— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 5th Sunday after Epiphany ~~~
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16 as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message).
I played football for one year in high school – ninth grade, Junior Varsity. We played a total of one game that season – against Harper Academy. They were a much bigger and better team than we, but we only lost 6 to 0 – a moral victory to be sure. It was a pretty good showing for the Trinity Wildcats and I was happy to be alive at the end of the game.
You see, back then, I was not nearly as muscular and powerful as the man you see before you today… ha.. ha … I was a runt – 120 pounds soaking wet and after supper. I was fairly quick and that served me well. I played half-back on offense and safety on defense. On defense I was so puny they did not even bother to block me. What that meant for me was that unless I just fell down or pretended to trip or if I happen to just run into a Harper player, there was nothing to keep me from being involved in almost every play. I guess the Harper coaches told their players to run over me – which they did quite often. I was successful, however, throughout the game of tripping their running backs and bringing them down. I was like a 120 pound speed bump.
By and large that one high school football game is a positive memory for me…my one connection to the glory of Friday night lights! One memory, however, is not at all a fond one. We had what we referred to then as “two a days.” We had practice in the morning and then again in the afternoon. My coaches were fundamentalist preachers (I did not know this at the time but when I learned this fact it made perfect sense). They believed in reducing their team – each one of us – to a pitiable mush of thoughtless flesh and then rebuilding the team – each one of us – into a machine with their unyielding laws of obedience and medieval like training.
I credit my survival to an ability to endure pain and humiliation and a little pill they made us take before those afternoon practices. Now I need you to understand, we were in Montgomery, Alabama in late August wearing full pads practicing on a field that was not grass but mown hay. The temperature on a good afternoon was in the mid-90s. We ran and ran and ran. We tackled and blocked and tackled and blocked. (By the way, at the time of these practices we assumed we would have more than one game – the league was just forming and we had hopes for a full schedule. After the one game we did play I take it as the grace of God that we could call it quits after sixty minutes.) But before those afternoon practices the coaches made us take a little pill. I had never had them before and I have never had them since. The use of these pills is no longer thought to be good practice…they have been replaced with Gator Aid and Power Aid. Then, however, those pills had some value – at least psychologically. Each afternoon before practice we had to take – Salt Pills.
(By the way, I was sharing some of this sermon with Jerome and Maxine Hamm this week and Jerome told me that while he was preparing to run a marathon at about the 12 mile mark he would stash a bottle of water into which he had put a couple of salt pills. What a surprise to hear – not about the salt pills but about the fact that Jerome Hamm ran a marathon! People surprise you, don’t they? In wonderful ways, we surprise one another.)
At any rate, as sweat poured down our faces into our eyes and mouths, we knew we were losing a lot of sodium chloride – NaCl – I was in an introduction to Chemistry at the time. Maybe the pills did do something to help us replace the salt we were losing – maybe they gave us stamina to endure the trials of being coached by sadistic, fundamentalistic coaches? Maybe the pill helped us know there was something inside us that could help us endure?
Salt. Jesus said – You are the salt of the earth. What could he have meant by that analogy? Was Jesus saying – You are characterized by ionic bonds, relatively high melting points, electrical conductivity when melted or when in solution, and a crystalline structure when in a solid state? That was not it.
Salt has been important throughout history as a seasoning agent for food and as a preservative. Maybe that is what Jesus had in mind when he compared his followers to salt. Eugene Peterson put it this way – You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. We, followers of Jesus, are here to bring out the tastiness of God’s good creation! We are here to spice-up the world around us with hope and love and dignity for those around us. We are to persevere in our embodiment of God’s love for each of us, for our neighbors and for the world.
Jesus wanted his followers then and now to be agents of hope. Jesus and his followers are to sprinkle the world with a firm belief that God’s Spirit remains at work in the world leading us all in the direction of wholeness, peace, justice, love and compassion. Jesus and all who follow him and proclaim his message are telling the world –
the Spirit of God is on the move;
keep the faith and have hope for a world made new.
An ounce of hope can flavor an entire room. The doctor comes into the crowded waiting area in the hospital – “I think we got it all,” she says. That’s all she says – “I think we got it all.” And everyone exhales and remembers they haven’t eaten in eight hours. “I think we got it all,” and everyone decides it is time to eat again. (I heard something like this a long time ago; I think it was Fred Craddock.)
Hope is a Christ-like seasoning for life! To follow Jesus, to be his disciple, is to be in the world in such a way that the built-in flavors of God – flavors of love and hope – are brought forth. We are the salt of the world!
The spicy hope brought out in the world by Jesus and his followers is also a hope like the hope the prophet Isaiah foretold – to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house (58:6-7). We bring out the God-flavors in the world as we work for the dignity of every person – the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, the homeless.
Maybe you sang the song in camps like I did –
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored;
and They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
One of the verses of that camp song is
We will work with each other, we will work side by side;
we will work with each other, we will work side by side;
and we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride;
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
This hymn was written by Peter Scholtes. He wrote the hymn while he was a parish priest at St. Brendan’s on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. At the time, he was leading a youth choir out of the church basement and was looking for an appropriate song for a series of ecumenical, interracial events. When he couldn’t find such a song, he wrote the now-famous hymn in a single day. His experiences at St. Brendan’s, and in the Chicago Civil Rights movement, influenced him for the rest of his life. He wanted the young, poor, sometimes homeless young people he was working with to know that they were loved and people of dignity.
Here is another story of priest trying to do the same thing. For nearly thirty years Father Gregory Boyle has run “Homeboy Industries,” a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, gang capital of the world. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Here is one of the many salty stories he tells in his book… At Homeboy Industries, we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them – and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth. Nothing is the same again. No bullet can pierce this, no prison walls can keep this out. And death can’t touch it – it is just that huge.
But much stands in the way of this liberating truth. You need to dismantle shame and disgrace, coaxing out the truth in people who’ve grown comfortable believing its opposite.
One day, I have three homies in my car as I am headed to give a talk. While there, they will set up a table and sell Homeboy/Homegirl merchandise. Our banter in the car spans the range of baggin on each other. We laugh a lot, and I am distracted enough not to notice that the gas tank is on empty. I lean into JoJo, the homie occupying shotgun.
“Oye, dog, be on the lookout for a gas station.”
He doesn’t seem to wholly trust my judgment. He leans toward the gas gauge and dismisses my call.
“You’re fine,” he says.
“Como que I’m fine – I’m on ECHALE, cabron.” Waving at him, I say, “HELLO, E means empty.
JoJo looks at me with bonafide shock.
“E means empty?”
“Well, yeah, what did ya think it meant?”
“Well, what ya think F stood for?”
After I thank him for visiting our planet – I realize that this is exactly how the dismantling process has to play itself out. Homies stare into the mirror and pronounce “EMPTY.” Our collective task is to suggest instead “ENOUGH” – enough gifts, enough talent, enough goodness. When you have enough, there’s plenty.
Or if their verdict is “FINISHED,” we are asked to lead them instead to “fullness” – the place within – where they find in themselves exactly what God had in mind (pages 193-194).
Father Gregory Boyle did not put it this way, but I think he would agree – as followers of Christ we are called to bring out the God-flavors in the people with whom we live and to whom we reach out with the gospel of Christ.
May we be what Jesus says that we are –
the salt of the earth!
May we flavor the world around us
with hope, dignity, justice.
May we be like salt pills
to those who think of themselves
as empty and finished.