O Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
There is an old saying that goes: May you live in interesting times. May you live in an interesting age. May you live in exciting times. Some say that this an old Chinese adage, but what isn’t clear is whether this saying is intended as a blessing or a curse. Well, whatever your opinion, we are definitely living in interesting times. Following the election and inauguration of President Trump, people in our country seem more at odds with one another, more anxious, more divided, more reactive than at any time I can remember. Many people are confident that the new administration is doing exactly what this country needs and they applaud President Trump’s most recent Executive Orders. Many others see some of these same Executive Orders as antithetical to our faith and damaging to our democracy. I have my own opinion, which I have shared on our website and Religion News Service. I will let that piece speak for itself. This morning I want to ask the question – During this interesting time in which we live, what does it mean for us to be salt and light? What does it mean to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to God?
Just the other day, a good friend of mine shared with me a prayer written by a Jesuit priest and based on the Serenity Prayer. It goes like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, which is pretty much everyone, since I’m clearly not you, God. At least not last time I checked. And while you’re at it, God, please give me the courage to change what I need to change about myself, which is frankly a lot, since once again, I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect. It’s better for me to focus on changing myself than to worry about changing other people because, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying, I can’t change them anyway. Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter than everyone else in the room and that no one knows what they’re talking about except me or that I alone have all the answers. Basically, God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I’m not you. Amen.
Now, I’ve always held to the theory that if I am going to preach authentically then at least part of what I preach should include something that I desperately need to hear. Not perhaps something I want to hear, but something I need to hear – and I need to hear that prayer this morning. I need to be reminded about who and what I am and who and what I am not. Perhaps you need it as well? You see the problem is, when we believe so strongly in the Christian call to stand with those who have no one to speak for them, to stand with the dispossessed and the marginalized, to stand for justice and protect the weak and the poor – the rightness of those things can blind us to our own wrongness. The rightness of those ideas, the rightness of those pursuits can cause us to forget that you and I are just sinful and imperfect people and we do not have a corner on the truth. I certainly do not have all the answers. I need to be reminded that there is a fine line between standing for God’s righteousness and being seduced by my own self-righteousness. One is discipleship the other is hubris. Yes, Jesus always and forever stands beside the voiceless, the oppressed, the marginalized, and we should too if we are to be followers of Jesus. But we make a horrible mistake if we only see the people who agree with us as God’s children, if we smugly decide we know the good ones from the bad ones, if we demonize the ‘other,’ regardless of who the ‘other’ is. God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I am not you.
In our Gospel for this morning, Jesus reminds us that we are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Now in our modern context salt is often seen as something to be avoided for health reasons. Have high blood pressure – then cut out the salt. But in Jesus’ day salt had many functions. It was both a seasoning and a preservative. Roman soldiers received salt as part of their rations. This was called a “salarium,” from which we get the word salary. Salt was also used as a curative to clean out wounds and prevent infection. It was seen as a medicine that promoted healing. So, when Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth part of what that meant was that his followers were to work to bring about healing in everything they said and did. His disciples were supposed to live and act in ways that were curative, not just corrective. Yes, as disciples we must shine the light of the Gospel on all that ails us as a society, we are called to speak out, but our end result should always be wholeness and healing.
During the run-up to the inauguration, when so many people reached out to me to share their opinions about the Inaugural Prayer Service held in the Cathedral on January 21 or the decision to sing as part of the Inaugural Prelude on January 20, I did my best to respond to as many of those emails and letters as possible. On more than one occasion, I responded to an email or a letter and offered to talk in person with someone who was distressed by one or both of my decisions. Some folks took me up on those offers and I hope our conversations were beneficial. But several times my offer to talk was met with a rather strong refusal. “I have no desire to hear what you have to say,” one person wrote. “I do not need to listen to you rationalize your behavior,” another person responded. These good people were in pain, they felt wronged and they honestly believed they knew the right thing to do. But unfortunately, they had no desire to listen, to understand, to seek common ground. Their sense of rightness did not promote relationship and healing, rather it blocked relationship and healing.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is an idol of mine. In fact, I am positive that he is as much of a Saint as Peter and Paul our patrons. I have stood in awe of his courage and his faithfulness for many, many years. His writing, his thinking, his way of approaching the most difficult and painful of issues has always been an inspiration to me. Archbishop Tutu is first and foremost a man of love. His love for justice, his country, his people, and his God infuses everything he says and does. He was not afraid to look Apartheid in the eye but at the same time he set the standard for what it means to work for healing and wholeness as Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There are three quotes by Tutu that I find so powerful and so relevant to our current situation:
- “Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick in someone’s back.”
- “We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.”
- “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”
My brothers and sisters, I need to hear these words today and perhaps you do too. I need to be reminded that it is not enough to be right, I must also be loving. I need to be reminded that it is not enough to stand for something if in doing so my stand causes me to devalue someone else. If we are to be salt and light in the world, then our faith compels us to live as Jesus did. That means standing up for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. But that same faith also compels us to see every single human being as a beloved child of God – period – just as Jesus did. Holding both of these truths together is not easy, but it is faithful. It requires not only the courage to speak and act but the humility to listen and understand.
In closing, I want to share a wonderful old Hasidic story that you may have heard. An elderly and wise Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. ‘Could it be,’ asked one of the students, ‘when you can see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?’ ‘No,’ answered the Rabbi. Another asked, ‘Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?’ ‘No,’ answered the Rabbi. ‘Then what is it?’ the pupils demanded. “It’s when you can look at the face of any man or woman and see that she or he is your sister or your brother. Because, if you cannot do this, no matter what time of day it is, it is still night. Amen.
 The Rev. Dr. Peter M. Wiley
 Frederic Brussat, Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life