Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2023
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
According to Stanley Hauerwas, a native Texan whom Time Magazine once called “America’s best theologian”: “The social task of the church is to help the world know that it is the world. For without the church, the world has no means to know that it is the world.”
What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Christians aren’t necessarily “better” than the world around us. Often, we live the same ways, and we share the same values. But nevertheless, we confess Jesus as Lord. And we have pledged ourselves to follow him in the new and better way of love.
In the power of his Spirit, Jesus calls us to live holy lives. And so, we are learning to be peacemakers. We are learning to be patient, and to love people who don’t always deserve it. We are learning to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. We are renouncing the world’s self-centered ways, together with our violence and our contempt for other people. We are learning to love people for whom we have no earthly use.
There is something about following Jesus, however feebly and imperfectly, that lets the world know that it is the world. Christlike love gives our witness its distinctive flavor. Without this love, the world can’t even know that another world is possible. We need to show the world how to long for the Kingdom of God. The Church is not that Kingdom, but we are called to live faithful lives now, knowing that the Kingdom is near. Because the Kingdom of God has come near in Jesus of Nazareth.
Some of you have heard me talk about my Godfather, Fr. Bill Mahedy. Bill was born in a Catholic family, the son of a federal judge. For many years, he was a Roman Catholic priest. He belonged to the Augustinian friars, the same religious community that gave the world Martin Luther. He used to dress up as Martin Luther for Halloween, wearing his old habit.
And, like Luther, Bill had a salty vocabulary. He was an Army Chaplain in Vietnam. And later, he worked with the VA, setting up store-front Vet Centers and providing spiritual care for our veterans who were suffering with PTSD. Bill became an Episcopal priest, in order to marry his wife, Carol, a former nun. In 2011, he died of a rare, service-related cancer, due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Bill had a long and fruitful ministry with veterans, for whom he was a fierce advocate within the system at the VA. Later, he ministered with college students and young adults, which is how I met him. He was also an important mentor to my wife, who still visits his grave every year.
One night, so the story goes, a veteran Bill knew, a United States Marine, called him in the middle of a Vestry meeting. And the Marine told him that he had a hand grenade and was going to blow himself up in the lobby of the VA hospital. Bill, who spoke fluent Marine, immediately started telling him why this would be a bad idea in salty language that would make a drill instructor blush. Fortunately, the man listened to Bill and changed his mind, and lived to see another day.
And then, Bill looked up from his phone call, only to realize that a bunch of stunned ladies from the church had heard the whole thing. There are dozens of stories like that about Bill. That’s why he’s one of the people I think about when I hear the phrase “salt of the earth.”
As Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, he is with his apostles. Most of them are ordinary working folk, many of them fishermen. And Jesus is urging them not to lose their salty flavor. To me, this means that, when Jesus calls us, we aren’t supposed to leave any parts of ourselves behind. We don’t have to become something that we’re not, in order to be useful to God. God doesn’t just need the nice, churchy people. God needs the rest of us too. And often, it is the salty ones that God can use to let the world know what we are missing.
Being loving doesn’t always mean being nice. If you have any doubts, just look at Jesus. He is firm. He is demanding. Sometimes, he loses his temper. He is just as likely to be found out in the streets as he is in the Temple or the synagogue. Like the song says, he has “friends in low places.”
God needs shrewd business people and tough-minded lawyers. He needs neighbors who will loan you a chainsaw, or a generator, and then help you use it. God needs leaders who know how to get things done. He needs nurses and doctors who won’t give up on their patients. He needs teachers who will work with difficult children. He needs parents who will sacrifice to make better lives for their children. He needs public servants who create better neighborhoods for them to live in and better schools for them to learn in. He needs simple, decent people, who do what we can for others.
God needs followers of Jesus from every walk of life, who will do the works of mercy and justice. God needs people who will feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, cover the naked, and not turn our eyes away when we see other people suffering. God needs people who are in the world but different enough that we can’t keep ignoring and rejecting the love that God made us to share.
God calls all of us this morning to be his witnesses and ambassadors in the world. And, though it is hard work, it’s not too hard for us. For God does not call anyone to do anything, without equipping us to do it. God has filled us with his Spirit. He has given us all the gifts we need. And the message we’ve been given is for ordinary, simple people.
In today’s Epistle, Paul says that he “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God…in lofty words or wisdom.” For he decided to “know nothing” among us “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Beloved, Jesus is our only message. He died on the Cross for his friends and for his enemies alike. And he invites us all, here and now, to show the world the Kingdom.
“You are the salt of the earth,” he tells us.
“You are the light of the world.”