortium at Smith College in Massachusetts. I spent two weeks with about 125 other women executives from various corporations. Each day we’d attend classes led by professors from ivy-league universities. The classes weren’t so much finance-related, but instead provided deeper insight into aspects of society that impact our lives and businesses.

One class in particular has continued to stick with me through the years. The focus of the discussion was on Culture and Diversity. In general, we tend to think of Culture in fairly broad terms, specifically as it relates to Race, Gender, Nationality – things like that.

I remember the instructor talking about gender – pointing out some basic differences in how men and women handle things – even something as simple as greeting one another. You see, when a woman greets another person, she often begins with some kind of compliment – “Oh, Suzie, your hair looks so nice, is that a new style?” or “The blue in that dress really brings out your eyes!” You know how it works.

On the other hand, men have the opposite approach. If a man begins by paying a compliment to another man, it’s only as a way to get to the jab… “Dennis, that’s a great tie you’re wearing, too bad you spilled your lunch on it!” Right?!

So, when the woman’s expectation for a compliment is met by the male-bonding jab… things can get tricky. You see, the context we have matters.

And these cultural contexts go way beyond these broad categories. There are all kinds of ways that we use to identify ourselves. It can be connected to where we live – like, every time I use the phrase “You’ve gotta pick a horse and ride it” I, and others around me, are reminded that I’m from Texas. Or if you’re from Georgia, your Saturday afternoon plans in October will most likely include College Football. It’s just the way it works.

There are other cultural contexts that are less obvious, or if not less obvious, certainly talked about less. If you are someone who suffers from depression or anxiety, it frames your context for life. If you are in introvert, it can impact how you plan a busy day to make sure you build in some quiet time. Or if you are in recovery from an addiction, you must continually be vigilant about your sobriety.

This became all too clear with the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I read an article a couple of days after his death. The writer shared the fear that came up in him when he heard about Hoffman’s death, and also asserted that his death may have actually saved this writer’s life.

hoffman_philip_seymourYou see, Hoffman had been sober since he was 22 years old. 23 years of sobriety seems like “you’ve got it beat.” But, the writer realized that there’s no such thing. The context of addiction was still there in Hoffman, even though he had been sober for so long. And when Hoffman started using again, the slippery slope of addiction led to a needle in his arm and death by heroin at the age of 46.

I heard a news report that said while Hoffman was at the Sundance Film Festival recently, a magazine publisher who didn’t immediately recognize him asked him what he did. Hoffman said, “I’m a heroin addict.”

This statement struck me and stuck with me. Hoffman had claimed this as his primary identity. No longer seeing himself as an Oscar-winning actor, a father, a Knicks fan, and so much more – no, “I’m a heroin addict” had claimed him. And considering his death, I guess there is truth in that claim, yet he was still all these other things, too.

Myriad contexts make up who we are and influence us as we navigate the circumstances of our life. While this is nothing new, it’s important at times to be reminded.

In the reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does some of this kind of reminding. He says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”

But what does that mean?

Salt is complex. We think of it as a flavor enhancer for our food. Even as that, it can add a salty taste, yes, but when sprinkled on watermelon, it actually brings out more sweetness.
In similar contrast, while salt can be used as a preservative, salt is also corrosive… just ask all those folks up north whose cars are eaten up each year by the salt put on the roads to melt the snow and ice.And, while salt can be used for healing, it hurts like crazy when you put it in the wound.

sea-saltSo, what does Jesus mean when he calls his listeners the salt of the earth? What is Jesus trying to convey?

Matthew’s audience is mostly of Jewish background. These are Jews who are turning to Jesus and understanding him as the Messiah; the one foretold by the prophets. He is reminding them that although there is this new thing, the old thing, their Jewish-ness, has not been diminished. It is still who they are.

Their Jewish-ness, their saltiness, is a necessary and inherent part of who they are as followers of Christ. If they lose sight of this, if this salt loses its taste, it becomes worthless and is thrown out.

We are not called to lose who we are in order to follow Jesus. We are to retain it, claim it, and let it be elevated in the light of Christ.

The faithfulness that the Jewish people had, their Chosen-ness, is valuable and under girds their life. The people of Israel were to be the light to all nations, not only to other Jews, and this call to be the Light for all people, remains.

And what is it to be LIGHT?

The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah tells us that when we act in the way that God would have us act in the world, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

The preceding verses speak of the act of Fasting, which is a demonstration of faithfulness toward God. But it says that if one is fasting in order to draw attention to them self or to be difficult toward others, then this is not a fast for God.

The Fast that God calls us to is one of service. It is in doing things that build up others and bring equity to all. When we “loose the bonds of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free” – this is the Fast that God calls us to.

It is when we share bread with the hungry, and care for the homeless and poor; when we see the naked and cover them – this is what is acceptable to God. These sound familiar, like they came straight from Matthew 25… but here they are in Isaiah.

And one last thing in Isaiah that caught my eye… we are also called to not hide ourselves from your own kin. In the same sentence about caring for the poor and covering the naked, we are told to show our vulnerability to those closest to us. To be authentic.

In our “we need to be perfect” society, we like to show the good side of our life. The white picket fences, if you will. But what about the tough stuff? The things that are difficult, that we struggle with… do we share our insecurities? Do we trust others to care enough to not reject us when we show we aren’t perfect?

The text just before today’s gospel reading contains the Beatitudes. Those who are blessed are the ones that are willing to show their weakness and seek help. Those who mourn will be comforted. Those who show mercy will receive mercy.

When we are willing to show our true selves, as imperfect as we are, I contend that our light actually shines more brightly. A city on a hill can’t hide, and isn’t expected to. And when we call upon others for help, and we call upon God, God’s response is “Here I am.”

It reminds me of a story I heard on the TV series The West Wing. It goes like this:

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”

The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

holeSomeone who’s been in the hole before is in a position to help, but often being willing to admit you’ve been in that hole is difficult. To show our vulnerability, our short-comings, can be risky.

We often think of these weaknesses as impediments to righteousness, or we’re afraid others will think that.

But God never called us to be perfect, just to be true to our self, caring for our self and for others. This includes accepting the limitations we may be born into: Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, Poverty, even Wealth… they all have challenges that must be navigated.

Righteousness is living responsibly in light of these conditions and life-contexts.

As people of God, we are called to seek God’s guidance in all that we do, and also seek God’s comfort and the care of others when we find ourselves in times of need. These friends that jump down in the hole with us to help us find the way out are God’s way of saying “Here I am.”

So, let us be the light of God to others in need, not only through the help we may be able to provide, but also through our willingness to be true and vulnerable with those closest to us. Jesus is calling us to be more fully ourselves, so let us also say to one another “Here I am.”

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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