In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done[i]
Our lessons today are lessons “for the time being.” Two weeks ago we heard the story of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John to discipleship. Last week we heard the words of the Beatitudes, our marching orders for the Body of Christ. Today we receive further insight into what it is to live God-ward in the mean time between Christmas and Easter.
Salt and light, says Jesus. That’s what we ARE. Salt was precious, especially in the ancient world when it was so hard to come by. That’s easy to forget in this day when salt is usually the cheapest thing in the grocery store. Only the wealthiest people had access to salt in the ancient world. It was not pure, and could go stale, especially if it was polluted with impurities, but it would still interact with whatever it encountered as salt. Maybe what Jesus meant was that salt losing its flavor is so absurd it would be like us losing who we are. Can we be that lost? It’s possible, but we are never lost to God.! And clearly Jesus had no clue that in a North American winter, salt underfoot on an icy sidewalk is wonderful!
Continuing his sermon begun last week Jesus addresses the people: “You are the salt of the earth!” That “you” is plural. It is not private, individual seasoning—you are salt, I am cumin and he is oregano; it is addressed to the whole community: salt as flavoring for our common life, salt as preservative of cherished traditions, salt as precious and not to be taken for granted. But I’m struggling with the “earth” part. I remember our son’s 8th grade science project when he put salt water on beans planted in the earth—and everything died. Salt on the earth poisons everything. When the ancients vanquished their enemies, they sometimes sowed salt into the fields of the people they had just conquered, rendering them useless. If one thinks of the ways we are destroying our planet, it is arguable we really have been like “salt to the earth.” Now rolling back environmental protections only adds to our—well, “saltiness,” at least as far as the earth is concerned. I wish Jesus had said “You are the compost of the earth,” or “You are the salt of the world.” We must not be as salt to the earth. But salt in our communities, preserving what needs preserving and spicy with vibrancy, creativity, birthers of God’s Kingdom in our midst —ah, there’s our life for the meantime!
“You are the light of the world.” This is also Jesus’ description of himself. “I am the light of the world,” he says in John’s Gospel. “Whoever believes in me will never walk in darkness.” Mary Oliver has a poem called “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” which begins
“Make of yourself a light,” said the Buddha, before he died....
An old man, he lay down between two sala trees, and he might have said anything,
Knowing it was his final hour....
No doubt he thought of everything that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills,
Like a million flowers on fire—clearly I’m not needed,
Yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.”[ii]
Like salt? Light, that mysterious substance which is both particle and wave gives light to our earth and joy to our souls. Those of you who have lived in sunless places during dark months know how vital it is for our life. We use light and darkness in our language to describe the inner state of our being, whether we have joy or despair. In the early nineties I endured three and a half years of terrifying inner darkness, a severe depression which I did not think I would survive. Jesus’ words here seemed a terrible mockery. There was no light in me. And I was light to no one. Some of you know what that is. Some of you may be there now. I say to you, hang on. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. I swear it.
Years later, I began to hear stories back from people about how I had helped them through Hospice, or how I had said something that had carried them through a darkness of their own while I was in that terrible place of inner darkness myself. I marveled at such stories. The Buddha is wrong. We cannot make of ourselves a light. We can only reflect the light of the One who is the light of the world, even when we ourselves cannot see it. It is an extraordinary miracle of God’s economy; that in Christ, we can give others a hope, a value, a preciousness which we may not feel ourselves to possess.
In those days I drew a mandala. It was a simple, woven pattern of threads crossing and intersecting threads, warp and weft. Only in the drawing, I drew some of the warp threads as broken. If you’ve ever woven, you know this is a bad thing. You cannot weave if the warp is broken. Some of the weft threads were broken also. And I meant it to be a bad thing—until I started to color it in and I realized—the broken places were where the light could shine through. The whole meaning of the mandala turned in that moment and I began to understand that it is exactly in our brokenness that the light of Christ gleams and throbs. We may be lights of the world, as Jesus describes us, but it will be in our brokenness that we are most transparent to the light of Christ shining within us. Make of yourself then a lamp, to hold the light of Christ.
The most important gesture done by the priest at the altar is at the fraction—the breaking of the bread, because that is the motion in which we are made whole. Who can understand it? Yet I stand before you and swear with everything that I am that it is true. The bread baked, offered, and blessed, is ripped apart to feed the Body of Christ, which then goes and becomes that reconciling love in the world. Salt to salt, light to light. That is the meaning of this part of the dance we do together at this Eucharist. When we do it today, I will ask you to join me in that motion. As you do, think of what is most broken in your life, and invite the Light of Christ be manifest in those broken places. Wherever you are, let your brokenness be your offering.
One more thing about light: In these early Sundays after Epiphany, the season of light, we read about calls—Jesus’ calling of various people to be his disciples. For the last several years as I went through my own vocational coming apart, I become very suspicious of the word “call.” We use it so fliply. We say “God called me to do this.” And it sounds very grandiose and who is going to argue with us? I have wondered if our understanding of “call” is sometimes a projection of our own intention anyway. It was a blood-red amaryllis that gave me a new understanding of call, and I invite you to use it in your own discernment about ministry in your life, whatever form that might take. The image of call I offer you is “heliotropism;” the instinct of many living things, especially plants, to lean into the course of the sun across their paths. If you’ve ever cared for a bulb like an amaryllis or a lily, you know how you have to keep turning the pot because it will reach so far toward the sun it may well fall over if not turned to reset itself. Friends, maybe that’s what call is. Each of us is created with the deep instinct to reach for those things which will give meaning and purpose and joy in our lives. “Call” may be those deep yearnings which keep us awake at night, which fill us with longing until we can act on our instinct and reach for it. Those instincts were placed in our hearts by the Creator before we were born, before we were named, before we knew ourselves, and “call” is God’s inviting us to make them manifest in the world. I love that image. It takes the urgency out of “getting it right.” There isn’t one call which is a deep dark secret and we have to figure out the puzzle! When people in spiritual direction ask me “How do I know God’s will for me?” my pat response is “What gives you joy?” So as we hear Gospel stories of calls in future weeks, I invite you to reflect on your own. Where are you called to reach for the light which is already within you, and reflect it to the world around you?
Because that is ministry in the meantime. Some of you are in transition, already left, not quite arrived; some of you are home again but in a new way, some of you struggle with illness, with uncertainty about work or relationships or belonging. Some of you are stuck, needing to be pried out of comfort and safety and flung headfirst into a little wilderness. We all need that from time to time. These are the rhythms of the meantime, “the time being to redeem from insignificance.” This is precisely the time to be salt and light and to follow a Lord who trusts us—TRUSTS us with Creation itself. It is one of the mind-blowing truths of the Bible; that God offers us the world and each other and says “Be salt. Be light—illumine and enliven the world with my joy and love. Practice the spiritual disciplines of justice, acts of mercy, and joy.” No 16 point plan, no instructions in 5 languages in tiny print, just “salt, light. Be who you are with your deep yearnings.” I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to trust anyone else even to carry a pot of my chili stew from the stove to the table—they might drop it! But God trusts us bumbling kids with the whole creation. [Make the gesture for breaking bread.] Alleluia!
[i] Auden, WH. “A Christmas Oratorio” from For the Time Being.
[ii] Oliver, Mary. “Last Instruction of the Buddha.” New and Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press. 1992. Pp. 68-69.
Thanks also to John McNeil, Howard Vandine, and Wendy and Gary Aichelle for illuminating and arguing with me!