Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

I was doing some grocery shopping the other day, and of course ruminating on today’s readings, which I spend much of the week doing.  This particular Gospel always makes me toss the words over and over, thinking about what it means to be salt and light, to be salt that has lost its flavor, and so forth.  I found myself in the spice aisle and sure enough there were LOTS of different types of salt.  Table salt, kosher salt, iodized or not, rock salt, sea salt, Celtic sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, and so on.  I was amused at how many different types of salt you could find, and so I started reading some labels. 

The Pink Himalayan Salt was the most interesting I thought.  According to the description this salt was nearly two hundred and fifty million years old!  Formed in, as they put it, pristine environmental integrity of the earth that existed then.  But what I found most interesting, was that we should all be thanking God we are living in this current era.  Apparently this salt which is at least two hundred and fifty million years old has an expiration date of December 2025.  Almost missed that window of opportunity!

When I hear this particular passage, I often am vexed by Jesus saying, “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  I’m vexed because if you know anything of chemistry, and of salt in general, you know that salt’s purest form, sodium chloride, is an incredibly stable substance.  It doesn’t lose its saltiness.  Unless you are changing it into something else, salt stays salty.  So this time it came up, after lamenting skipping chemistry in high school, I decided to dig deeper into the translations and commentaries on this passage.

I’ll tell you what I found: a LOT of different opinions.  But there was one scholar discussing the use of salt and its properties in Middle Eastern society around the time of Jesus that I thought were very helpful.  He discussed the fact that first, the salt we buy at the store wasn’t as pure then as it is now.  There were a lot more other minerals and impurities that just weren’t removed before using the salt.  The second was, because of how incredibly valuable salt was, there were often unscrupulous vendors who would cut the salt with other things like gypsum in order to maximize profits.  Both of these then lead you to understand that if you take this type of salt, and it gets wet, the sodium chloride could be washed out and what’s left after it dries is still white and powdery, but isn’t salty at all.  It looks like salt, but it doesn’t taste like it.

That seems to me a fitting metaphor for the way we live our faith.  In fact I think it resonates well with our reading from Isaiah.  The prophet is listing out all the sins and misdeeds of God’s chosen people.  He proclaims loudly the terrible things the Israelites are doing, like fasting, and praying, and doing all the religious obligations that God has asked them to do.  The actual problem, says Isaiah, is that the people are doing them only as obligations.  The people are observing these acts so that they appear pious, so that they feel like they are punching their divine meal ticket.  But in fact their hearts are not set on the things that God wants them to be set on. 

Isaiah goes on to say that it’s more important to strive for the values that God as set forth than to offer observances of the religious tradition.  He says, “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, […] to let the oppressed go free.”  In short, one could say that these people, already impure salt as we all are, have let the saltiness wash away and what’s left may look like salt, but it doesn’t satisfy at all.  It is a reminder to us to ask why we observe the sacraments.  What is it we come here for on a Sunday morning or any other day?  Do we believe in what we are doing, do we live out the values that our faith teaches us?  Or is this all just cheap grace?  Is this a way for us to look like salt, but not actually taste like salt?

Similarly Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket.”  Father Chris Corbin writes, “… putting a basket over a lit oil lamp is a really good way to start a fire. I wonder if Jesus is in part saying: You can either provide light for your house or burn your house down, but the light is going to get out one way or another.”  If we are here, and our light is lit, than what are we doing with that light when we leave this place? 

Is our light seen by those we cross paths with?  Is our light seen by our family, our friends, and our neighbors?  Are we bearing a light bright enough to point through us to Christ and God?  Remember, this isn’t just about works, as Isaiah tells us.  Our light isn’t just about the fasts we keep or the services we attend.  Our light has to do with our faith and our devotion to God and how that shines bright enough to be seen.  Where is our heart when we step up to this altar to partake of the body and blood of Christ?

Father Keith Voets writes, “Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world requires more than sending a tweet, making a Facebook post, or even attending a protest. It requires that the Church be in honest relationship with the world, offering people a Way that is unlike any other way; a Way that is the perfect self-giving and self-emptying of Cross.”  That is what our lights are illuminating for others: that there is a way.  That God has walked on Earth, has torn the gates off of Hell, and has assured salvation for all.    

Those who would follow Christ, who would dare carry a light in this dark world, are commanded by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  To set in our hearts the justice of God’s Kingdom, and to let that light shine out for everyone else to see.  Our actions should stand as echoes of our faith, as lights that illumine a path to Christ.  At the risk of giving you a tune that gets stuck in your head, remember as you leave here today the words of that song heard in every Sunday School:  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”