The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2014
Preacher: Meredith Kadet, St. Michael’s parishioner and former seminarian, graduate of Union Theological Seminary
Growing up, I can remember eating breakfast with my father, and watching him salt his eggs. And salt his eggs. And salt his eggs. And salt his eggs. My mother would watch him and quote the version of today’s gospel as it appears in the Gospel of Mark: Salt is Good.
But – if it’s lost its taste, how can saltiness be restored?
Of course it wasn’t the salt that lost its taste at breakfast – it was my father’s taste buds. He’s been smoking for more than fifty years now, so salt -among other things – has lost its taste.
I’m reminded of the old thought experiment: “If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Certainly sound waves are made – but “sound” is the sensation of those waves hitting a human ear. So then, if salt falls on the tongue of a man who’s been smoking a pipe for the last fifty years, is it still salty? Technically, it’s still the chemical salt – but it’s not gonna taste like salt, it’s not gonna have that flavor, when the taste buds for it just aren’t there anymore.
A tree falling can’t make a sound without someone to hear it. Salt can’t lend flavor to food if the eater can’t taste it.
A recent study by the Public Research Institute found that 31% of Millenials now consider themselves unaffiliated – vs. Just 10% of folks over 60. And another much-cited 2010 Study by the Pew Research Center shows that 1 in five people under 30 have left the religion of their upbringing – and don’t seem to be planning to come back any time soon. These studies are showing that at the ages when their elders staarted coming back to church, these young people aren’t.
Church seems to have lost its flavor – for a whole lot of people my age and younger – or perhaps my generation has lost its taste for church.
Our 7th and 8th graders reading today’s passage from Isaiah. It’s good to see you all here today. It’s more than likely that in a few years we – your families and we who pledged to support you in your baptismal vows – won’t be seeing you as often. I’m not saying that as a threat, nor am I necessarily here to wring my hands from the pulpit. After all, I had some excellent unchurched years myself. And as a “young person,” it is easy to get tired – and to join in the eye rolling – if there’s going to be another sermon about the state of the church and its increasing irrelevance to young people.
But I do think it’s sad. Because I find church – I find St. Michael’s – to be very tasty. It tastes like the wine of communion, and the taste of my friend Deacon Lawrence’s cheek when we exchange a kiss, and it tastes like Agatha’s hot cross buns smell on Palm Sunday, and it tastes like John whipping something up in a Saturday kitchen or like Ursula wheeling out a moussaka for an Intercession at Table service. Mmm, it tastes like the air tastes when Lynette is swinging the incense on Saint Michael’s day. It tastes like my tears when I get here and I find I can finally pray or ask God for help, and I know one of our prayer ministers will pray with me in our chapel. Here I can taste and SEE that the Lord is good, as the psalm says. It is so very tangible, so very MUCH to be savored.
Lately the Episcopal Church has started to talk about evangelism again, and much of the discussion is this kind of joking talk about our discomfort with evangelism – and we all know that there are good reasons to be uncomfortable with evangelism, that we do have a healthy sense of caution when it comes to pushing our faith on other people. We do have to know the cultural power that Christianity still has, that has hurt many people, power that is used to hurt and discriminate.
But there’s another side to evangelism, and that is something that’s also important to talk about. What about when we take the big risk and invite our friend to church – or bring our kid to church and raise her up in church – and in the end they say, “no thanks” – well, that can very painful. Disappointing. If you’ve found at Saint Michael’s a place where you get support and where you get a healthy amount of challenge and inspiration – if you’ve found this community to be a place that gives your life real FLAVOR, that makes life something to be SAVORED and shared with your neighbors – it hurts a little bit to have someone you love, who you want to SHARE THIS MEAL WITH, say, no thanks – I just don’t have the taste for it.
The pain of feeling rejected can turn into resentment and judgment of the ones who rejected us – maybe toward the more conservative side of the church spectrum – and it can lead to some moments of soul-searching – WHY don’t they want to join up with us? WHY don’t they want to share a meal with us?
There are, of course, any number of opinions about why people, especially young people, are leaving the church in droves, or never part of it in the first place. There are opinions from one end of the political and theological spectrum to the other. Not biblical enough. Not Jesus-centered enough. Watered down doctrines. Lost the focus on social justice. Terrible praise band music. Terrible organ music. You get it. Or the corruption, the hypocrisy, the scandals.
All of that is true. None of it is to be dismissed. But is it really the reason the church is shrinking? I’m not so sure that the church is any worse than it was fifty years ago. Maybe it’s better. Yes, the church is as flawed as ever it was, but maybe we are more free to talk about it these days. Reflecting on the history of race, of women’s leadership, of gay and lesbian and trans and bisexual leadership – I am sure that St. Michael’s has been transformed for the better since the fifties; I am sure that the Episcopal Church as a whole is more salty, more flavorful, more of a light to the world than ever it was before. But people now have more of a choice, so that in certain ways church has simply become a matter of taste – the cultural pressure is gone, the expectation that of course one goes to church is gone – so now we go because we really want to.
One commentator, somewhat humorously reflecting on today’s passage from Isaiah, says “Isaiah doesn’t realize how good he has it.His people can hardly wait to get themselves out of bed and into worship. They seek God and delight to know God’s ways. They delight to draw near to God. There is nothing they would rather do than fast. If only, says this commentator, my neighbors in my local parish took such delight in hurrying to Church on Sunday morning!
Isaiah’s people address a question to God:
Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
This is a question that a lot of us church folk are addressing to the world around them. Look, we’re open and affirming! Look, we have an informal evening service with jazz music! Look, we are a community that strives to do justice, to share our bread with the hungry, we run a homeless shelter… But the numbers aren’t changing. Our kids are still leaving once they hit college age. Hmm.
So of course, we’re bound sometimes to to ask the question: What are we doing wrong?
If we follow the passage from Isaiah, we’re told that its the practice of justice that will restore our flavor, a self-giving care for all our neighbors, inside and outside of the church, that will make us a light of the world. Above all, and Three times, says Isaiah, light and salt is dependent on our commitment to breaking the yoke of every kind of oppression, wherever we find that among us.
And I have to tell you, I’m actually convinced that the church has made STRIDES in this over the past fifty years. Not that we should be complacent.
I can also say that in my recent work with Episcopal Charities I have seen a parish in this diocese that quadrupled its membership within a few years of opening a food pantry to its neighbors. A commitment to social justice and outreach – it has been known to make a difference in the roles.
But there aren’t any guarantees, and even if we do it all just as right as we possibly can – just as well as humanly possible – I don’t think we live in a world anymore where we’re necessarily going to see results from that, or get the credit. For too many, organized religion itself has become a bushel that hides the light, and it has lost its flavor – and the taste very probably isn’t going to be re-aquired.
So to me, the question is: can we as a church keep our commitment to justice, our commitment to service, our commitment to sharing power and breaking the yoke of oppression – even when it doesn’t yield results? Can we do it even as we shrink? Can we do it without any kind of glory, even if we never get the credit of being called “the restorer of streets to live in?” Can we do it as the foundations of our great churches start to crumble because there just isn’t the money to rebuild them? Can we do it for the sake of GOD and our NEIGHBOR, and not for the sake of recognition and success? Can we accept that even as our light breaks forth like the dawn, it might be that nobody is looking?
In the coming generations I think we as a church will have a choice as to whether we are going to fully rely on God, and let ourselves be vindicated by God and guided by God and sustained in the most parched places by God.
You shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
Jesus said, you are salt – even if the world has lost its taste for you, and you get thrown out and trampled on. Jesus, too, was thrown out and trampled on – and he let it happen, firm in his commitment to justice.
If we keep our commitment, God will see and hear and taste us, and GOD will respond. Even, even, if the world does not. Now is the time to begin trusting that.