A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.
November 1, 2020
There is a scene in a Monty Python movie about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Apparently it was difficult for the characters to hear what Jesus was saying. Big crowd, no sound system. I’ll likely always think of it when we read this text.
“What was that?”
“I think it was “blessed are the cheesemakers”.
“What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, another person asks.
“Well, it is obviously not meant to be taken literally.
It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Clearly, the comedians of Monty Python were making a joke, but I wonder if there isn’t some truth in it too. Because cheesemakers might as well be listed in the category of people who are blessed. It is a fairly inclusive list. At some point in our lives, we inhabit all of these categories.
Okay, maybe we aren’t cheesemakers.
Wait. Do we have cheesemakers in this congregation? I need to know that. I love cheese.
At some point, we mourn and cry over the pain in the world. At some point, we feel poor in spirit, meek, and hungry for justice.
One of my friends asked people on social media to finish the sentence “blessed are you who…” and the answers were interesting.
–blessed are you who remember to laugh even though you may want to cry!
–blessed are you who write books for us to read, compose music for us to hear, create art for us to view.
–blessed are you who speak the truth in love.
–blessed are you help us keep our senses of humor and not take ourselves too seriously!
And these final ones seemed to really capture the spirit of the beatitudes.
–blessed are you who have cancer and blessed are those who accompany and love them.
–blessed are the care givers.
The list could go on and on. And that, is the point.
We hear that blessings should be limited. That only the rich or the powerful or successful are blessed. But Jesus calls us to impart blessings, to be blessings, to proclaim blessedness, in situations one might least expect to call blessed.
The message in the Beatitudes, which might seem familiar and comfortable language to those of us who have heard them again and again, would not have seemed familiar to Jesus’ audience up on the mountain that day.
That’s the other reason I think the Monty Python joke is so true. I can imagine the crowd saying, “what’d he just say? He couldn’t possibly have said “blessed are those who mourn?” I must have heard it wrong. “Blessed are those who are persecuted?” What’s he talking about?”
Because many of the things Jesus lists as blessings are not things we want to sign up for.
We don’t want to have to mourn for the pain in our own loss or mourn for the injustice and hurt in the world.
We don’t want to be poor in spirit, acknowledging that we can’t do it all ourselves and that our only help and salvation come from God.
We don’t want to be meek, patiently waiting for God’s time that will come.
We don’t want to be peacemakers, having to listen for the truth in our opponents arguments, instead of loudly repeating back our own views.
We don’t want to be persecuted for righteousness sake because we know that the powers of this world work hard to keep the world unjust. Speaking against injustice can put you in harms way. Why would we want to do that?
The Beatitudes don’t tell us to intentionally set out to become mourners or persecuted, or poor in spirit just so we can say we’ve done it. That would turn our faithful action into an attempt to earn our salvation. We are, instead, to recognize God is creating blessing, God is present in the midst of situations that the world might call “god forsaken”.
The Beatitudes remind us that people aren’t blessed because of their success, their wealth, or their power. They are blessed because God chooses to be with them and for them. It is a reminder to bring hope to the seemingly hopeless and to speak a counter message to those who oppress, those who benefit from injustice and pain, and to those who try to earn their own blessing.
While the Beatitudes offer comfort and hope for people in desperate need of it, they also challenge us to make a world that more closely resembles God’s intention for it, so that the Beatitudes will be considered a statement of fact for all of God’s children.
After we get the “blessed are” verses, Jesus tells us we are salt of the earth and light to the world. Living out the beatitudes, being blessing to the world, is part of how we are salt and light.
Light is an image we explore frequently and understand more intuitively, perhaps, than the image of salt. Yet salt has held such value in history, roads were paved just to trade it, and the latin word that gives us “salary” comes from the word “salt”. Salt has been extracted from the earth and from the ocean for thousands of years, and its value has often been equal to precious metals.
Salt is necessary for life. It’s a primary taste for humans. We often notice salt by its absence, or when there is too much. The “just right” amount of salt goes unnoticed.
If being blessed is being salt of the earth, it means being the ingredient that is valuable and gives life, but isn’t shiny and calling attention to itself.
Salt is not like other spices and seasonings.
God doesn’t call us to be spicy like cayenne pepper or green chile, even though that would be my preference.
God doesn’t call us to be dramatic like saffron, which only takes a pinch to change the color of an entire dish—visible to everyone.
God doesn’t call us to be the whole enchilada either. We are one ingredient among many, a part of a bigger enterprise. Nobody serves a bowl of salt as a complete meal. We aren’t the only thing that can feed the world, but without the salt of God’s blessed community, the world is missing flavor and an important nutritional component.
Once salt is is added to a dish, it can’t be removed, and it loses its shape. Salt dissolves into broth. It disappears into dishes. Perhaps we have to be willing to let go of the identities and agendas we hold if we want to be a blessing and salt of the earth.
God doesn’t call us to be Bay Leaves for the world, which seasons a dish, but then is removed, intact, before the dish is served.
Listen to some of the “blessed are” verses again.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
In many ways, those qualifications—poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted—are the qualifications that settle down into the cracks and crevices of our lives like salt, dissolving into our very identity, invisible to the eye in most cases. They are some of the very characteristics that make us human.
Today is All Saints’ Day, the day we remember those people who have died in the past 12 months from our congregation, and from our lives. We call them saints, not because they were perfect or holier than the rest of us, although maybe some of them were. We call them saints because God made them holy and made them blessings. We are saints too.
Today we remember the over 200,000 people who have died from the Coronavirus, and we lift their lives up to God, that they may rest in eternal blessing. We think about the people in our own lives who have died in the past year. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors.
Often, it isn’t until a loved one has died that we realize the way they were salt and light, the way they were blessing in our lives. It is in their absence that we notice the taste of the recipe of our lives has gone a little flat and bland.
As we mourn the saints, may our tears season our memories and lead us through grief and into joy.
We have to let go of the idea
that we can love without mourning,
that we can be filled without justice,
that we can see God without attending to the state of our hearts,
that we can inherit the earth from a position of power.
In a few days, our country will vote. Many of us have already voted. Many have been actively involved in getting out the vote, volunteering and phone banking. It feels like a pivotal moment for us, no matter how the election turns out, no matter which candidates you are supporting.
There are important issues down the ballot too. Balance of power in the House and Senate. A number of statewide propositions and elections for school boards and statehouses.
How we live through the results of this election will reveal a lot about us. Are we salt, willing to play our role as an important ingredient in building a better recipe for our country? Are we salt, welcoming the contribution of other seasonings to create a more flavorful country?
We will gather for an in person prayer service the night after the election. (Register through the website, as space is limited). In the aftermath of the election, let us neither gloat nor despair. Let us turn in prayer to God, with renewed purpose to care for others, to seek the common welfare, and to build a better more compassionate world.
I confess that being salt doesn’t come naturally to me. I have control issues. I don’t want to dissolve. I want to loudly share my opinions and be the maverick solo act.
But God has called me, again and again, to live in community, to care for common welfare more than for private rights. Again and again, God reminds me that my control is less powerful than my surrender to God’s vision. And so I work at being salt.
In her poem, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness….
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
(The entire poem can be found here.)
I think the kindness she speaks of in the poem is not unlike the blessedness Jesus offers on the sermon on the mount. It is subtle, we notice it most by its absence, and it dissolves like salt in a broth, seasoning our lives with mercy, love, compassion, and justice.
You are the salt of the earth. Go and share your blessedness with the world.