5 Epiphany

The Venerable William C. Parnell, Archdeacon for Mission of the Diocese of New York

            Greetings to all of you and Happy New Year!  What a great occasion to be here as we celebrate the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival.  I’m delighted to be here with you during this time of reunions, fresh starts, and new opportunities. 

            I’d like to consider with you for a few moments the Gospel reading for today, words which are a message of hope and a reminder of our calling as the family of Jesus Christ.  In this passage Jesus says to us “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Let’s think about what it means to be salt and light.

            Salt is, of course, one of the most common minerals in the world.  A proper amount of it in our bodies is necessary for our health.  It is used to season and to preserve.  And I’ve been particularly grateful for it this winter for its use in melting ice and snow.  But in order for salt to do its job it needs to be spread around and to blend in.  And so Jesus tells us that we are like salt, we are to be spread around and blended into the world around us.  But notice that he also cautions us about salt that has lost its saltiness.  In other words, the salt, if it is to make a difference, must be distinct from that which it is to flavor. 

            Think about that in terms of the life of the Church, if you will.  It is a call for us to be in the world, not to stay separate but to allow ourselves to blend in with the community around us, and yet isn’t it also a call to tend to our distinctiveness, our peculiar “saltiness” as Christians?  Those are words of hope for us.  You and I have something unique to offer in this world, something that is necessary for its health and, frankly, something that will make the world a much more palatable place.

            I think we spend a lot of time fretting that the Church doesn’t seem to have much influence these days, that often the culture around us overwhelms us and dominates us.  The temptation when we start thinking in that way is to circle the wagons, to stay apart and safe.  But think about how salt operates: It isn’t the dominant flavor, it isn’t needed in great quantity, yet it has an impact on whatever it touches.  I think that is exactly how we Christians can have an impact on our surroundings, both as individuals and as parish communities.  A small act of kindness by one person can infect a multitude of other relationships.  The small project can have a wide, rippling impact.  Salt spreads and enhances, not by dominating but by drawing out the best in its environment.  I wonder if we give ourselves enough credit for our saltiness.  Think of all the ways this parish contributes to this neighborhood through ESL and computer training courses, through after-school programs and senior activities and arts projects.  Think about how your skills in graphics and communications help to spread the good news.  Think about how your ministry of hospitality in this place brightens a community.  And think about how you, as individuals, carry that “saltiness” to neighborhoods and workplaces and schools.  You are the salt in Chinatown and beyond.

            But not only are you salt, you are “the light of the world,” Jesus says.  Imagine that, if you will.  Each of us carries our own peculiar brilliance into this world.  And Jesus refers to that light, not just in terms of the individual, but as “a city set on a hill” whose light cannot be hidden.  In the Bible, the image of the city is always a positive one, a place where people of varying skills and talents and experiences join together to form a community of mutual benefit.  The Biblical city is the place where people help one another flourish because of their diversity, because what they can accomplish together is far, far greater than what they can do as individuals.  The wilderness is the place of isolation and danger, the sea is the realm of chaos and the unknown, but the city is a holy place.

            We don’t often think of cities in that way, do we?  We focus on urban problems, or competing interests and scarce resources.  Rarely do we consider the diversity of talent, the networks of opportunity that is there to be drawn out.  I believe our churches need to shine a light on the city as a place where diversity is an asset, where varieties of gifts and cultures are celebrated because together they make us richer.  “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, but not just because you lift up your own candle.  It is the city of candles that cannot be hid and of which you are a vital part. 

            You are salt and you are light, but don’t think you are just the standard salt shaker or the generic 60-watt bulb.  You are salt that is refined by the scriptures.  You are light that is fired by the Spirit.  Yours is no ordinary seasoning, but rather the salt that imparts holiness in the world around you.  Yours is no dim light, but rather the holy light that warms hearts and illumines minds. 

            It is the New Year, time to put away old hurts and anxieties and trust in God’s future,  Even though it is still winter, this is the Spring Festival, which calls us to see new life that is still hidden, the flower that has barely begun to bud.  You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Your job is to spread out into this community and beyond, to let your light shine wherever you go.