Hypertension – February 5, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5, 2017

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; Psalm 112: 1-9, [10]; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

I appreciate all this talk about salt, but I wonder if Jesus knew anything about hypertension. He seems to think that calling us the salt of the earth is some unqualified compliment—a reassurance of our favored status and a charge to be the best that we can be. Yet we all know that the reality of salt in our current day is more complicated. Yes, we need salt to live, and some foods just wouldn’t taste right without it: think fries and potato chips and margaritas and prosciutto. But we also know that salt can cause health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Jesus betrays no awareness of what we know all too well—that salt has its negatives as well as its positives.

Jesus’ apparent ignorance makes sense because in Jesus’ day salt was a far rarer and more valuable commodity than it is in ours. Only many years later did salt become widely available to human beings of every social class and only very recently did salt become so extraordinarily present in human diets, thanks to the insidious presence of salt in processed and restaurant foods. It’s now a different time, and, with new knowledge and a new perspective, we look at salt in a different way.

Now, for instance, we are able to recognize that there is such a thing as too much salt. I don’t know that this was obvious to Jesus’ original listeners. For them, salt would have been expensive and hard-to-obtain, and they probably would have wanted to get their hands on as much of it as possible. In contrast, I doubt that many of us, accustomed as we are to blood pressure machines and large, imposing Morton’s cylinders, would see much of value in huge quantities of salt. At our best, when we refrain from big chain restaurants and packaged food, we use salt solely as a seasoning, a helpful condiment sprinkled sparingly to accentuate the food that is around it.[1] A huge handful of salt would be, for us, not only unappetizing but also a giant health risk.

Light, too, means something very different in the year 2017 than it meant in the year 33. [2] Light then was fairly limited: it was present during the day, sometimes abundantly, sometimes not (depending on the weather), but it was absent for most of the night, except in the form of fire or the moon. To be a light in Jesus’ times would have been to be a powerful, necessary guide through obscurity and even pitch-black darkness.

But now, in the wake of advances in electricity, light is everywhere, and, though it has increased safety and productivity for much of the world, it has also brought about a number of problems, from changes in our Circadian rhythms and sleep patterns to environmental pollution and a decrease in our ability to see the stars. Light was once an unquestioned good, a great aid to human sight, but now it harms as well as helps.

True, salt and light are metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount, and it might seem unfair to reevaluate Jesus’ comments because of the ways in which the meanings of salt and light have shifted over the millennia. Nonetheless, I suspect that Jesus’ underlying message needs reevaluation as much as the metaphors he is using. Just as we are living in an age of too much literal salt and too much literal light, so we might be living in an age of too much figurative salt and too much figurative light as well.

There is a need for figurative salt and a need for figurative light, of course, just as there is a need for literal salt and light. We need salty leaders and prophets who will boldly tell us the truths we need to hear; we need paragons of light who will by their word and example show us all how to better live. But I fear that the atmosphere around us has become saturated with salt and light—with so many strong opinions that we find ourselves wanting to spit the whole mouthful out and with so many self-proclaimed beacons that we can barely see anything at all. I don’t know about you, but with the progression of each week I worry I am closer and closer to developing hypertension, perhaps even literally.

This atmosphere didn’t arise overnight, we know; our current reality has its roots in the self-confidence that has always come naturally to Americans. The phrase “city upon a hill” may originate in the Gospel lesson we heard this morning, yet it is so central to the American identity that you’d be forgiven if you thought that John Winthrop came up with it on the Mayflower [3] or that it was a turn of phrase invented by John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Our self-image as a city upon a hill has propelled this country to achieve immense social, economic and technological success, but over the course of our history it has also justified the ruthless murder of native peoples, the brutal and hateful practice of race-based slavery and a closed-mindedness that too often denies the intrinsic good of those from nations not our own.

The current debate on how to build or re-build or protect our “city upon a hill” has caused or perpetuated the formation of factions within our country and factions within those factions. My own perception is that our idealistic obsession with being the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” and a “city upon a hill” has encouraged us to retreat into our own continually fragmenting ideological shelters and thus to surrender any hope of cooperation, dialogue and discussion.

Our Christian faith and our civic responsibility do call us, in my view, to aspire towards a good society in which all is as just and perfect as possible. But as Christians, as Americans, and as people of the world we are not entitled to define that justice and perfection solely from our own standpoints and desires. Jesus makes clear that, though we may be the salt of the earth and the light of the world and a city upon a hill, we are not exempt from the entirety of the law and the prophets. We don’t get to make up the rules on our own; we are not permitted to break even the one of the least of the commandments that God has given us.

The danger in aspiring to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world and a city upon a hill is that you could become so salty as to overwhelm the food you season, so bright as to fail to see anyone else, so high-and-mighty that the lowly are left behind and ignored. I think we have to balance our clarion voices of truth and our majestic visions of law and justice with a more refined sensitivity to the contexts in which we speak and the people with whom we are in conversation, and I am fairly certain that the manner in which we pursue change is almost as important as the outcome we wish will result from it.

Isaiah, you’ll notice, advocates for both caring for the needy and treating one another well: “if you remove the yoke from among you,” he writes, “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” For Isaiah, justice requires not only feeding the hungry and caring for the sick but also resolving bitterness and conflict; for Isaiah, there is no false dichotomy between doing what is right and treating everyone with respect.

If you’ve come to church this morning looking for solutions, I don’t have them. I continue to be as frustrated and bewildered as many of you. I can only share my belief that neither ethics nor community can exist without each other, and my related conviction that a selective peace is no peace at all. Be salty, my friends; shine brightly; rise like cities on a hill—but take a moment to glance at all the other cities rising just in view, and remember: there’s plenty of salt and light to go around.

[1] I owe my thanks to my colleague Charlotte LaForest, Assistant Rector of St. John’s, Essex, for highlighting this point, and for the entire Recently Ordained Clergy group of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut for helping me reflect on this morning’s Gospel passage.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor further explores this theme and its spiritual implications in her marvelous Learning to Walk in the Dark, and I am informed by her work there.

[3] The actual ship John Winthrop took was the Arbella.

Categories: Sermons, Worship