Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A quick survey!  How many will be watching the Super Bowl today?  How many are rooting for the patriots?   The falcons?  I’m not telling you my favorite, but I like the color “white.”

I heard a story about a rural monastery in the mid-west.  The abbess was dying and all the nuns were gathered around her bedside.  One gave the abbess a glass of milk with plenty of brandy in it,to ease her pain.   The abbess took a sip and suddenly perked up.  Another nun asked for the abbess’s dying words.  The abbess took a really big gulp of the brandy/milk, smiled, and said, “Don’t sell that cow.” Now that's a business woman.

Today's word of God speaks about salt and light.  How many have said someone is “the salt of the earth.”  The phrase usually means someone is dependable, one you can count on through “thick and thin.”   Or a sailor might say the captain’s speech is “salty,” that is, coarse, not politically correct.

Did anyone ever eat a handful of salt?  Or drink a glass of ocean water?  I hope not. Salt by itself doesn’t taste very good – it might even make you sick.  And did anyone ever look directly at the sun or into a bright light bulb?  I hope not.  It can severely damage your eyes.

Salt and sun, in and of themselves, are not very useful.  But when you add salt to food or shine light on an artwork, they both can do wonders.

Salt can bring out the natural flavor in food, from filet mignon to popcorn.  Salt in our bodies enables our muscles to contract, our blood to circulate, our hearts to beat.  In short, salt enhances, purifies and preserves.

And light can transform a cold night into a warm day. Light enables us to study, to discover, to behold the beauty and the wonders of God’s universe.  Light warms, nurtures, sustains, reveals and cheers.

Today Jesus asks us to be the “salt of the earth,” the “light of the world.”  We are “salt” when we bring out the best in people.  We are “light” when we illuminate the presence of God all around us.  To become “salt” is to bring out the “flavor” of God in everyone and everything; and to be “light” is to illuminate the presence of God in the midst of everyday life.

The word of God first takes us back to the 6th century before Jesus, to a collection of writings in the Book of the prophet Isaiah.  In this passage, many Jews have returned to their homeland from Babylonia only to become disillusioned by the harsh realities they had to face, like many Syrians today. And so the Jews proclaimed a national fast to ask for God’s favor.

But the author here notes fasting is useless if we treat people unfairly or deny their basic human rights.  It’s better, the author says, to practice what we call the corporal works of mercy:  feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and be compassionate.  If you do these things, to reference today’s scripture, your “light” will break forth like the dawn.

Paul says to the Christian community in Corinth that God’s power is at work within him even though he goes about his ministry in “fear and trembling.” Paul asks us to look for the wisdom of God, not in people of eloquence, but in the Spirit who empowers us to proclaim the good news:  God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth so that we could become like God. That indeed is our purpose in life: to become like God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says we are to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” to others.  But how can we be “salt” that brings out the best in people; and how can we be “light” that illuminates the presence of God all around us.  By who we are and what we do with what we have!

Every one of us has gifts or talents that can bring out the best in other people.  You and I possess by virtue of baptism the power of God to believe, to hope and to love.  And within our society there are many splendid callings.  Father or mother, teacher or student, doctor or lawyer or business person--whoever you are, you have a specific vocation—a calling--right now to bring out the best in other people so that they will choose the better version of themselves.

 How do we do this? By asking the Spirit of God to work within us.  Oh, yes, personality can be a blessing; it's great if we easily warm up to people.  But more importantly the Spirit of God works through us as we are.  The Spirit of God illumines our minds to know the way we should behave, and strengthens us to do so despite obstacles.  He gives us his gifts: Wisdom to focus on what truly matters; understanding and knowledge, to enter into the mysteries of God; counsel to make good moral decisions; fortitude to stand up for what's right; piety to give God our praise and worship; and fear of the Lord: the healthy concern never to lose our friendship with God. The Spirit gives us these gifts so that we can be “salt” and “light.”

The gifts or talents we have are not for ourselves but for others, for the family where we live, the workplace where we interface with colleagues, the community where we meet neighbors. The gifts we have look beyond ourselves to our life with others. No Christian is an island.  The Spirit empowers us, as we are, to help others choose the better version of themselves, to become more godlike in their relationships with other people.

I conclude with some wisdom from one of my favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. Historians feature him as one of our four transformational presidents: alongside Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt based his philosophy of life on what he called “realizable ideals” such as: keep your eyes on the stars but remember to keep your feet on the ground.  The one who really counts is the doer, not the mere critic.  Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.  

Some have accused Teddy Roosevelt of platitudes.   But as one author said: “A brick is a platitude, but lay one brick upon another, according to a grand design, and behold, a cathedral.” Teddy Roosevelt believed that you found yourself by being involved with institutions, people, jobs, causes, movements and everyday life.  He urged us to become the person “who strives valiantly...; who spends himself on a worthy cause; who at best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Yes, each of us, with the gifts of the Spirit working within us, can be “salt” and “light” to others by who we are and what we do with what we have.

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