Maggie Helwig’s Homily (February 6 — Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

“Salt of the earth” is one of those phrases that’s entered the language in ways quite different from the original intention. These days, it seems to be mostly a sort of condescending compliment — “Farmers! Aren’t they just the salt of the earth?” — somehow associated with hard work and “traditional” values and a sort of imaginary solidity and stability.

This rather ignores the fact that salt is, in fact, quite a peculiar and volatile substance. Our bodies need salt – we can’t live long without it. My husband, as a young man, once tried to eliminate salt from his diet entirely and then cycle up the Fraser Valley, and ended up in an A&W outside Mission in a state of metabolic collapse, licking up salt straight out of the packets. But too much salt is poison. You’d think this ought to make people of missionary tendencies worried, because if the whole world were salt, it would be a dead world. Salt heals and salt irritates; salt can preserve and salt can destroy. Essential, dangerous, rare and strange.

And this is, apparently, how the writer of Matthew imagines his community; as a small and marginal group, operating within the larger society as a volatile substance, a sprinkling of difference, whether healing and preserving or irritating and cauterizing. Unlike the larger society. Difficult. Extreme. In pursuit of a righteousness of impossible perfection.

Both the Gospel and that wonderful passage from Isaiah, in their English translations, include the word “righteousness.” The Hebrew word is tsedeq, the Greek is dikaiosune, and both might as well or better be translated as “justice.” It’s actually Matthew’s key word, possibly his most important theme, the call to a righteousness, a justice, which exceeds all earthly standards; and Isaiah expands very accurately on what Matthew as well means by the word: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry and house the homeless. This for Matthew is the core of “the law and the prophets,” and when Jesus says that he has come to fulfill these things, this is for Matthew a call to all those who would follow Jesus. To strive for a justice that exceeds all human practice, a righteousnes of peculiar extremity.

Well, up to this point, this seems like something I hardly need to be telling the people of Holy Trinity. If there is a congregation in Toronto which has devoted itself to the work of justice, which has been a small and often marginalized group of irritating and essential agitators within the larger society, it is this congregation. I don’t have to tell you that righteousness isn’t about being nice or good or showing up regularly in church on Sundays, I don’t have to tell you that the observances desired by God are the works of justice. You people know that. So I am not going to spend nearly as long on this point as I might if I were elsewhere.

Instead, I’m going to go somewhere else; I’m going to go to the epistle. Now, you take your chances doing that. Open up Paul’s letters at random, and there’s about a fifty-fifty chance you’re going to find him saying something absolutely obnoxious. But there’s also a chance that you’re going to find him saying something quite wonderfully insightful, and the reading we have here is, I think, Paul at something closer to his best than to his worst.

Because there are dangers in being salt, and Paul understands something of what those dangers are.

As I said before, too much salt can be poison. And so can too much of Matthew’s heroic morality of absolute righteousness, his insistence that his community must become the most just and most committed and basically most perfect community ever to exist.

The first danger, obviously, is the smugness that comes with feeling like we’ve already achieved this, or at least got closer to achieving it than other people. We’re all vulnerable to that temptation sometimes; we’re all inclined, now and then, to read “you are the salt of the earth” as a statement of fact rather than an aspiration.

We’re inclined – and the history of the church is full of this – to assume, with the best will in the world, that we know what justice is, that we are fully able to decide what it is that is best for the oppressed, whether or not some particular group agrees with our estimate of what they need. Affluent Christians in North America and Europe spent generations bringing their understanding of the good and the just to the rest of the world, whether the rest of the world wanted it or not. The settler churches in Canada set up the residential school system because they truly believed that they were acting in justice and goodness, that they were helping to feed the hungry and house the poor, and managed not to see that what they were actually doing was, not to put too fine a point on it, committing genocide.

We like to think that we know better than that now, and probably we do, at least a bit. Probably we are at least a bit more aware of the need to be in partnership with the suffering and marginalized, and to allow people to define their own needs and interests. But the risk of assuming that we know best, that our definition of justice is necessarily God’s definition of justice remains a real one. We need to be suspicious of ourselves. Especially when we are dealing with others who don’t have access to some of the usual social tools, who have difficulty articulating need, whose needs seem strange, we do not come with what Paul calls lofty words. We come knowing nothing, and asking for help to understand.

We need to come before the other, always, in fear and trembling. We need to have the humility that sees another person, another being, as a terrible and awesome mystery, as a manifestation of God which exceeds our understanding. We need to assume that, standing before that face of God which is another person’s face, we know nothing, and can only reach out our hands and ask for help, ask the other to speak to us, to be for us the wisdom of God. God’s wisdom, secret and hidden in the depths of the person before us, in their weakness and their beauty, the whole of their unfathomable existence.

There is another way in which too much salt, too much of Matthew’s heroic morality, can be dangerous. We may come to value ourselves only in our good works, and only insofar as we are good, and we may come to see that as the measure of worth. It’s easy to be terrorized by Matthew. He can seem to be painting a picture of discipleship as a life which requires infinite strength and endurance and ability, the production of works of justice on a more or less constant basis. There might seem to be little room in this for people whose ability to work, in the world’s sense of work, is not great – the very young and the very old, the ill and the disabled and the depressed, those of us who are struggling to get out of bed in the morning or to sleep at night.

And here again, Paul knows something. Something about the importance of weakness. Something about how those moments when our human powers fail and we know nothing, how those days when we are helpless and broken and vulnerable and lost, are the moments and the days when God is there. When all we can do is hand ourselves over to the world as Christ handed himself over to suffering and death, and in that vulnerability find the chance of resurrection.

One of the classic tropes of religious painting is Christ’s crucified body, taken down from the cross, being held and mourned by a small group of women and strangers and outsiders. Sometime we too can only lie down, all our works defeated or apparently useless, our selves become the need for care and support. Sometimes – and this is terribly hard to do for some of us – sometimes the only thing we are able to do is to let ourselves be carried by others.

The journalist Ian Brown, in his wonderful book The Boy in the Moon, talks about how early in our lives we come to believe that we must earn love, and notes that his severely disabled son Walker will never fall into that trap. Walker, in his broken self, is a statement that love and care are what ought to be given, what ought to be received, simply as a fact of being, not as a reward or a possession. In this respect, at least, Walker Brown is much wiser than me, much wiser than most of the world, much closer to the wisdom of God which appears in this world as foolishness. We do not earn God’s love, not ever. It is simply there, always, unfailing; perhaps best known in our own failures, and known at least in part through in the human love which carries us in those failures.

Sometimes we do know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, and we know it in our own bodies and our own lives. We know that we are selfish and silly, and we want things that we cannot even admit to, and we get tired, and we are limited and clumsy, and sometimes not good for very much work at all. Not like salt, not like light, not more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, but just small weak human beings, longing for justice and goodness, and helpless to bring it about.

And sometimes that is the most holy, the most crucial, the most healing moment. That moment of humility and surrender, of dependence, painful as it may be.

Sometimes we fall, and find ourselves in the hands of the living God who is love.


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