Salt of the Earth

Preached at Melville United Church on February 5, 2017

A week or so ago, Reverend Marion and I sat in a coffee shop, and she looked me in the eye and asked, “So why aren’t you ordained?”

Now, there is a whole long litany I could tell you about why I thought ordination wasn’t for me, at least not yet, but the story that Toronto Conference would likely give is this:

At the time of my interview with Toronto Conference, I had not been attending any church regularly for quite some time. They gave me six months to work things out, but six months later I was still not attending church on a regular basis. At that point, my file was closed.

What I couldn’t say then, but can say quite clearly now, is that during the over two years that I didn’t attend church, I wasn’t feeling fed by worship or by the community, and I was questioning not only my need for church, but the whole concept of the church as an institution.

Obviously, things changed. I’m back, and I believe I’m here to stay. In fact, with a lot of prodding from both Rev. Marion and Rev. Robin, I’ve taken the first tentative steps to getting back on the path to ordination.

Why would I question the need for church in the first place? I’d been part of the church for as long as I remember. And not just part of it, but one of those members who was always in the thick of things. I started sitting in the choir stalls when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I returned to church after my extended absence that I actually sat in the pews as an ordinary worshiper for more than one or two Sundays at a time. I had always been in some sort of worship leadership. I’d been on committees and boards since I was in my teens, I’d helped run bazaars and dinners and concerts and retreats and bible studies and all sorts of church functions. I’m the last person you would have thought would have a crisis of faith in the church.

I never stopped believing in God. At my lowest point, I could always say with conviction, “God is.” But everything else was up for debate, and the church was at the top of my list for re-evaluation.

Do we really need the church?

I came away from my extended time out convinced that the Christian church, and especially our mainline denominations like the United Church, are not only useful institutions, but vital ones for the health of society. Over the next three sermons, I’ll touch on some of the vital roles I believe that churches can play in society, roles that no other institution or group of people seems to be fulfilling right now.

Today, we talk about salt, because Jesus has told us that we are to be the “salt of the earth.”

I googled salt, and re-learned that the phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean a “dependable, unpretentious” person. I can understand that being dependable is good, and most of the time, being unpretentious is probably the right way to go. But is that what Jesus means when he says we are to be the salt of the earth?

Salt is a mineral. Sodium chloride. It’s not a rare mineral—it’s in every single drop of sea water, and there are deposits of it underground. But it’s not naturally found in its pure state—there are impurities that must be removed before it’s fit for human use. In our time, pure salt is plentiful and cheap. In ancient times, pure salt was so difficult to come by that it was used as a form of money. It’s where our words “salary” and “soldier” come from. Someone who is “not worth his salt” is a slave or worker who doesn’t do enough work to justify the salt given to pay for him.

Salt is necessary for human and animal life. The messages that run along nerves from our brains to our muscles and back again are transmitted by electrolytes like the sodium in salt. Without enough salt in our diets, our muscles stop working, our brains swell, and we die.

Salt is so necessary to life that it’s one of only five things we can taste on our tongues. We can taste sweet, bitter, sour, unami (which is that earthy taste you get from mushrooms and meat), and salt.

Think about it this way—if I eat a banana, or drink orange juice, I can’t taste the potassium in them, even if that’s the mineral I’m craving. But if I eat a potato chip, or beef fried rice, or a fried egg, I can immediately tell not only if there’s salt in or on it, but approximately how much. Are these regular potato chips, or reduced salt? We can all tell without looking at the package, because we’ve evolved that ability to taste it.

But we’re all aware that salt, in excessive quantities, can be a poison. Too much salt isn’t good for our blood pressure—it can elevate it, or at least keep it elevated when it’s already high. And the salt we put on our roads causes the grass and plants at the verge to die, until only weeds can grow.

And we need to pay attention to that last, because interestingly enough, when Jesus tells us that we are the “salt of the earth,” he might very well have been referring to that quality—that ability of salt to kill things.

In Jesus’ time, salt was used by invading armies to destroy the fields of the enemies so that crops wouldn’t grow. That practice was called “salting the earth.” The interpretation of “salt of the earth” to mean someone who is dependable and unpretentious came later, after generations of Christian clergy who were part of the establishment and not outlaws had the chance to put their stamp on Biblical interpretation.

But in Jesus time, and afterwards when the gospels and the letters of Paul and the other epistles were written, the church was either on the fringes of the established order, as it is today, or entirely outlawed. And I believe Jesus was telling his soon to be outlawed followers that they had a place, and that place wasn’t to prop up the complacency and egos of the middle and upper classes.

You are to be like salt, he tells them. Stand up against the established order, and make their fields bear no grain. Don’t let them get rich by oppressing the workers, don’t let them gain power by trampling on those less powerful, don’t let law and order be your goals if the laws and the order unjustly oppress whole groups of people who have no say in what the laws are and how they were made.

The church has a place in today’s society. We need to salt the earth, now more than ever.

I got a text the other day from my dear friend Rev. Robin. “I need to talk. The sky is falling. The sky is falling!” and “He (Donald Trump, in case you didn’t guess) is dismantling God stuff and building walls.”

I told her, we need to dismantle walls and build God stuff.

We need to salt the fields of the rich and powerful, and destroy the crops of hatred that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the terrorists, and destroy the crops of fear that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the powerful corporations, and destroy the crops of environmental abuse and obscene profits and worker exploitation that they have sown.

And we do that by finding our voice.

Isaiah tells us, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion!”

We need to be brave, and speak out, and say, “No! This is not an acceptable way to act!”

And we need to be heard amongst and above all the millions screaming in terror. We need to be a voice of authority, not one of hysteria.

On Saturdays, I teach swimming to Special Olympians, young men and women with developmental disabilities. And yesterday one young man didn’t want to get out of the pool at the end of the lesson. He was hanging on to the railing and refusing to move. A few of our younger coaches were with him, trying in vain to get him to let go of the rail and move out of the pool. After a few minutes of this I came up and said, “Move. Out of the pool, now.”

And he moved. He didn’t quite get out of the pool, at least not right then, but he moved, solely in response to my spoken command.

I’m not Harry Potter—I don’t have a magic wand or any superpowers. I simply have years of experience in calmly but firmly saying, “No. This behaviour isn’t acceptable.”

The church needs that voice, the calm, firm, salty voice.

There are millions of voices screaming all sorts of things at our governments and terrorists and corporations. Pleas and entreaties, idle and not-so-idle threats, whines and woe-is-me tales that rend the heart. We need to cut through all the drama with the salty voice of calm.

We need to say to our government:

Mr. Trudeau, you said during the election campaign that you would seek justice for our native peoples. Do it. Now.

To the newly installed president of our neighbours to the south:

Mr. Trump, you are president of a country that says it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Live up to that, instead of responding with fear and cowardice to terrorism and to the globalization of commerce. Create policies that give voices and hope to the least of Americans—those out-of-work folks in the rust belt who voted for you, all your black and Hispanic and Muslim citizens who now walk the streets in fear. Use the influence of the mighty American military to promote peace and stability in other countries in the world, not to destroy it in order to contribute to the American economic machine.

We need to say to the terrorists:

Your violence breeds only more violence. You will never, ever get what you want by using guns and bombs. We are brave, and we are many. You cannot kill us all, and you cannot silence our voice. Put down your guns and talk, and we will listen.

We need to say to corporations:

You are not a law unto yourselves. You do not have any right to obscene profits while your workers line up at food banks. You do not have the right to take our water and sell it back to us. You do not have the right to foul the water and the air and the land so that no humans or creatures can survive, because it’s more profitable to pollute than to clean up your mess.

We need to say to the totalitarian governments of the world:

We are watching. It is not okay that you imprison those citizens who disagree with your rule. It is not okay that you use military might to suppress peaceful gatherings. It is not okay that you tell your citizens that they cannot worship God in certain ways. It is not okay that you deny your citizens their democratic voice.

And, perhaps most of all, we need to say to the church, to ourselves and to those others of us who call themselves Christian:

We are not here to preach or listen to a gospel of prosperity. God does not shower earthly riches on us just because we’re Christian, and the poor are not poor because they don’t go to the right church.

We are not here to preach a gospel of hatred and exclusionism. Jesus tells us that judgement belongs to God, and if we say that someone is going to Hell, we are the ones condemned.

We are not here to disseminate Western Culture to all the “heathens” of the world, and to say, “Our way of life is best and leads to the purest form of Christianity.”

We are not here to say, “We are the only true path to God, and everyone else is an idol worshipper.”

We are not here solely to pay for our buildings and have bible studies and programs and worship services on Sunday mornings. Those things are valuable only so long as they contribute to our actions outside this building during the rest of the week.

We are not here to preach a gospel of pop psychology. “God loves you as you are” and “everything will be all right” are fine and true sentiments, but the real, gutsy life that Jesus calls us to is much more than that. Jesus tells us to look and go beyond ourselves, into the big, scary world of people who are not like us. Jesus calls us to touch them and feed them and heal them and love them.

I realized, during my two and a half years in the desert, that I was feeling alienated in part because the church seemed to have lost its way. The church, through many centuries of being the religion of the elite, began to identify with the lifestyle of the elite, which was the very sin against which Jesus seemed to set himself.

Listen to his words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

Let’s change that a little, because we claim for ourselves the title of “Body of Christ”:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon US,

Because he has anointed US

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent US to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

In a physical sense, there is too much salt in the world today. We have to read labels and watch what we put in our soup. We’ve cut down on the road salt where we can, but it still kills the grass.

But in the world of the church, we’ve come dangerously close to being thrown out for not being salty enough.

And I feel it would be very, very bad for the world not to have the church in it. Although we are akin to Judaism and Islam, although there are other valid expressions of worship to the God who made the heavens and the earth, I have come to see that the Christian Church is unique, that we have a piece of this “God puzzle” that no-one else has, and that piece is the part where we realize that God does not belong solely to us, and that other ways of worshipping God are valid. After all, the historical, earthly Jesus wasn’t even a Christian—he was Jewish!

And that piece is the one that we must keep in mind when we speak to the governments and the terrorists and the corporations and the protesters and most especially to each other.

God is not just OUR God, and God doesn’t especially favour us over all other people. And when our Christian brothers and sisters, or our governments, or our corporations, or our protesters or our terrorists forget it, we need to be that still, calm voice of reason that says:

God is God of all peoples. God is over all the Muslims, and the Christians, and the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Atheists. God is God over all nations: the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Syrians and the Americans, the Canadians and the Mexicans. God is God over all individuals: Ruth Cooke and Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump and Alexandre Bissonnette and of all his victims.

We are all of us made in the image of God, and when we oppress one another, we oppress God. When we deny one another justice, we deny Jesus. When we hurt one another, we crucify Our Lord. Again.

We need to have the courage to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak. That is our salt.

If we, the church, lose our salt, we have no purpose in society, and society will throw us out and trample us underfoot.

If, however, we find our voice, I believe that even those who disagree with us will begin to respect us again, and we will find our place in the soup of the world.

Amen.

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The Opposite of Love

(Preached by Ruth Cooke at Melville United Church on November 6, 2016)

If we are to understand Jesus and the message that he brings, I think it is important to understand a little of the world into which he was born and in which he lived his earthly life.

Jesus lived and preached in Palestine at a time that was near the beginnings of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, Caesar Augustus ascended the throne of Rome and became the first Emperor. During his lifetime, Rome saw an unprecedented forty years of peace, where Rome saw a steady increase in prosperity and peace. The frontiers of the empire were slightly extended, borders became stable, and were properly defended. Improved roads provided better communications channels between outlying provinces and Rome, and new cities in strategic places provided centres for administration.

Augustus died in 14 AD, and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him.

At first, Tiberius continued the policies of Augustus. But in 26 AD, just three years before Luke tells us of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, Tiberius for some reason retired to the island of Capri, and ruled from there. Those who opposed this change were put to death, and he came to be known as something of a tyrant.

At that time, the Romans endorsed local rulers from amongst the populace, and these rulers reported to Rome while administering local law. At the time of the birth of Jesus, that ruler was King Herod the Great. Herod was a half-Jew, son of a Greek mother, and distrusted by the people. Not only that, he was a brutal ruler. He imposed very high taxes, and used some of that money to install a golden eagle (which was the symbol of Rome) over the temple in Jerusalem.

Jews considered this to be idolatry, and when Herod fell ill, two popular Jewish teachers and their students removed the eagle. Herod ordered them all to be burned alive.

Herod died in 4 BC, and three of his sons inherited a divided kingdom.

Of the three, Phillip, tetrarch of the Golan heights, proved to be the most able. He was fairly popular with the people, who included mostly Romans, Greeks, Syrians and Arabians and not many Jews. He was the only one to keep his rule until death.

His half-brothers Archalaeus and Herod Antipas were different.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was criticized by John the Baptist for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, who was also his niece, and had him beheaded for it.

Herodias wanted her husband to be a king, and started plotting. As a result, Herod was exiled to Lyon in the province of Gaul.

Archalaeus was ethnrarch of Samaria and Judea, which included both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Archalaeus inherited the mess in Jerusalem. An angry crowd demanded that those responsible for the deaths of the two Jewish leaders and their students be punished. In answer, Archalaeus sent soldiers into the temple during Passover and slaughtered some three thousand worshippers.

Then he went to Rome to be crowned. Fresh riots broke out while he was away. In response, he crucified another two thousand people.

Archalaeus ruled so badly that he too was banished, to Vienne in Gaul.

It was in this conflicted and hostile world that Jesus began his ministry.

In the Jewish community, there were four different groups, each with a different way of dealing with the brutality of Roman rule.

There were the Zealots, who were revolutionaries advocating armed resistance and rebellion.

There were the Sadduccees, wealthy lay persons who took a pragmatic approach and advocated accommodation. As those at the top of the pecking order, they were more concerned with present day comforts than with what would happen after death.

There were the Pharisees, idealists who sought to live a life of spiritual purity by following the laws of Moses in every respect.

And there were the Essenes, who withdrew from society, often to a monastic like setting. John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey, was a type of Essene.

Fast forward to 2016:

Right now, the world is polarized. The US election has all of our attention these days, but the conflicts and problems that are at the centre of the debates are not of Hillary or Donald’s making.

The refugee crisis brought about by the instability of the Arab world and the extreme poverty in Africa.

Unemployment and low wages in North America that are coupled with crippling shelter costs.

And of course, the rapid changes that started in the sixties with desegregation and women’s rights continue with technological breakthroughs that have made global communication instant and personal privacy non-existent.

And we are responding in the same ways as the Jews of Jesus’ time.

The Zealots still advocate armed rebellion. Recently, police officers have been shot while simply sitting in their squad cars. Citizens with guns commit mass murders against groups of people perceived as “the enemy.”

Sadducees still advocate cooperation and accommodation. Life isn’t perfect, but with a little elbow grease, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you’re not wealthy, it’s your fault, because if the son of a Kenyan goat-herder can become president of the United States, than anyone can!

Pharisees still seek spiritual purity by following laws written down thousands of years ago for people who led a long-extinct way of life. Oh, they’ve been adapted, and some have been discarded, most notably those that the Pharisees don’t want to follow. Can’t have your eggs without your bacon, can you?

And of course, the world will always have its Essenes. Turn off the television, don’t read the paper, and hide your head under a pillow. Or read Lord of the Rings for the fiftieth time, or play Minecraft on your computer until your fingers fall off. Buy twenty acres in the country and grow your own organic vegetables and raise your own free-range chickens and home-school your children. Hide in your basement and hope that the world will go away while you’re down there.

And if you haven’t guessed, I have a more than slight tendency to be an Essene. Unless I’m really upset, and my inner Zealot goes on a rampage.

We react in these predictable range because change causes fear. We can’t plan ahead, we can’t predict what will happen.

Terry Pratchett, a writer of humorous fantasy, says in his novel Feet of Clay that what people want, more than prosperity or fortune or health or anything else, is stability. We want to wake up in the morning fairly confident that today will be pretty much like yesterday. Because then we feel in charge. We know what to do and how to act.

And when we are confronted by change, when we don’t know which way is up anymore, we start to feel afraid.

And fear casts out love. It becomes every person for herself.

And things get worse. People respond to the change by rioting, or by building walls between themselves and the world. And those on the other side respond, not by changing the rules or their behaviour to make things better, but with violence of their own, because they now feel fear, and seek to maintain their own position.

And along comes Jesus, who tells us, “Do not fear.”

To the Zealots amongst us he says, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”

To the Sadducees he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. Give to everyone who begs from you. Lend, expecting nothing in return.”

To the Pharisees he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

To the Essenes he says, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”

Jesus advocates humility, courage, engagement with the world, and radical, self-giving love to counter the fear that comes with change.

It’s not beyond our capacity as human beings to do what Jesus asks.

During the time when slavery was legal in the United States, many loving and courageous people helped slaves to escape. Some gave up their freedom, and some even lost their lives to aid in the cause of freedom.

During World War II, Schindler and many untold others risked everything to help Jews escape the death camps.

In the face of increasing hostility towards refugees, especially Muslim refugees, some people have responded by taking a leadership role in welcoming them to Canada.

Down through the years, many have spoken up to change unjust laws and customs. Women can now vote, gay men and women can now marry, children with disabilities are now given an education and flourish within their families, rather than being hidden away in institutions.

Truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Canada have helped oppressors and oppressed heal.

Many, many people give freely of their abundance to the Mission and Service Fund, food banks, and many other fine organizations that seek to aid the disadvantaged in their struggle to improve their nutrition, health, education and overall quality of life.

Fear can, if we let it, overwhelm our being and cause us to act in ways that are hurtful to ourselves, to fellow human beings, and to the universe itself.

Love can cast out that fear, and help us create new paths that lead to healing and joy for all.

Amen.