February 16, 2020
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:13-20
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
One of the many privileges of being a Pastor is that I get to hang out and work with leaders from other faith traditions. Rabbi Ariana Katz, the leader of Hinenu, a social justice Shtibel here in Baltimore, is one of my new interfaith, LGBTQ+ friends. I sat down with Rabbi Ariana at R. House in Remington last week, and this being our fourth time hanging out, we’re getting pretty comfortable as colleagues. The first thing she said to me was “want to help me figure out my sermon? So Mo, you know, Moses, is talking with his Father-in-law.” And we dove into a discussion of Torah. We were soon joined by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who some of you may know through her work with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, her work on the Green Amendment many of us are working for through the Maryland General Assembly, or her work with the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Baltimore. We were meeting about the Interfaith Coalition, but after discussing Moses, I asked if they could help me out with this passage. I shared that I was doing just fine with Jesus’ sayings about Salt and Light. But then I shared my struggle with the second half of this passage. It’s really difficult to read a text that says you have to be more righteous than the Jewish Scribes and Pharisees in 2020 in the United States of America and not feel fear well up within me about Anti-Semitism. So here I was, with two Rabbis, talking about Jesus sounding like a jerk to me, and learning about Torah, Righteousness, while wrestling with Christian Supersessionism.
One of the gifts of the Jewish tradition, that I think progressive Christians can connect with, is the tradition of being comfortable wrestling with a text, arguing with it with all of who we are, and discussing it with one another.
Righteousness is a tricky way to live. That’s a word we don’t often use in our lives, righteousness, unless we’re talking about someone being a self righteous so-and-so. But Righteousness in the Hebrew tradition, it’s about living in a way that emulates who God is, of showing the grace, love, and justice of the Holy One. In fact, Righteousness and Justice are the same word, in Hebrew, Tzedek. This kind of Justice isn’t about following rules perfectly, but instead is about the effects of our actions expressing the attributes of who God is. The effect matters, the result, not so much the intent. That’s why in the Hebrew Tradition, you can break any religious law, absolutely any, in order to save a human life. It’s not about your intentions, it’s about the result.
For me, Jesus saying to folks gathered on a hillside in the Galilee that they have to be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees, whatever the initial intent, there is a tension that exists because of what this text has resulted in. This text has inspired Christian supersessionism, the idea that Christians are better than our Jewish siblings. I shared my unease, and Rabbi Nina reminded me that when we are trying to be more righteous than someone else, what we’re doing is not trying to be just, but to be filled with the shadow pride of thinking we are better than others. Rabbi Ariana shared that in her tradition, there are warnings against adding or subtracting from the Torah. Because even texts we struggle with, we should not encounter alone. We have a community, through thousands of years, who have encountered and debated the same words, making us accountable. While we may not agree with others interpretation, it’s important to hear it. But we also have to bring all of who we are to a text, even our unease. If we don’t bring all of our questions to a text, we can miss the unintended consequences of our actions.
Then it occurred to me, that this conversation I was having on a Friday with two Rabbis, this was what the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus was talking about would look like. Here we were discussing scripture, bringing what makes us unique and different from one another, trying to figure out how to be part of the Light of God in the world. We were having this meeting, not to work on our Sermon’s for this weekend, but to strategize how to create safety teams using nonviolence and de-escalation to protect Mosques, Synagogues, and Churches in our area. I saw these two women emanating the grace and love of God, light like a shining city upon a hill. It wasn’t a competition; instead it was three friends pursuing the wholeness of our little corner of the world.
Jesus in our text this morning is working through the struggle of how to remain true to his tradition, while also realizing that part of following the Holy one of Israel is encountering the other, those from different traditions. It can be tempting to hide our differences, our unique flavor, but that’s bland, and fairly useless. Instead, at the points of tension, of difference, what if we trust that we can be who we are, and give grace for others, and see what happens when our saltiness and theirs interact? What if instead of trying to be more just than another, we were to focus instead on what it would mean for us to be righteous, in our context and tradition, and recognize the light in the traditions of others? What if instead of erasing points of contention and difference, we allow for that tension to create something new?
In Jesus’ context, salt was not like what we use to flavor our food today. It wasn’t possible to get pure salt, so if you just used what was collected from the sea or the hillsides, there were going to be some pretty unpleasant tastes mixed in. So salt was often mixed with other spices. This was done so that there were pleasant flavors that could be enhanced. Folks had their own unique blends, but this mixing came with a risk; herbs and spices might absorb water, and this could lead to the salt evaporating away. Spices and herbs, they lose their flavor over time, and so eventually you could end up with a salt mix that wasn’t good for anything. There’s a balance, and there’s also a certain urgency. This salt mix isn’t going to last forever; so you better use it while there’s still time.
Beloved, we’ve got a pretty unique blend of flavors going on in this place, and we’ve got a chance to add to it through relationships in our wider community. We’ve got some nasty tastes too that come from the sourcing of our salt, from our religious tradition sometimes, and the wider culture in which we live. The bitterness of Anti-Semitism and White Nationalism, while not something we’re mining, can still affect us, and those we interact with. There’s urgency to this work, because what we understand of who God is in this time and place, it calls for seeking justice. There’s a need for your light in our world. And while our understanding of how to live might be deeply rooted in our text and traditions, we also are responsible to considering the impact of our actions on our neighbors, who we are called to love. It’s not a competition to be better, but there is an invitation to learn from one another, so that we can grow, sure, but more basically so that we can be accountable to others. Maybe though, Jesus is telling us that we have to work just a little bit harder than our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, because we’ve got the flavors of Christian dominance in the mix. There are ways we can counteract that bitterness, but it’s going to mean throwing in a pretty healthy dash of humility.
I wonder for you, what’s in your salt mix? How does our religious tradition mix with who you uniquely are? What are the flavors you’ve got to bring to the joyful feast? And what are the legacies that you’ve got to counteract? Let’s make sure we’re a community where your saltiness can be utilized, where your light can shine, where God’s grace and love and justice can be shared with all of us in the house of God that is our world, and where we can be honest about the legacies we need to compensate for.
Or maybe you’re someone who sees this messiness, and wonder if you really want to be part of this whole tradition. I’d humbly suggest that no matter what religious or ethical or political worldview you pursue, there’s always a mix of history at play. At least in following the Living God, we’ve got some tools and experience being self-reflective, and the source of all Justice trying to lead our way.
May we rest in God’s grace, revel in the light, and stay salty. In the Name of the one who was, and is, and ever more shall be, Amen.