Friday, February 03, 2017

Reflections on Sunday's Readings, Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Salt and Light

Jesus said, “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.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-20

I have been ruminating on the lessons for Sunday over the past week, and struggling with what I might write/say to them in the midst of an increasingly polarized and challenging "world out there." Politics and personal anxieties, cultural tensions and conflicted relationships are more and more weighing on me and the people around me with whom I am in relationship--both personal and pastoral. What can we say, or rather, to what can we offer testimony when words and worries about words are causing rifts between us? Those rifts, the spaces between us, are always there; but times like these seem to make them feel more like open wounds, rather than just simple distance.

Last night, I had a dream. The dream had one simple theme that repeated itself over and over: I was in a world where the people around me (and I, myself) could see in only two dimensions. We could see height, and width. There was no sense of depth. 

Three scenarios stood out. In one, a person was waiting for another to arrive, watching them travel from a great distance. They knew in their head that they were coming from "far" and traveling to "near." That said, though, they had no sense of their proximity to the person arriving as they watched them approach. I watched through their eyes as the person kept changing sizes, growing larger as they approached. Hope and desire flared, and yet so did confusion. I can see them, but they aren't HERE yet! WHY!?! 

The second scenario was a mother speaking to her daughter about how she needed to go away for a time. She gave the girl a photo of herself, to remember her and to let her daughter keep her image close at hand. The girl looked from the photo to her mother and back again. Because both images were in two dimensions, she was confused. Which was real?

Take a moment to put yourself in the place of a person who lives in two dimensions, with no perspective, literally and metaphorically, of the concept of "depth." They lack the capacity to see that dimension, one that we take for granted. Awareness of depth lets us gauge distance. We know the difference between "near" and "far." We are aware of the spaces between us and the other. We appreciate that there is that added dimension to life; but how would you explain it to someone who does not have that awareness?

We are tasked, always, as the Body of Christ in the world, to take on the proclamation of the Kingdom of God coming into the world as Jesus did in his day. The Gospel is full to the brim of his teachings as he struggled to articulate and extend understanding of his perspective of God at work in the world to his disciples, to us. "The kingdom of God is like...." he would say, trying to get us to understand what that added dimension of life would really look like, so that we can recognize it when it manifests in us and around us. If only we could see the world through Jesus' eyes. If only we could understand the dimensions that he is describing. 

Jesus, in today's teachings, tells us that we are salt and light. Salt that has lost itself, its essential properties, is just as well dust--to be thrown down to the ground and tread upon. But salt has its essential properties, its important functions. We are to be salt...but what does that mean? More than just a flavoring, is salt. Salt preserves. Salt purifies. Salt enables the transfer of liquid through membranes. Salt was so important a substance that people were paid with it; it was currency. Without enough salt in our bodies, we die. With a lack of propriety (too much salt), we suffer. Salt is the thing that opens the world up to us, and to others. We are salt, in this kingdom; and yet salt can lose its saltiness. We must also be vigilant and keep that quality vibrant in us, if we are to be kingdom people.

Light is another conundrum. It acts as both a wave and a particle, according to physicists. We perceive its effect, as it illuminates the world around us, and yet we cannot ever put out our hand and touch it. We accept it as a given, even as the sun and moon rise and set, and yet it is only in its absence that we see its necessity. Without light, we not only cannot see the things around us, we lose perspective on our own sense of self. 

I once took a mine tour in a small town in West Virginia, near where a good friend was serving a church. We all climbed into modified transports, and a retired miner took us down into the mountainside. At one point, to demonstrate the challenges of being that far underground, working in a place where human beings aren't built to function, he turned off the lights.

We were in total and complete darkness. There was no light: None. There was no minor glow of starlight. No hint of light under the door, or from a streetlamp at a distance. There was no light. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. The person next to me was only a "near" voice in the dark. The tour guide, speaking to us, was only somewhere "other than near." It was quietly terrifying. For those few seconds, I lost track of time, because that total loss of perspective meant my other senses became hyper-sensitized as my adrenaline spiked. I learned in that moment just how important light is to us, for without it, we are not.

When Jesus tells us that we are salt and light he is teaching us how to live in dimensions that we struggle to perceive, much less to dwell in fully and completely. Being salt to the world means more than just adding savor. It means being the essential support of existence. Our hope, our faith, is made manifest when we become advocates of God's love and justice in our time. We proclaim peace to the conflicted, hope to the lost, release to the captives, welcome to the wandering, healing to the broken...refreshment to those to thirst for righteousness. 

Being light to the world means offering illumination to those things that before were hidden and cloaked in darkness. It means seeking and offering knowledge. It means being willing to dispel the shadows cast by ignorance, by half-truths and lies...the ones others tell and those we tell ourselves. It means offering up grace and forgiveness, affirming relationships that strain and break because of a loss of perspective on what is true. It means seeing light shining as primal evidence that God loves creation...for light itself was the first thing created and without it we are...not.

It isn't easy being salt and light; but that is what we are called to be as the Body of Christ in the world. It means that we are always on call, called to love and be FOR the world in some very unique ways. It means we are to understand that we are essential to the action of life working itself out, to the coming of the kingdom of God into the world. Our job is to bridge the gaps, the membranes that separate us, in order to let the waters of God's love flow and cleanse the world. It means the waves/particles of the light of God's love are to shine forth from us, providing illumination for a world darkened by sin and the rejection of that love.

It means we accept the call to labor with Christ for a world that sees love of God, and love of neighbor, as fulfillment-not only of God's will but also our realization of that will and love in and around us...salt and light.


And light.

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