St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Epiphany V, February 9, 2014
“You are the salt of the earth . . .” (Matthew 5:13)
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s now been more than 20 years since it was my turn to do what most seminarians have to do at some point before they can be ordained in the Episcopal Church. I had to spend one of my summer breaks during seminary working in a hospital, learning about pastoral care. So I chose to do that close to home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at what was then called Baptist Hospital.
Here’s what happens to countless, innocent seminarians. You make your way to the part of a “Level I Trauma Center” like Baptist Hospital where the chaplains have their offices. And in your mind, it seems reasonable to assume that they’re going to spend a lot of time with you on the front end of things, teaching you all the tricks of the trade, so to speak. Surely there’s going to be a class and a handout with “The Top 10 Things That You Need to Know” about dealing with people in the waiting room or a hospital room or the ER.
Oh, how naive you would be to think that! There is, in fact, a kind of orientation so that you won’t get lost in the maze of the buildings. And they take your picture for an official photo ID. But when you turn that photo ID over to see how bad your head shot turned out, that’s not what you notice. What you notice is that it says “CHAPLAIN” in capital letters under your name and photo. It doesn’t say “CHAPLAIN-IN-TRAINING.” It just says “CHAPLAIN.”
In the blink of an eye, they slap that chaplain’s badge on your lapel, push you out into the hallways of the neurosurgery floor, and tell you to come back in three hours to talk about what that experience felt like for you. . . .
Well, I’ll tell you what it feels like. It feels like you’re either just going to die right there or someone’s going to find out that it’s a lie, that you’re not really a chaplain, that you’re not really qualified for the job.
As most of you know, I love that occasional purveyor of theological truth known as The Onion, a website that offers a satirical view of the news and daily life. Whether they make you laugh or cringe, the headlines merely describe human nature, for better or for worse, as it really is.
Here’s one that appeared a couple of weeks ago: “Report: Today the Day They Find Out You’re a Fraud.” This is a quote from the article that followed:
“Though you’ve somehow gotten this far in life without anyone discovering you’re not what you pretend to be, it’s all about to come crashing down, and not a minute too soon, to be frank,” reads the report, which goes on to note that you don’t deserve anything you have – not your job, not your relationship, not even your parents’ love – and you know it. “You’re incompetent, you’re petty, you’re vain, you’re barely keeping it together beneath that confident exterior you project, and your little charade is just about over.”
“They’re all on to you,” the report continues. “You do understand that, don’t you?”
That satire describes something very real, a phenomenon known as “Imposter Syndrome.” It’s what one commentator has described as “the deep, gnawing suspicion of one’s own fraudulence, particularly pronounced in executives of various stripes,” but something that “represents a fascinating way of looking at the discrepancies between external and internal [identity, something which plagues] all of us,” whether we think of ourselves as leaders or not.
All of that reminds me of a cartoon that shows a bunch of adults walking through the lobby of an office building. They’re probably on their way to work on different floors. And every one of those adults has little circles above their head to indicate that they’re thinking about something. And all of those little circles go to the same huge thought bubble at the top of the page. Every one of them, trying to look so calm and cool with their fancy briefcases and their important papers and their expensive coffee, is thinking the same thing. And what they’re thinking is this – they’re thinking, “All these people really seem to have it together, and I still have no idea what’s going on.”
That same huge thought bubble might be over all of us in this church right now. It might be about different parts of our lives as individuals. But I’ll bet that there are a lot of people here this morning who are thinking that about their Christian faith. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” whatever that means, you might be thinking that it doesn’t apply to you, that it only applies to those sitting around you. But a lot of those people are probably thinking the same thing.
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he wants us to be like a bit of seasoning and to bring out the God-flavors of the world around us. Now, as an aside, I can testify that I have tasted divinity on this earth, and I have tasted it not too far down the street from this church. I have tasted it in the butter at Salut, the French bistro at 50th and France. Some of you know what I’m talkin’ about. It is divine because it’s a little extra salty and so good and so delicious.
The late Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest and theologian of grace, waxes rhapsodically about that kind of experience in his book The Supper of the Lamb:
Butter is . . . well, butter: it glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together, you get not sudden death, but Hollandaise – which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip, or a Bach fugue. Food, like all the other triumphs of human nature, is evidence of civilization – of that priestly gift by which we lift the whole world into the exchanges of the Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it become.
Wow. That kind of beautiful experience is what Jesus wants us to bring into the world, not through fine dining or because we’re so attractive or as a result of “having it all together.” Let’s be honest here. The community of faith that gathers around Jesus doesn’t have it all together. Only Jesus has it all together, picking up the broken pieces of our lives in his embrace and holding everything together in his love. And when we walk out these doors into the world around us, we carry that love with us. And that’s what it means to be the salt of the earth.
Now if you’re an overachiever and have read this book, Salt: A World History, you know that for most of the history of civilization, salt has been in short supply. It was precious in the same way that you are precious in the eyes of God. Perhaps today Jesus would have said, “You are the white truffles of the earth.” Needless to say, that doesn’t really have quite the same ring to it. But ancient peoples would fight over salt, hoarding it like money.
Salt preserves food and enhances the flavor of what we eat. But salt won’t do either of those things if you leave it in the saltshaker. And you’re sitting in the saltshaker right now. Jesus says that we are to be salt for the earth, not for ourselves. He’s talking about having an outward orientation as a church, as a community of faith, going out into the neighborhoods that surround us and participating in what God is already doing there.
God’s love can’t be hoarded. And here’s the thing, here’s the good news. There’s more of it than you think there is. In the case of non-metaphorical salt, that is literally true. According to this little history book, it was the dawn of modern geology about 100 years ago which revealed that “almost no place on earth is without salt.” Today there’s no need to fight a war over it. Now we throw it like confetti all over our food, our sidewalks, and our roads. Last winter, for example, MnDOT used 304,555 tons of salt to melt snow and ice on highways and interstates throughout the state of Minnesota. That’s a lot of salt.
But just imagine that as a symbol of God’s love. There’s more of it than there appears to be in this broken world. And you get to help the rest of the world to see that. There’s no test that you’re required to pass. You’re already qualified to do this in the eyes of God.
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he doesn’t check the resumes of those he’s speaking to, whether in the first century or the twenty-first century. You’re already being this salt in your daily life – when you care for an elderly parent, when you check in on a lonely neighbor, when you make lots of mistakes and others see standing in front of them a forgiven person. That doesn’t mean you’re not scared, but you are being salt for others.
That summer when I worked at Baptist Hospital, I survived those first three hours as I made my way down the hall from room to room. And I survived the next three hours and the next and the next. And I had amazing encounters with the children of God, with people who needed healing and love and someone to told their hand. And I realized that I wasn’t an impostor, I wasn’t pretending to be a chaplain when I walked into the lives of those people. I was being what Jesus has declared all of us to be – the salt of the earth.
So remember who you are when you walk out these doors into a hospital room or your child’s bedroom or the corporate boardroom. Jesus says,
“You. . . . You, Danny. . . . You, Jane. . . . You, Ann. . . . You, John. . . . You, Rachel. . . . You are the salt of the earth.”
1 BACK TO POST “Report: Today the Day They Find Out You’re a Fraud,” The Onion, January 31, 2014.
2 BACK TO POST David Zahl, “If People Only Knew That I Have No Idea What I’m Doing: Understanding Impostor Syndrome,” Mockingbird, December 16, 2009.
3 BACK TO POST Carolyn Hiler, A Zillion Dollars Comics, August 6, 2013.
4 BACK TO POST Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (New York: Modern Library, 2002) xxvii.
5 BACK TO POST Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York: Penguin, 2002) 12.
6 BACK TO POST “Snowplow safety facts from Winter 2012-2013,” Winter Work Zone Safety, Minnesota Department of Transportation.