There was a time, well within my memory, when the term Christian was a synonym for the better values of our community. A Christian person or a Christian family were those who did what society expected of them. They were courteous, kind, churchgoing folk. In that bygone era to be Christian was to conform to the culture. That is no longer the case. In this secular age we do not use religious language to describe our better nature. The virtues of culture have not changed much, just the way we describe them. The term ‘Christian’ has been let go, its former role outsourced to Miss Manners, Carolyn Hax, and Bill Gates. I think this is a good thing because it allows us to better understand Jesus’ meaning when he said in today’s Gospel that “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” The point is that being a Christian is something unique, unlike the culture and world around us, as different from the world as the taste of salt is from all others. I would like to talk with you this morning about having salt in ourselves, about some of the ways we are different from the mainstream.
Probably the most basic difference is that, for us, life is a big thing. It is not sandwiched in between birth dates and death dates but stretches beyond the grave and into eternity. We are people who follow Jesus’ investment advice to lay up treasures in heaven. We are those who share the vulnerability described by St. Paul when said that if it is for this life only that we have hoped, we are to be pitied.
The Christian view is not only that there is life beyond the grave but that it is intricately and intimately connected to life before the grave. That is important. In my line of work I bury a lot of people. Many of them have ignored religion all of their lives but at the end grab hold of the notion of death as a fresh start on a new life. In this last-minute theology, all is forgotten, forgiven, and foregone. God is waiting at the grave like a doting grandparent with a cosmic cookie and an eternal glass of milk, assuring us that nothing matters except the uncritical love God has for us. Comforting though that may be, it misses one of the most basic truths about life, one that we repeat over and over to our children: What we do now matters later. That is why we take naps, don’t eat cookies before dinner and get started on our science projects. It is one of the reasons we lead moral and ethical lives.
It is also why our faith and most others have some concept of heaven and hell. Forget the lurid details, the message is really quite simple: what we do now matters later. This life and the choices we make are intricately and intimately connected to the next life. That Christian view is not only distinct from the cheap piety of frightened agnostics but from a growing trend of our culture. You may have read about a large number of Harvard undergraduates who were implicated in a cheating scandal. One professor wrote that the real culprit is a culture of immediate and continuous success. His point was that winning was all that counted and so the principles of honesty are an abstraction that became merely a distraction. That is a worldview with life as a little thing squeezed between birth and death. Our view and our subsequent behavior is quite different. In the same way that people who run a marathon do it very differently from those running a hundred yard dash, people who see life as a big thing intricately and intimately connected will live very differently from those who see it as a little thing squeezed in between tombstone dates, unmoored to either principle or consequence.
We Christians know that life is a big thing and truth is a big thing. That is a fact we people of faith honor more often in the breach than in the observance, to quote Shakespeare. We forget it regularly but it is an essential part of our saltiness.
In today’s Gospel the disciples are all in a snit because someone was healing people in Jesus’ name but was not a card-carrying disciple. Jesus tells them that truth is a big thing. It does not fit into the little categories by which we define ourselves. God’s Truth does not fit into formulas or philosophies, creeds or cathedrals, denominations or declarations. These things can and usually do contain some piece of God’s Truth but never all of it, never enough to justify the arrogance with which we present ourselves. Truth is like wind, said Jesus to Nicodemus the Pharisee. There is nothing that contains the wind; as a matter of fact, when you contain it, it ceases to be wind at all. We Christians have a piece of the truth – a big piece but a piece nonetheless. Islam has a piece and so does science. Communism has some truth, the Tea Party has truth in it, and so does the AFL-CIO. The list goes on and on.
Truth is a big thing, way too big for any one of us to control much less corner. The business of being truthful involves finding ways to connect my piece to your piece so that a larger piece emerges. We do not serve truth in the currently thrilling sport of using my piece of truth as a weapon to beat you into submission. How different would the political campaigns be if they knew that truth was big instead of little? How differently would Congress or foreign policy be if everyone knew that? How different would the church be if we remembered it?
Life is a big thing. Truth is a big thing. We, however are not big. That stunning bit of information has some nuance to it. We cannot just drive by and see it. We have to stop, get out, and take a closer look.
God lavishes extraordinary attention and care on the lame, the least, and the lost. When Jesus began his ministry he took Isaiah’s old words and made them his own [Luke 4:18-19]. His primary concern was for the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed; the poor in spirit, captive to addiction or grief, blind to esteem, oppressed by life. That theme runs all through God’s revelation. The word of God to them is one of comfort, rest, refreshment, forgive-ness, understanding, and unshakable love. The lame, the least, and the lost are of primary importance in the Kingdom of God. God calls them lambs.
The problem is that those words do not describe many of us. They do not describe me to any significant degree and probably not you either. We are loved but we fit in a different category. In this world we are the fit, the foremost, and the found. We are called servants. The words of God for us include stewardship, labor, expectation, and foot washing. The blessings of God, which we enjoy in abundance, are revealed to be investments on which God expects substantial return. We are called vineyards that are meant to yield profits. We are fig trees meant to produce fruit. We are lights meant to shine. We are the ones to whom much has been given and from whom much is expected. We are the ones who when we fail to yield, produce, shine, and meet expectation are the focus of Old Testament wrath and New Testament displacement.
We—the fit, the foremost, and the found—have overheard God’s word to the lame, the least, and the lost and thought it was for us. Big mistake! It tricks us into thinking we are of primary importance in the Kingdom of God. But we are not. We are servants not lambs and in that mistake we lose much of our saltiness.
We are meant to be unique. As different from the world around us as salt is from everything else. We are marathoners in a world of sprinters; truth seekers in a world that thinks truth has been found; servants in a world of lost lambs. We are called, chosen, and crafted by God to live a big life, one that stretches in intricate patterns into eternity; to live with big truth, the kind that can only be known in broken pieces that cry out for one another; to live as servants endowed with great love, great gifts, and great responsibility.
“Have salt in yourselves,” said Jesus, “and be at peace with one another.” Amen.