Monday, November 10, 2008

The salt of the earth

Our wireless is wonky. My laptop crashed. And I preached this morning. Here it is.

All Saints' Chapel, CDSP
Matthew 5:13-18

“You are the salt of the earth.”
I grew up hearing that expression.
I remember my mom and my grandma saying
that this or that person was the salt of the earth.
I knew it was a vaguely good thing to be,
but I got stuck on the literal language.
I never quite got what it meant.

I went looking, and I found these references:

--an online Catholic social justice magazine
--a movie made in 1954 about a miners' strike,
for which the writers, director, and producers were all blacklisted
--a song from a Rolling Stones album
--a documentary about Palestinian Christians, made in 2004.

And, of course, the biblical reference.
I found information about the way salt was used
in the ancient Middle East,
both as a purifier and a preservative.
I thought about how salt is both a necessary and an everyday thing.
Touch your finger to your tongue.
Taste your tears.

Our bodies carry the same salinity as the ocean.
That is how basic salt is,
to the life of the planet
and to us.

The expression, when it refers to people,
can mean a few different things.
Salt of the earth is the finest kind of human being:
strong, dedicated, honest, hard-working, committed to justice.
Someone who uses their capabilities to make the world better.
It can refer to a humble and unpretentious person.
Or my favorite, and I confess I got it from Wikipedia:
Any person of interesting character, usually of the lower class.

Today we celebrate the feast day of Pope Leo I,
also known as Leo the Great.
The last definition I just read, does not apply to him.

We don't know much about Leo before he became Pope.
He was born about the year 400.
One tradition says he was born in Tuscany.

We do know that the Western Roman Empire was a mess.
It was beset by invasions.
The economic and political system was totally inefficient.
Still, Leo managed to grow up and get a good education.
He was ordained deacon,
and was responsible for looking after Church possessions,
managing the grain dole,
and for generally administering finances.

Again, this is not an ordinary person.
He did well enough to be unanimously elected Pope in the year 440.
He is known for his work to consolidate the Western church
under his own authority as the Bishop of Rome.
In Africa, Spain, and Gaul, he limited the powers of one bishop,
confirmed the rights of another,
and selected candidates for holy orders.

He also negotiated with Attila
when the Huns were about to sack Rome.
He persuaded them to withdraw from Italy.
His negotiations with the Vandals were less successful,
but he did manage to save the lives of the people of Rome.

Leo was a writer.
We have 143 letters and 96 sermons written by him.
They cover many doctrinal points, and the entire church year.
His work was all about purifying the church, doctrinally,
and preserving it against attackers.
He was a clearly powerful person,
both spiritually and temporally—
though I'm not sure I'd call him a diplomat.
He was smart, strong, capable,
and forceful enough to consolidate power under himself,
and to save his people on at least one occasion.

Leo is best known to us for his influence
at the Council of Chalcedon.
The council was called in the year 451, to deal with the heresy
that after the Incarnation there was only one nature in Christ,
and that nature was not consubstantial with us.

Leo's answer was a letter to the patriarch of Constantinople.
It became incorporated into the Council's definition of the faith.
I'm going to read you his core assertion.
Forgive me; it's a little long:

For not only is God believed to be both Almighty and the Father, but the Son is shown to be co-eternal with Him, differing in nothing from the Father because He is God from God, Almighty from Almighty, and being born from the Eternal one is co-eternal with Him; not later in point of time, not lower in power, not unlike in glory, not divided in essence: but at the same time the only begotten of the eternal Father was born eternal of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

Without detriment therefore to the properties of either nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition inviolable nature was united with possible nature, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and not die with the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours.

Okay. I can't stand here and pretend
that it was easy for me to understand what I just read.
How about you?
Is it easy for you to relate to someone
who uses that kind of language?
Can you wrap your mind around that sentence structure,
let alone the vocabulary?
To me, it may as well have been in the original Latin.

I used to be quick like that.
Like Leo, I have lived by words.
I read for fun,
and I still attempt to write for sanity.
Now, words just circle around me.
I make occasional grabs at them as they float by.

We call it chemo-brain.
Most of you know that I was diagnosed last spring
with a Stage II melanoma.
It's potentially a very serious skin cancer.
We caught it before it spread.
I had surgery which may well have cured me.
But the secondary treatment is a year of interferon therapy,
to kill anything that may have been left
and to keep it from coming back.
I started with a month's worth of IV infusions over the summer,
and I inject myself three times a week now.
I'll be done at the end of June.
I'll get my body and my brain back then.
The worst side effect is fatigue.
I’ve been so exhausted for so long,
that I don’t have the concentration to comprehend what I read.
I look fine,
and I hear that many times a day.
But I feel run down and beaten up,
and I usually have a headache.
I don't have the endurance it takes to study like I used to.

If I didn’t already know Leo's point:
that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine,
because that is what redemption requires,
I wouldn't even try to understand him.
I need the reality of God shown to me in less intellectual ways.
I need my Incarnation a little more obvious.
Right now, I need my God with skin on.

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the finest kind of human being.
You are utterly common.

I'm doing my field ed at the San Francisco Night Ministry.
The daytime component of that is what we call Open Cathedral.
We do Eucharist outside,
in downtown San Francisco,
every Sunday afternoon at 2.
It's specifically intended to be church
where people who live on the street can feel welcome.
Anyone can come. (That includes all of you.)
And anything can happen.

If you're on Muni or BART, you get off at the Civic Center station.
Walk through the farmer's market, go behind the fountain,
and you'll find us.
We don't always start on time.

So that's where I was, a week and a day ago.
The service had started.
It was a cool, damp, sunny, busy downtown Sunday afternoon.
The last couple of times,
I've been in charge of welcoming people as they wander by,
looking curious.
You don't often see people doing church outside.
I looked out and saw a man walking toward us.
I don't know how old he was;
I'd guess about 50 but I'm often wrong.
Living outside can age you pretty quickly.
His clothes were rumpled.
He was shorter than I am.
At first glance, he looked like he'd had a difficult life.

He stopped just outside our circle.
I walked around, and said hi,
softly as I didn't want to scare him.

He wore a hospital bracelet,
and he dragged a suitcase on wheels behind him.
In his other hand, he held a basket of grapes from the farmers' market.
Just like this one.
And without speaking, he held it out to me.

[hand basket of grapes to lector]

The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

I responded as one of the nine lepers.
I took a grape, and ate it.
And I didn't realize that he had just given me the Eucharist,
until he had walked away
and it was too late to thank him.

But I give thanks for him now.
I don’t know his story.
I don't know his name.
Clearly he’d just been sprung from an overnight hospital stay—
but I don’t know where or why.
I don’t know if anybody visited him.
I don’t know where he was going,
or what awaited him there.

I give thanks for him, and for Leo,
for saints both in history and walking on the street.
I give thanks for those who did the intellectual work
of hacking out the relationships
between who God is and who we are.
I give thanks for people who can articulate their faith
in ways that I can't.
(If I ever could.)
And I give thanks for those who speak with open hands,
and a basket of grapes.
Who would never show up in a well-dressed church,
but whose response to grace is to share what they have.
Who may never speak a word about what they believe,
but who simply and quietly live it out.


Anonymous said...

Nice job, Kirstin. Thanks for sharing it! Linda

Mimi said...

Oh, I like this a lot, great sermon.

I had to Google, because I thought, and was able to confirm, that the East doesn't commemorate St. Leo in November, it is February 18th.

It always fascinates me when the commeorations diverge.

anyway, awesome sermon you rock!

it's margaret said...

Oh --how wonderful! (and good job too!)

God bless you --and good to see you at work.

Paul said...

Right on, sister!

Glad God sends angels to feed you in your current wilderness.

Apostle In Exile said...


Kirstin said...

Thanks all.

Paul, yes I have angels--but the point I was making was not about me.

Moineau En France said...

kirstin, i stumbled upon your blog this morning while googling miriam makeba, and have been reading quite a lot of it. you've got a beautiful soul, and i've been touched by your excellent writing. i myself have been ill and homebound for 10 years, but i continue to be hopeful.

your story of the man with the grape basket was so reminiscent for me of my own experience in san francisco when i was only 18 years old. we landed there at 5am, delivered by the "green tortoise" hippy bus out of portland, oregon, and attended a beautiful service in the main cathedral. i'll never forget the voice of the woman who sang "ave maria". such a beautiful church! afterwards, hungry and cold, we walked among the homeless.

a tall raggedy man emerged from the crowd and asked us if we were hungry, then led us to a place where we could buy a hot chicken with our food stamps. he claimed all the while that he was invisible and that we were the only ones who could see him. he had deep magical, twinkling eyes, and as we ate, he suddenly disappeared in a flash, into the crowd, i suppose. i was certain at the time that he was an angel, in much the same way you describe the man with the grape basket. such a wonderful story.

how blessed we are to be part of this world and how cursed sometimes to have a body! i'm not reconciled with a god but i've been very moved by your stories and style, kirstin. so glad i stumbled onto you today, and i wish you continued healing in your life and the continued ability to see angels. someone has to see them, the naked and the broken.

xoxoxox ~laura tattoo, astoria, oregon