05 February 2011

Go out salty and bright!

5th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

I come to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, not with the subtleties of philosophical argument; or the passion of a desert wild man; or the precision of a nuclear physicist; or the eloquence of a Senator from ancient Rome. I do not come with sublime words or worldly wisdom, with fireworks or technological marvels. I won't text, Twitt, or Facebook the mystery of God for you, nor will His mystery find its way onto a blog, or come to you in mp3 format to download onto your iPod. I know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I come to you in weakness and fear and much trembling. My message to you is not delivered with persuasive words of wisdom, or attention-seeking gimmicks but with a demonstration of Spirit and power. Why, you ask? So that your faith might rest on the power of God and not on human wisdom. This might be how the apostle Paul would begin his homily if he were preaching at St. Joseph's Church this evening/morning. He would say to us what he wrote to the Corinthians 2,000 years ago: your faith must rest on the power of God and not on any human wisdom, not on any science or philosophy or rhetoric or mystical experience, or anything other than the freely given gift of His excelling love. Argument, experiment, oratory, prophecy—all the ways in which we observe, measure, and try to control creation are meaningless when applied to the mystery of God. God reveals Himself to His people, and when He does, we are transformed into a tribe that preserves and seasons, into a people that pierces the darkness b/c our own darkness has been pierced. We are the salt and the light for the world. And we must not lose our flavor. We must not lose our brightness.

Teaching the disciples, Jesus lays it all out for them, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?” If salt can lose its power to season, what is there to season the salt? What brings flavorless salt back to life? What Jesus is asking here is this: who can bring the faith back to the disciples if they lose it? Each disciple was personally chosen by Christ himself. He's taught them his secrets. He's given them the means to interpret his parables. He's made Peter his steward, giving him the keys to the kingdom. The disciples have lived with Jesus; eaten with him; fled the crowds with him; nearly drowned with him. They've seen every healing miracle, every wonder he's performed. They met with him privately many times and questioned him many more. If there are any saltier in the faith than these men, we don't know who they are! If they lose faith, if they succumb to despair or anxiety, or fall prey to false teaching or fanciful rhetoric, who will bring them back and return them to the Way? Jesus is urging his disciples to remain pure in their faith, to remain zealous in their preaching and to preserve the truth of his teachings. They cannot fail b/c there is no one who can restore the purity of their love for Christ.

In the ancient world, salt represented purity. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul insists on the purity of his preaching. He reminds the Church in Corinth that he came to them to preach Christ and him crucified. He came to them with the power of the Spirit and not with “the sublimity of words or of wisdom.” He preached out of what later saints would come to call “holy ignorance,” that is, a total reliance on the Spirit of God to provide the wisdom necessary to preach His truth. As a source of wisdom, Paul knowingly sets aside his training as a philosopher; his experience as a public speaker; and his extensive knowledge of the Law. He uses all of these to convey God's wisdom but none are the source of this wisdom. None reveal the mystery of God. None help him to receive all that God has to show him. God alone reveals His mystery. To the world, Paul is ignorant. For the Church, for us, he is salt and light. His preaching purifies, preserves, and enlightens the mystery we all participate in right now and hope to live with forever. Lest anyone misunderstand, Paul is not advocating an anti-intellectual faith, a sort of “blind faith” that shies away from education or the use of human reason. When Paul writes that he preaches “Christ and him crucified,” he means that he grounding his testimony in the historical death and resurrection of the man Jesus. He is not arguing his way to belief with logic and rhetoric. He is not emoting his way to faith. He is not experimenting his way to God in a lab. The wisdom Paul preaches is God Himself revealed in Christ crucified. No set of premises can reach this conclusion. No collection of physical evidence can compel this kind of trust.

When Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is reminding them that they have witnessed God's Self-revelation in his own life and works. After the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, they will remember—even as we do today—that when they saw and heard and followed Christ, they saw and heard and followed God Himself. They remember—even as we do today—because the Spirit of God comes upon them, surpassing all human understanding, and overwhelms them with His recreating love. Like salt sown to purify and light shone to pierce the darkness, they go out preaching, offering testimony, healing the sick, freeing the captive, and feeding the hungry—even as we do today. Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “. . .your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Our good deeds, done in imitation of Christ, are done so that others might come to glorify the Father. We help others pay their light bills in order to glorify God. We donate food, clothing, and toys in order to glorify God. We build and repair homes in order to glorify God. And when we do these things, God's light shines through us and we remain, as Christ commands, salty.

I started this homily by imagining what Paul might preach to us this evening/morning. I said that he would say to us exactly what he said to the Corinthians 2,000 years ago. And this would be the right thing to say. HOW we are tempted to lose our flavor and dim our lights may have changed in two millennia, but WHAT tempts us is no different. The Corinthians suffered from what Paul calls “itchy ears.” They wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. They wanted complex theologies and elaborate philosophies. They wanted logical arguments and scientific proofs. They wanted eloquence and what passed for wisdom. Don't we, in our way, want these too? How much do we rely on the world's wisdom for our moral choices? Do we accept as normal our culture's worship of Self? The use of violence to solve our problems? How much do we depend on technology to maintain our personal relationships? Do we allow caffeine, nicotine, amphetamine, alcohol to rule our moods? My point here is not to scold or blame but rather to show that we are as tempted now as the ancient Corinthians were to set aside the most fundamental truth God has given us: His love in Christ Jesus. We are tempted in ways that the Corinthians could never imagine: TV, internet, cell phones, credit cards, self-help psychobabble. But the temptation itself remains unchanged: replace God as the center of your life with something or someone else, anything or anyone else. Make a created thing your god. If and when this happens, you lose your saltiness; your light dims. 

In weakness, with fear and much trembling, go out into the world, wherever you find yourself and preach—in word, deed, thought—Christ and him crucified. Shine the light Christ has given you. And give all glory to God the Father! The brighter you shine for others, the more of His mystery you will see.

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