Father Nicholas Lang
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
The monsignor was being honored at his retirement dinner after 25 years in the parish. A leading local politician and member of the congregation was chosen to make the presentation and to give a little speech at the dinner. However, as usual, he was late, so the Priest decided to say his own few words while they waited:
“I got my first impression of the parish from the first confession I heard here. I thought I had been assigned to a terrible place. The very first person who entered my confessional told me he had stolen a television set and, when questioned by the police, was able to lie his way out of it. He had stolen money from his parents; embezzled from his employer; had an affair with his boss’s wife and had taken illegal drugs.
I was appalled that one person could do so many awful things. But as the days went on, I learned that my people were not all like that and I had, indeed, come to a fine parish full of good and loving people.”
Just as the Priest finished his talk, the politician arrived full of apologies at being late. He immediately began to make the presentation and gave his talk: “I’ll never forget the first day our parish Priest arrived,” said the politician. “In fact, I had the honor of being the first person to go to him for confession.”
Moral of the story: Be careful when and how you give away your identity!
How do we define ourselves? What’s our identity? Maybe we define ourselves by how we earn a living or, if we are retired, by the job we once had. Some may define themselves by the different roles they carry out such as husband, wife, parent, caregiver.
But what happens if we lose our job or our kids are grown up and have their own families or we lose our spouse or are retired. In a society where the conventional thinking is “we are what we do in the work world” we might even feel like we have lost our identity. How to we escape from feeling that void? We listen to Jesus because this morning he tells us who we are. And that identity never changes.
In this text, which is part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is explaining what it means to be one of his followers. Now before we unpack what he means when he says, “You are the salt of the earth,” let’s talk about salt. In the ancient world, evil spirits were thought to be warded off by salt and it was among the first commodities ever traded. Salt was a major political factor. The first great Roman road was the “Via Saltaria,” the way of salt or the “Salt Road.” Roman soldiers were sometimes payed in salt and a commander might ask if a soldier “was worth his salt.” The word salary comes from the Latin for salt.
We cannot live without salt. It’s deficiency causes illness and, if you’ve ever had a really low sodium level, you know what that is like. It was also a symbol of fertility and European brides and grooms would carry salt on their person to ward off infertility. Salt has also been part of the religious customs of nearly every religion. Newborn Hebrew babies were rubbed in salt as a sign of a covenant. In Islam, salt seals a bargain. So Jesus was making a very significant point when he said “you are e the salt of the earth” and he was paying us a huge compliment.
Notice that he did not say. “You should be salt” or “I wish you were salt.” He’s very clear to be giving us our identity. And it’s not at all dependent on our life circumstance or our profession or our age or our various roles in life. Jesus tells us “You are essential. The world needs you. I need you in the world. Your life matters.”
Steven Charleston is a Native-American and retired Episcopal Bishop. Here’s how we suggests we use our saltiness to be the 21st century disciples:
“Rise up, peace-makers, rise up and join the struggle, for there is much work to be done. Rise up, defenders of the Earth, rise up and join hands around the globe for there is much to save and little time to do it. Rise up, fighters for justice, rise up and take your place among the ranks of the hopeful, for there are lives to be restored and not enough time in days to come to bring them all to safety. Rise up, prayer warriors, rise up wherever you are, for there is a sad world waiting for your word and every player counts as the time is so quickly moving. Rise up, all who believe, rise up, for there is so much to do in the time we have remaining.”
An English bishop once said, “Everywhere the disciples went there was a revolution or a revival; everywhere I go, they serve tea.” Jesus used his power for good, for healing, for love and mercy, for challenge and change for the better and he has empowered us to do likewise. How will we use the authority given to us by God to be agents of change in our world?
We people of faith can never feed all the hungry people, never heal all the sick, never rescue all those suffering from fire, earthquake and storm, never free all those oppressed by injustice. What we can do, however, is each day bring an element of balm and hope to someone who is in desperate need of it. When we are grounded in God’s love and light, our own genuineness inevitably shines through.
“You are the salt of the earth.” If you came here this morning thinking that you are not particularly important or are unsure about your identity, Jesus guarantees that this is not the case.