Matthew 5:13-20 and Variation on a Theme by Rilke from Breathing the Water by Denise Levertov
Last week someone started to join in on this prayer and I thought that was lovely. So this week I wanted to intentionally invite you to pray with me by repeating after me these words from Psalm 19:14: Let the words of our mouths, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I confess that I often feel sadness and sometimes even despair in these days. It is part of my job to hold hope, to preach possibility, and in general I am buoyed up by my family and friends and a firm conviction in a Higher Love. And yet, from the state of things in our democratic republic and the news of the vanishing bees and coral reefs, to the Corona virus that is rapidly spreading, to the open spaces around us threatened, to the depression of our youth… There is a bit of sadness in the air.
Many of you have shared how you feel overwhelmed with bad news and sad news. And because of technology, it is possible for us to know all about it, in fact, right as it is happening with alerts, reminders and notifications, if we so choose. This has led some of you to limit your consumption of news, whether on social media, the newspaper, the radio or cable TV. And for some of you, what is hard, is so present in your life, you can’t turn it off or turn away. Many of us are hurting or our kids are hurting or our neighbor is barely making it work. Even while God has provided enough for all of us, individuals and corporations are hoarding the fruits of this technological age, leaving much of creation struggling. Indeed, we are living in a difficult moment on planet earth. According to some, even our pets are feeling sad and angry.
There are biological implications for our individual and collective sadness. Studies have revealed that sadness evokes certain responses, like withdrawing, losing sleep, losing memory, losing appetite. Being sad on its own isn’t bad, in fact it is healthy to feel it when our heart is broken or something or someone we love is being hurt. Letting ourselves feel it fully, means we are here, we are alive and that we care.
But there is a kind of sadness that we ought to be mindful of. The Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote, “The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of.”
And I think part of our call as a church in this hard time is to be real, to be okay with being sad, to not feel the need to cover it up or clean it up, hearing one another truly and collectively crying when we need to. And also then letting our sadness become salt. After all, tears are water and a little bit of salt.
Even though this teaching we heard from Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew is nearly two thousand years old, I believe that it has something to say to us, even in this moment that we are in right now. "You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world..”
In our bodies, the minerals in salt give important electrolytes, helping with fluid balance, nerve transmission and muscle function. In food, salt preserves and flavors, seasons and textures. In Jesus time, it would have been almost precious. Long before Industrialization, salt was extremely expensive and labor-intensive to harvest. And still he says, “You are the salt of the earth.” It is intentionally present tense. Unlike the Beatitudes, which we explored last week, where he says, blessed are…for they will… which has an implication of something that is not yet. Here, in this teaching, it is about right now. You are salt.
I love what Professor Amy Oden writes, “Notice the present tense as Jesus tells his followers they are salt and light now, not in some distant future. Jesus’ teaching is not only about what the Kingdom of God is, but centrally about who we are, what our new lives in this new realm look like -- tasty and lit up.”
Tasty and lit up!
Turn those tears into salt. Be the ones who give balance and function. Be the ones who preserve what is good. Be the ones who welcome texture and seasoning. You are salt.
And Light is energy, color, food, power. Light is electromagnetic radiation that can be reflected or refracted. Light reveals pathways and personalities. You are made, full of energy and power. You can shine bright. You are light!
It is a present-tense, right now kind of thing.
Amy Oden again on what it means, “don’t merely sit back and receive abundant life, or simply tell others about what a great abundant life we have. Jesus is talking about a life here, about a life that makes a difference for others in the world.”
It turns out that what can ultimately transform sadness into salt and light- when we love ourselves enough to let ourselves shine, when we love others so much they shine themselves. What changes our sadness into something else, is when we use our saltiness to help season ourselves and others, when we light the way for others.
Last week I sat in a circle with a group of clergy from across the front range as we convened to hear the story of a woman who had spent three years in prison here in Colorado. She shared how every aspect of her life there deprived her of humanity- not being able to see her children, not being able to use the toilet without being watched, not being able to be stripped searched without being groped. Everything there was upside down she said. And what gave her hope, the only way she could keep going and keep her light on inside, was her faith and the visits she received from her family and friends. Many women, she said, went years and even a decade without anyone coming to see them. For so many in those cells, despair could be the end, but it’s not. We heard how many of them have overcome trauma and abuse of all kinds and part of what begins to change things for them is when they start to deal with sadness. When they are offered counseling, therapy and other tools, a light becomes uncovered. And then usually something else happens. When their own goodness and beauty is allowed to emerge, when they themselves are allowed to see their own salt and be their own light, then eventually they want to do make that possible for others.
As one commentator noted, “lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels….Jesus is clear: Bushels can only block out the light when we put them there.”
When there is so much we cannot control, so much that tries to steal our light and our flavor, Jesus’ words invite us to take responsibility for all of the things that we can control.
It is maybe like the poet Denise Levertov wrote, as if the Universe
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task, The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
It is healthy to feel our sadnessnesses, but we cannot let them become dangerous and unhealthy, as in Rilke’s words, they will “gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of.” From tears to salt. From shadowy walkways to illumined paths.
And I think that part of how we do this is by letting this community of faith be a congregation of flavor. As Amy Oden said, “Tasty and lit up!” To me this means we are continually called to add more flavor. How might we be a saltier church, welcoming more texture and seasoning in our midst? What would it be like if each and every one of us felt safe to shine? What kind of energy and power might come from all of that light? In this time where sadness abounds, I wonder if God is leaning over, awakening us, as with a loud bell, where suddenly our whole selves hear the, yes I can. Even where we feel sadness and despair, let us see it, hold it, heal it and turn it together. Let us turn our collective tears into salt. Let us remove all of the bushels for ourselves and for one another. Beloved of God, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May it be so.