One Sunday about a century ago, a promising young lawyer stood in front of a church. He was not Christian, but he had been raised in a Christian culture and upon reading the Bible had a great love for the Sermon on the Mount, which we have read part of the past two weeks. He wanted to become Christian, of his own free will, without anyone leading him there. The man at the door of the church said that he was not welcome. This was a church for white people; the church for colored people was in another part of town. The man never became Christian, however, the Sermon on the Mount had a reverberation through his life. The place this all happened was South Africa, and the man was Gandhi. He was a man motivated by community, and his techniques went beyond passive resistance: they were designed for building community between peoples who confronted each other over the gap of injustice; techniques for reconciliation with justice.
The images in today’s Gospel reading are fairly self evident. In a culture where there was minimal rainfall, salt had a significance that far surpassed any we have today. Salt was part of a soldier’s ration: our word salary is based on the Latin word for salt. To the people of Jesus’ culture, salt was something that was used to seal covenants and necessary for sacrifices. Salt was health, salt was a preservative, salt was precious beyond belief. Likewise, light was an image that went back to Isaiah, part of the promise of the Messiah, the one to come. So from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus marks out his disciples’ role in the world: essential to salvation history.
Being part of salvation history of the Jewish people, they would have had the verses from Isaiah we heard today in mind and as part of their tradition. In the ancient world, taking care of those on the margins, sheltering the poor, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, righting injustice was the role of the king or emperor. The ruler was judged on his ability to do these things: to say that a king did not hear the voice of those in need was to say that the king was selfish and did not care for the people adequately. The temples were also a focus for caring for those in need, but in Judaism of that time there was only one Temple in Jerusalem. So out in the hills of Galilee and other places away from Jerusalem and around the Mediterranean the responsibility for taking care of those in need fell to the community as a whole. Early Christians picked up on this, and were so good are caring for the poor and needy that the pagans were envious. The legalization of Christianity and the conversion of the Empire was speeded by the faith that Christians lived out by caring for one another in spite of ridicule, degradation and persecution.
Today we are called to meditate on the unjust situations around us. I’m not going to speculate on what they might be, however, they probably range from specific instances of injustice, both personal and institutional, to changes in societal attitudes during our living memory. All of these can be daunting and dispiriting and lead us to a hopelessness to do anything about any of them. Whether it is Corporate America, or government Bureaucracy, or foreign radicals or family and friends who have betrayed us, it is easy to give up and assume that we have to give in and cooperate with forces that dwarf us. That is not what Jesus calls us to.
We are gathered at a meal that Jesus began in order to expand the borders of our community. We are here to celebrate a meal where all should be welcome, where we celebrate the coming of God’s justice in its fullness breaking into our world here and now. This is meal that Jesus began on the darkest night that Christianity ever new: the night of betrayal, denial, panic, and acceptance of the inevitability of evil by most of the disciples. There can be no time in our lives that can be darker than that night, and that night was the beginning of great hope.
Gandhi once said: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” Gandhi’s prospects when he battled injustice in South Africa and India were slim at the beginning, and everyone didn’t embrace his methods or his attitudes. But history tells his influence. The same can be said for Martin Luther King’s movement, and about its history: he did not find universal acceptance either. Neither man let overwhelming injustice rule their lives, and that is perhaps the greatest legacy they leave us. That is something that was also part of Christ.
In Christ, we all have an special identity: we are the salt that is necessary for Life; we are light that dispels the darkness of despair. Salt only has meaning when it interacts with something: salt has to work on something. All we need to embrace our identity as Christians. We need not give in to forces that we feel are invincible. As a great wise person, Lily Tomlin, said: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” In Christ, both individually and collectively, we are somebody.