Monday, February 7, 2011

Salt, Light, and Homer DaVinci

Like many of you, I have kept a watchful eye on events unfolding in Egypt over the past few days. I am prayerful for a peaceful resolution there that will bring freedom and democracy to a long-oppressed people. I saw an NBC News story where they reported on the nerve center of the uprising. It was a small, cramped room staffed by less than a dozen volunteers led by a single mother aged 33. With access to the internet cut off, they were using satellite cell phones to communicate with an ever-increasing network of people risking their lives working for change.

Unrest in any part of the world makes us anxious, especially if it is a region where we have vital interests at stake. While the outcome of what will happen in Egypt is anything but certain, and the affect this movement has on the rest of Arab world is a serious concern, I can’t help but be impressed that a handful of dedicated people are making history before our very eyes. I am encouraged by their realization that peaceful resistance is more effective that strapping a bomb to your body and blowing yourself up at a hospital, police station, market square, or place of worship.

And I am impressed that a 33 year old woman, armed with a college degree and easily accessible modern technology, is leading the charge. She challenges each one of us to consider Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading: “You are the salt of the earth, but if you have lost your saltiness what good are you?” “You are the light of the world, so why would you hide your light under a basket? Put it out on the table so that it will give light to everyone in the room.”

I’ve said before that Denise Levertov is one of my favorite poets. Years ago she was having dinner with a man who at one time had been a painter. She didn’t know if he was a good painter or not, but because his wife wanted more security, he gave up his art and took a lousy advertizing job drawing pictures of ugly furniture for some nasty company. He hated it, every minute of it, every part of it. Levertov could feel his exasperation as they talked. There was something in his situation, she felt, that seemed typical of so many lives. This man, who she dubbed ‘Homer DaVinci’, had sold out (if you will) for money. Some of us do that. Others sell out for comfort, esteem, acceptance, or power to name a few possibilities.

In her 1961 book, The Jacob’s Ladder, Levertov wrote a poem called “The Plan” where she is not so much critical of Homer DaVinci for selling out as she chastises him for being corrupted. By corruption she means that he was not living his own life, rather he had gotten off the track and was living someone else’s life. It is another way of expressing what Jesus is saying: he was no longer salty; he had hidden his light.

In the poem Levertov picks up a provocative quote by Rabbi Judah Loew; a quote which Jesus Himself might just have said were he born into a time closer to our own:

“In some special way every person completes the universe. If he does not play ‘his part,’ he injures the pattern of all existence.”

Do you believe that is true? Do you believe that the person sitting to your right this morning has some special part in completing the universe? Do you believe the person sitting to your left has a role to play in the pattern of all existence? Do you believe that you are the salt of the earth, that you are the light of the world?

Levertov does not perceive the Rabbi to be talking about the need for us to be perfect, but rather about the value we bring to life by being authentic to who we are; utilizing the gifts we have been given and the experiences that have shaped us. Painters need to paint, writers need to write, tinkers need to tinker, and healers need to heal. In the Grand Design that we call God’s Kingdom, each of us has a part; our own unique way to be salt and to be light. When we accept this and live into it, even the world can be changed as we see this week in Egypt. When we shrink back, sell out, give in, or give up it injures the Kingdom of God.
This season of Epiphany the assigned readings from the Old Testament have been a series of challenging prophetic proclamations that attack the shallowness of worship offered by a society unconcerned about justice and righteousness; it denounces the value of praise offered by tasteless salt and hidden light. In today’s reading Isaiah mocks the efforts of a people to fast and pray and practice the rituals of the faith. And then, speaking through the prophet, the Lord says this:

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?

And what does God say the outcome of such “worship” will be?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

It is as if Isaiah is saying that God’s light shines on us as we allow our light to shine in the world. It is as if the healing properties of salt come to us as we live like the salt of the earth. “To the one who has,” Jesus said, “even more will be given. But to the one who uses not what he has, even that little will be taken away.”

Thomas Merton, in his book The Power and Meaning of Love, cautions against being salt and light in ways that are anything less than concrete:

There is a ‘romantic’ tendency in some Christians – a tendency which seeks Christ not in love of those flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters with whom we live and work, but in some as yet unrealized ideal of ‘brotherhood’. It is always a romantic evasion to turn from the love of people to the love of love itself: to love people in general more than individual persons, to love ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’ more than one’s brothers, sisters, neighbors, and associates… This romantic tendency leads to a substitution of… genuine faith and love, and what is seeks in the Church is not so much reality as protection against responsibility.

I think Merton is saying it is possible to have all the words right, to pray and worship just like the people in Isaiah’s time, and still not be salt or light.

Look around. Everyday people are doing ordinary things that play a part in the pattern of all existence. In fact, some ordinary people are doing extraordinary things. And sadly, far too many everyday people are like Homer DaVinci, underestimating the value and worth they have as salt and light. And some of us use our religion to make us bland and blind to the part we are to play, injuring, as it were, the Kingdom of God.