Sermon: Salty Covenant
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; Matthew 5:14-16
Date: February 5, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
It was a time of deep uncertainty.
Do you hear that? It was a time of deep uncertainty, when God called for the prophet to lift up a voice like a trumpet. The temple had been destroyed, and many of the former leaders exiled to a far country. The people were disheartened and anxious. They took to fasting more and more frequently in those days around the Exile, fasting as a show of faith and repentance. It was one religious ritual that didn’t require a temple. The fast days were announced by the sound of a trumpet.
We don’t know just how often fast days were announced in those uncertain times before the practice of having one major fast day on the Day of Atonement was developed. Let’s imagine that the downcast people fasted frequently, hoping it would signal their faithfulness to Yahweh, hoping God would answer their prayers for peace, stability and prosperity. The trumpet would sound, the people laid down their bread and bowed their heads, praying furiously for an end to uncertainty and anxiety.
They’re pretty peeved that their fasts don’t seem to make a difference to God. You can hear the prophet quote their complaint in Isaiah 58:3: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” You can practically hear them thinking, “My God, do we have to fast every other day before you can hear the sound of our stomachs rumbling On High?”
The problem is not with the fasting per se. The problem is that this religious practice has not succeeded in making them more ethical people. The evidence of faith in God is not in the carrying out of religious ritual, no matter how beautifully performed, no matter how frequently occurring. One’s relationship to others reveals one’s relationship to God. This simple point is hammered home time after time by the prophets. No amount of ritual makes up for oppressing workers, ignoring the homeless poor, hoarding food, having a closet full of clothes while others go tattered and cold, pointing fingers, speaking evil.
You can have your fast. You can have your National Prayer Breakfast. But no amount of fasting, groveling or praying [for Arnold] will make the light break forth like the dawn, will bring healing and restoration.
God calls on the prophet to lift up a voice like a trumpet. Shout out, do not hold back! This reminder of the connection between ethics and faith is not an “If you please, sir and/or madam…” The word is not a “Pardon me, Your Honor, if I could just have a moment of your time…” It’s a “LISTEN UP!” I admit I like this call from God to make some noise. Maybe it’s my age, or Our Age. One of Martin Bell’s poems begins, “Today I carry less of/ what we used to /call composure./ I’m less serene. /Less well / thought out. I / tend to shout / more. /I’m growing older.” The poet asks why we keep the most important things unspoken? The poem concludes, “It’s words you need. A someone/ who / will come flat out/ and say it. / Well, I’m your man.” Undoubtedly, in the uncertain days surrounding Israel’s exile, God needed a Someone who would just come flat out and say it, someone who would leave composure in the armoire and shout. Perhaps in these uncertain times more devout shouters will be called upon.
But we cannot lose sight of what the prophet was called upon to shout about. Evidence of faith in the living God will not be in shouts and clever memes, as important as protest may be when foundational values are at stake. Faith will show forth today as it did in Isaiah’s day: in acts of justice, mercy, and peace. Those who delight in God’s commandments, says the Psalm, “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful and righteous…they deal generously…conduct their affairs with justice…[and] they are not afraid of evil tidings.” [Psalm 112]
I saw a tweet a few days ago that heartened me. A writer named Anand Giridharadas (a Cleveland native, son of Indian immigrants) says, “My generation is learning that a republic is earned, not inherited. We are having an Easter, dying as consumers, being reborn as citizens.” I wish he’d used the word “resurrected” instead of reborn, so I’ll amend: We are dying as consumers, being resurrected as citizens.
I was intrigued by this thoughtful tweet and wondered about the writer, so I followed various internet leads to find a blog he wrote before the presidential election in which he was trying to dialogue (via computer) with someone who held very different political views. Anand’s revolutionary idea is that we need to understand each other as Americans. An angry white man named James explained to Anand what he thinks the American problem is: that newcomers to the country refuse to assimilate; rather, they “demand that the dominant culture celebrate the new they are brining.” Anand included James’ quote as is, noting that he thinks James meant “bringing,” not “brining.” Nevertheless, in a lighthearted side note, Anand reminds his readers that “certain dishes really do benefit from brining, and I know you are tempted, as I am, to skip that step in your recipes, and you really shouldn’t.”
Brining. I’m no chef, but I know the chef at our house, John, always brines the Thanksgiving turkey—soaks it in salt water before preparing it for roasting. It helps meat retain water and stay moist in the roasting process. Brining is actually not a bad metaphor for how the covenant marked by being gracious, merciful, just, generous (etc.) is supposed to be soaked into the life of the faithful. When Jesus called on disciples to be salt, he was drawing on an ancient image of salt as a symbol of the covenant with God. The “salt of the covenant” as a figure of speech in the Hebrew Scriptures reflects the Ancient Near East practice of marking a covenant by eating a meal seasoned with salt. Salt came to symbolize the covenant relationship with God—it was a kind of shorthand about that “I shall be your God and you shall be my people” relationship.
Faithful people are, in essence, supposed to be brined in the salt of the covenant. They are to soak up the ethics of the covenant into the very fibers of their being so that every action rises out of it. When Jesus notes that salt can lose its flavor, he is suggesting that those who are supposed to brined in this covenant might have skipped this important step in the recipe of making a new creation, a new community. If the salty ethics of the covenant aren’t soaked into the person and the community, the disciples aren’t good for anything. The new they are brining, to borrow James’ unintentional phraseology, will be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
When Jesus speaks of light out from under bushels and salt retaining its salty flavor, he is talking about the kind of discipleship that is “all in.” Religion is not merely a matter of ritual but of right living. It’s about the salty sweat that forms on the brow of people doing the work of feeding the hungry and trying to loose the bonds of injustice and lift the heavy burdens under which people are bent. People who are brined in the salt of the covenant will rise as a light in darkness almost without thinking about it. They just do what they do because it’s soaked way down in the fiber of their being.
One of the scholars commenting on the gospel on Textweek, Karoline Lewis, says that if you want to know what it’s looked like lately to be salt of the earth and light of the world, Google the Womxn’s March of January 21. She thinks of the massive event as a testament/embodiment of what you do when you believe you are salt and light. “You just do it. You don’t debate it. You don’t second-guess it. You don’t wonder about it. You just go and be it.” Karoline says that the experience of the Womxn’s March for her (her first march for anything) was an occasion for truly believing what Jesus said about being salt and light; she felt strongly for the first time a sense not of her believing in Jesus but of Jesus believing in her. Since the march, she feels a new dedication to letting her light shine, to never again hiding her light under a bushel, afraid of what people will think.
I suspect others have had similar experiences in recent weeks, coming out from under bushel baskets to let their light shine in faith soaked work. I was delighted to hear about what happened at Sea-Tac and other airports last weekend in response to a certain travel moratorium announced by our Dear Leader. Several politicians (including our good neighbor Jay Inslee) dropped what they were doing and rushed out to respond, doing what they do, including using the megaphone of press attention as only politicians can do. Lots of protesters showed up with neighborly signs and voices lifted like trumpets. And then there were the lawyers. I don’t always think of the Kingdom of God when I think of lawyers, but how about the swarm of attorneys that showed up at airports nationwide, including Seatac, clamoring to assist travelers who were being turned away? Attorneys! Salt! Light! A shout out to our state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is responsible for a temporary stay on a certain travel ban. Salt! Light! It would be interesting to find out how many of the lawyers who showed up to try to help were brined in some God-based covenant. We can’t know, but we can imagine they were freshly blessed by that satisfying, harmonious resonance that thrums in your being when the sweat of your brow rises out of the salt of your covenant.
I hope all the folks like Madelyn Fox, Ann Brown, Jennifer Merrill, Mary Ann Wilson, Jane Allen, and Rosalind Renaourd who made up a recent delegation to literally feed the hungry at Mary’s Place were blessed by that satisfying, harmonious resonance that thrums in your being when the sweat of your brow rises out of the salt of your covenant. Any effort to satisfy the needs of the afflicted, no matter what the affliction, will hopefully meet with similar resonance within yourself as you show up as Salt and Light where you are needed, with the gifts you possess.
We aspire to this, People of God—to be salty salt in the world, all in because the salt of the covenant is in us. I want to read you a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. I am going to take a page out of the prophets’ playbook and suggest we hear it as dialogue between God and a disciple (though I don’t know that’s what the poet intended).
GOD: You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing
And are raised to the rank of prince
By the slippery ease of their light judgments
DISCIPLE: But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
GOD: You have not grown old, and it is not too late
To dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.”
 Bell, Martin “I Tend to Shout More” Nenshu and the Tiger: Parables of Life and Death New York: Seabury, 1975, p. 38-41
 Lewis, Karoline
 Rilke, Rainer Maria “You See I Want A Lot” http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/782065-you-see-i-want-a-lot-perhaps-i-want-everything