In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we are “the light of the world.” That is an amazing thing to think about.
It is easy to see the darkness of our world, particularly in this week of high political drama and obvious political dysfunction. But Jesus says there is light. And Jesus says we are that light. That’s quite a responsibility! Especially in a time that seems dark.
But the metaphor from our reading that struck me this week even more than light of the world—which is striking enough!—is salt of the earth. What does it mean to be the salt of the earth?
A first thing to say is that the people of first-century Israel thought about salt a little differently than do most contemporary Americans. For many of us, salt is the kind of thing we have to watch in our diet because we worry about getting too much of it. That is surely not what Jesus means!!
Salt is not a problem for me. But salt is not a particularly big deal for me either. Salt makes my food taste a little better, but that’s about it.
In the first century, when they didn’t have refrigeration, salt was more than a little extra flavor. Salt was extra flavor, too. But in the first century, salt was first and foremost a preservative. Salt kept food from rotting. Salt made food edible. Salt was a necessity of life, especially in the hard times when fresh food was scarce.
Since that is not what salt means to me, I came up with my own version of the salt metaphor. But you need a little context.
When I first began backpacking, I liked to think of myself as pretty rugged. But on one of my first trips, I met a woman who put me to shame. She had already come a couple of hundred miles—I had come about ten—and she planned to go much farther. That was humbling enough.
But her food was what really impressed me. During the day, she soaked lentils and rice in water. At night, she ate her lentils cold and unseasoned. That is hard core!
Because I wanted to think of myself as rugged, too, I decided I would do the same on my next trip. I tried her lentils and almost gagged. This was not a meal I could eat. I was not nearly rugged enough.
But I didn’t give up. On my next few backpacking trips, I tried to figure out ways to make soaked lentils taste OK. I heated them up. I added Ramen noodles. I added salt and garlic powder. They were still not a meal I could eat.
(As a brief aside, I acknowledge that my lentil obsession was strange. After all, I was backpacking for fun. I don’t know what more to say about that!)
Finally one evening I was sitting with some folks I had met that day, miserably working away at my latest version of lentils, and a man to whom I will always be grateful offered me a little parmesan cheese. That parmesan was like magic. It would be too much to say that I loved my lentils with parmesan. But I genuinely enjoyed them.
I am now older and wiser and therefore much less interested in proving to myself or others how rugged I can be. But I still eat lentils for supper whenever I go camping, just now with a LOT of parmesan cheese, roughly equal parts cheese and lentils.
So, as of this week, I don’t think so much about salt of the earth. I think about the parmesan cheese in my weird lentil concoctions.
Now stay with me here. First, we can think of our lives as the lentils. Without Christ, our lives can be bland, unappetizing, in worst case scenarios, almost impossible to choke down.
But we are not without Christ. Christ comes into our lives, and it may be that little changes outwardly. We are still stuck with lentils. But Christ is the parmesan cheese that makes the lentils of our lives not only tolerable, but positively tasty. What before seemed worthless we can now, with Christ, experience as blessing.
That is what Christ does for us. And that is what Christ calls us to do for the world around us.
There are limits to what we can do, of course. Evil and sin and suffering will continue until Christ establishes God’s kingdom in power and glory. They are part of the lentils we are working with, and we cannot change that.
But we are called to be parmesan cheese in all those lentils. We are called to do what we can to add flavor, enough flavor that people experience the world as the blessing from God that it is, even when times are difficult.
That may seem like a tall order. But as Paul reminds us, we don’t claim to have lofty words or wisdom. We often come in weakness and fear and much trembling. But we come, and we come in the name of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. We come to share a word of good news, a word of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. Most of all, we come in love and with a word of love.
Later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
We can flip that around, too. If I have love, I have enough even if I lack the tongues of mortals and angels, and prophetic powers, and deep understanding and powerful faith.
We are called to act in the name of the God of love, and to act in love. Love is the parmesan cheese that we can bring to the lentils of the world.
Love may not seem like much. But think how revolutionary a politics of love would be. Think what a difference it could make if every legislative session or cabinet meeting began with the reminder that I may have all the votes I need and clever policy prescriptions and a winning strategy, but if I have not love, I am nothing but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.
Or think what it difference it could make if you paused to remember the same thing the next time you get into a political conversation with people on your team. How might that effect the tone of your conversation and your attitude to the people on the other side?
Or think what a difference it would make the next time you get into a political argument, or any other kind of argument for that matter, if you paused to remember that we are called to be a blessing to the world, and especially a blessing to the people we think need it the most, including the irritating person right in front of us.
In the political world, the impeachment hearing is now behind us. Stretching out over the next several months is the campaign season. If the last elections are any indication, we can rely on the fact that things will be ugly and divisive and profoundly unloving. Those are the lentils in front of us. Our calling is to bring a little parmesan cheese to the mix. My prayer is that we can do so.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan