In April of 1978, a farmer in the small lakeside town of Rissa, Norway, embarked on a rather regular construction project: adding a new wing to the existing barn on his property. And so the project started: the foundation was dug, and all seemed to be going smoothly. But little did he know that his construction project would make history, and not in a good way.
On the 29th of April, the ground underneath the construction site gave way and began a chain reaction of landslides. Over the course of 45 minutes, large tracts of firm ground slid away. 82 acres of farmland drained into the lake that the town bordered. Fifteen farms, two family homes, a cabin and a community hall were eradicated and washed into the nearby lake. 32 people lost everything they owned. One life was lost. It was the largest landslide in Rissa in a century.
The landslide occurred because of a substance called quick clay. Quick clay is the result of marine sediments that have become hard and brittle, then had the salt leeched out through years and years of erosion. In its natural, undisturbed state, quick clay appears quite strong. However, when the load on top of quick clay becomes too heavy, the clay particle structure loses its strength and collapses, and turns to liquid within seconds.
This entire farming village lost everything… because the ground underneath it had no salt.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
I have to admit, I can’t hear this Scripture without getting the soundtrack to Godspell stuck in my head.
But Jesus calling us to be salt and light really requires us to think about what those elements are. What they do. How they’re used. To understand why these were the metaphors he chose to help us understand the kind of life we are to live when we have our life in Christ.
So I think Jesus is inviting us into a twofold reflection. One uses metaphor – what are the attributes of salt and light? and the second requires translation – how do I connect those attributes to the way God wants me to live?
On the second point, Isaiah gives us a pretty good impression of how God thinks salt and light ought to be lived out. This reading takes place after the Israelites have returned from their exile in Babylon and are resettled in the promised land. Things should be going well for them, but God is not pleased.
God’s message to to them is this:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Fasting – the practice of abstaining from food and other comforts and pleasures as a religious observance – is an integral pietistic practice not only in Judaism but in almost every major world religion. It instills dedication to God above earthly desires and concerns which can so easily distract us from our relationship with God.
The whole idea, really, is that it’s supposed to make you a better person and bring you closer to God.
And God’s disappointment with the Israelites’ fasting is palpable.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day…
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
In other words: What good is your piety when you abstain from kindness, compassion, justice, mercy, and love? What good is your religion when people around you are suffering and you don’t do anything about it?
Or, to put it another way: you have lost your saltiness. Your light no longer shines.
Just like quick clay loses its strength and becomes liquid without salt, so too does a church, a community, a neighborhood, a city, a nation, lose its strength buckle under pressure when it does not contain enough of God’s transforming love to keep it solid and strong. And Jesus is saying, that’s your job, folks. You are the salt that keeps the clay solid and strong. You’re the binding agent. The god love glue.
What I’m getting at here is that faith and action are inextricably linked. Our faith in God is not separate from the way we interact with our neighbor. Jesus says that your saltiness and your brightness are measured by your “righteousness” – he even goes so far as “righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees,” challenging them to be better than the top religious professionals of their day. To a first century Jew, that would have seemed impossible. But Jesus is never one for subtlety or low standards. And the standard God has always set for us from the beginning is the Great Commandment: love God, and love your neighbor. And Jesus says I have not come to abolish that law, but to fulfill it, to remind you that what God asks of you is not just to love God, not just your piety and your religiosity, but that that love actually means something and has bearing on the way you live your life and the way you treat other people.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
But there is one thing I don’t want us to lost sight of today, in this talk about faith and action, and the way that God asks us not only to love God, but to love our neighbor. And that is that while faith and action are two sides of the same coin, the coin itself is prayer. Maybe I’m just overstating the obvious here, but I also think both faith and action can become disconnected from God (and stop being two sides of the same coin) when we ourselves are not connecting to God. Faith can easily slide into “being interested in some nice ideas” and action can easily slide into some version of altruism. In other words, without prayer, we lose our saltiness and our brightness.
Our Sunday Forums in the month of February are focused on prayer. They’re certainly not comprehensive – there are so many different ways to pray we could fill a year’s worth of forums. But we are focusing on prayer this month because prayer is something that we at St. Michael’s take seriously. You may or may not know that this is a parish that prays every day of the year. Several of you have committed to leading morning prayer every day here in the chapel. Several of you have been trained to offer healing prayer, which is offered every Sunday at the 10:00 service. And several more of you are on our prayer chain, a rather invisible “work-from-home” ministry of St. Michael’s, a group of people who receive our prayer list each week and pray for all of those names every day. Our regular prayers of the people, which we will pray together in a few minutes, have been replaced today with the prayers used in the prayer chain. If you didn’t know it, now you do: there’s a sizable group of people in this parish who pray these prayers (without the congregational responses) every single day. Maybe God is inviting you to join them.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Today, I invite you to consider that coin, and the two sides of that coin: the faith you hold, and the action that you take, and I invite you to bring those to God in prayer. Because faith and action without prayer is like walking around with a cellphone and no charger: you have no way to tap into your source of life and energy. Your saltiness will lose its flavor, and your light will cease to shine.
One more thing about quick clay: even after it has broken down and liquefied, when salt is applied to the liquid clay, a chemical reaction starts almost immediately, and after just a few minutes, the clay becomes solid and strong again. In those regions where clay forms the ground, literally, the salt of the earth is the only thing allowing it to support and sustain an entire community.
And that is the salt Jesus asks us to be.
So go be some salt in that clay, and make this world strong and solid in the love of God.