by the Rev. James H. Purdy, Assisting Priest

               And Jesus said,

               “You are the salt of the earth…

                You are the light of the world….”

                                  (The Gospel according to Matthew 5: 13-20)

salt crossSalt to the earth, light to the world.  Jesus uses these two metaphors to describe his call to us.

Salt – the perfect symbol for the phenomenon of a good thing in small quantities.  It loses its utility in large quantities. We shall never forget our first gulp of sea water, the gargles administered by loving parents—too much of a good thing. A pinch of salt enhances flavor, too much ruins it altogether.

The salt of our attitudes and our behavior is meant to make life a savory experience: appetizing, zestful, pleasurable, exciting to the palate of daily life. Overly zealous salting turns life harsh, astringent, joyless, grim.

A much-wiser-than-I cleric warned me, “Too much salt in Christian life happens when we confuse Christianity with Christ, when we put Christianity in the place of Christ. It is a common failing of piety.”   From my perspective thirty-five or so years later, his observation is concise, cogent and correct.   Christianity is a broad, varied system of beliefs and practices and organizational arrangements, coupled with habits, prejudices, adiaphora and exclusions. Christ is the risen and living Lord. The two are not the same. Christ is the center of our lives, the source of all that is good and true in life, the meaning and purpose of our existence and of all that is, both seen and unseen. Christianity is our structure erected to preserve our experience of Christ and to share that experience.

There is a difference between the Lord Jesus and the institutions we establish, institutions susceptible to the stifling of the Spirit, the stifling of our spontaneity and the joys of discipleship. “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us. I take that to mean, “Jesus Christ, always our contemporary.” The Church, alas, lags behind. Too much salt.

The European explorers arrived on this continent and met people who worshiped the Great Spirit. Sadly, we didn’t open our arms and say, “We worship that Spirit, too! We have named it ‘the Holy Spirit.’ We are sisters and brothers!” Instead, we called them “heathen” and drove them to barren lands. Too much salt.

Another priest asked me, “Jim, have you ever seen a stained glass window showing Jesus smiling?” Too much salt.

In faith and practice, as in pot-walloping, salt should come in teaspoons, not in buckets — just enough to serve rather than to rule, just enough to love rather than to control. Jesus calls us to love people not because they are good. We are called to love people because God is good.

“You are the light of the world.” Again, too much of this good thing can destroy. There would be no life on this planet without the sun, but looking directly at it can blind us. Light to the world in the sense of illumination, Jesus is directing, and light to the world in the sense of the light touch.

Holiness, Jesus says, with the light touch of empathy and affirmation, not with the heavy hand of intimidation and judgment. Tempering our wisdom with humility and our holiness with modesty, we avoid confusing Christianity with Christ. We take Christ seriously without taking ourselves seriously. We are joy-filled disciples.

The Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Joy is the one infallible sign of the presence of God.” Theresa of Avila put it more succinctly, “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.”

You are salt to the earth: use it sparingly, a pinch may be all that is needed. You are light to the world:  broadcast it generously, like the sower of seed whom Jesus described in his parable.

       Help us, O God, to take you seriously…

      and to take religion with a grain of salt…   Amen.


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