On Friday, as I mentioned in our weekly email, Crystal and I hung new signs outside the church, “Jesus Didn’t Reject People. Neither Do We.” The slogan comes from our Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, as an expression of our commitment to inclusion. We felt good about the message we hung up. A neighbor walked by and said how much she longed to see such signs everywhere. It seemed as if earth itself, on that beautiful Friday, shared our sense of joyful purpose.
Afterwards, back in the office, Crystal played a voicemail message that came in while we were outside. A hateful message. I debated whether or not to share it this morning.
But as I thought about it, I remembered all of the recent hateful speech and actions I’ve heard across our country. Locally, our JCC closed because of a bomb threat. The children in the daycare didn’t know what was happening when the adults shepherded them down the street to the Richards Elementary School. The little children just thought they got a special day at a new playground; a field trip; the adults worked hard to make it fun. But they knew; a man felt such hatred in his heart that he longed to hurt and frighten them.
It was probably a hoax, but had to be taken seriously. Because making these kinds of threats can be the way people work themselves into action. Actions like those of a white supremacist who shot and killed six at a mosque in Quebec.
All of this was in my mind as I listened to the message on our voicemail. What to do with this ugliness? Part of me wanted to ignore it, to shake it off and move on. But I realize that hatred must be faced, named, talked about.
We need to tell the truth about hatred. In part, because hate speech aims to shut us up; to silence us. Those are reactions of shame. That’s one of the reasons why people use hate speech; to shame us into silence. And so resistance begins with naming the lies that are told about us.
And when we name vile things said about us then we begin to inoculate ourselves. An inoculation takes a bit of the virus and exposes our immune system to it so that our bodies can recognize and organize against a viral threat. I think something similar happens with hate speech. We need to be able to recognize it, to spot the vile virus. And then our spirits can organize against it.
To be inoculated against hate speech is different than to be desensitized. We become desensitized when we get used to responding to hatred with silence. The problem with desensitization is that one doesn’t organize and mount a resistance. But inoculation means your resistance is strengthened: you can recognize it and respond appropriately.
When I thought of it that way then I realized we needed to hear a bit of what was said in our voicemail message. The caller, spitting out his words, said, “You’re disgusting. You’re a vagina show. There’s a place in hell waiting for you. Don’t call yourself a church.”
Ugly words. But not my first time hearing ugly words on our voicemail or getting them in a letter or even chalked on the sidewalk. But I did hear something new in this message. Vagina show. No one has ever accused me of going there before.
I was actually so surprised by that part of the message. Usually it’s our acceptance of LGBT people that gets us the hate messages. Normally I’m called a fag. Or told about Sodom and Gomorrah as if I’d never heard of that text. Didn’t this caller know I was gay? How much more out do I have to be? But then I realized this was in response to my sermon two weeks ago about reproductive freedom. I’d shared the sermon on Facebook and then it got shared there and on some blogs; that was the show.
Realizing this sent me back to our Gospel lesson for today. “You are salt of the earth,” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” These words come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’ve gotten so used to the way that we read these verses that I forgot - until Friday - the context. Traditionally we read the Beatitudes one week and then the Salt and Light reading another week and then the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the remaining weekends. But in context, right before Jesus called his followers to be Salt and Light, he offered this Beatitude. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against; rejoice and be glad; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The call to be Salt and Light came after Jesus acknowledged the way his followers - you and I - would be reviled. The call to be Salt and Light came with Jesus’ inoculating his followers from hateful and vile speech and actions.
And so I come to these words about Salt and Light wanting to know how they can help us deal with the ugliness of hatred.
Salt. I use salt in cooking. You’ll find several kinds in my pantry. Table salt. Kosher salt. Sea salt. Pink salt. And even smoked salt. Each has their purpose. But I’ve often puzzled over this passage because none of these salts has ever lost its saltiness. And that’s because salt is a chemically stable compound.
So I looked into this. Some biblical scholars pointed out that the phrase “salt of the earth” ought to be contrasted with “salt of the sea.” So Jesus is talking about a salt gathered or mined from the earth; rock salt. In Israel this salt of the earth often gets inadvertently mixed with gypsum dust carried in by the wind but often looks like salt. If the content of gypsum gets too great then the salt will not taste salty. Hmm. Maybe; but it sounds like a too perfect explanation. Perhaps that’s why one can abbreviate Biblical Studies down to BS.
Personally, it sounds like Jesus to give us a puzzler, to make us wonder about salt losing its saltiness until we realize that of course salt never does. Salt remains constant. And that’s what we need to do when facing hatred: remain constant.
What’s that about? Looking into that lead me down a rabbit hole until I was reading about pre-modern farming techniques. Turns out they used salt to destroy weeds - it burned the roots of the shallow weeds while increasing the moisture retention of the soil so as to help the plants. Salt could also make the grass sweeter for cattle and keep rust away from wheat. But manure? Well I guess farmers once used salt to preserve manure just as we use salt to preserve meat. The salt kept the manure fresh and full of fertilizing goodness. So it turns out salting your soil and your manure is a real thing (not just BS).
Jesus knew people threw salt on barren land to make it possible for things to grow; they threw salt on manure to enhance its fertilizing ability. As Anthony Bradley interpreted it, Jesus calls us salt because “we are intended to bring life and flourishing out of decaying manure piles and arid soil where nothing grows—spheres of society that are dead, barren, or rotting.”
Jesus is building up our ability to resist. Starting with the Beatitudes, he didn’t pretend life would be sunshine and roses but spoke honestly about the reality of oppression. And then he taught his followers how to respond. Be salt; be constant. Be salt; bring life to barren places.
When we face hatred - hearts harder than soil baked in the sun, words and actions that are just a pile of manure - then we know, “we’ve got work to do.” Our lives are meant to be salt to that soil and that manure.
Isn’t that what we’re doing with our work on racial equity? Being constant on this issue. Salting our own privilege. Nurturing new growth and possibility for racial relations in Milwaukee.
And light. Jesus challenged his followers to be the light of the world. These words inspired John Winthrop, even before his ship landed in America, to speak of founding a “city on a hill” that would inspire the world because of the quality of life and devotion of its inhabitants. Starting in the 1960’s, our presidents picked this up as a refrain for America: John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush all liked to speak of our nation as a city on a hill.
But Jesus said it first. And in a context different than any president. For he knew the reality of being reviled. Facing opposition, facing hatred, some might counsel lying low. “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t call attention to yourself.” So many ways of pressuring ourselves to self-edit.
But Jesus did the opposite. A light can not be hid. Your light can not be hid.
I think Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the reason why Jesus wanted us to let our light shine. He said once:
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus knew this truth too: hate cannot drive out hate. It’s why he told Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. Resisting hatred calls forth our best light, the kind of light we saw in Martin Luther King, Jr.
And that light is the truth of our souls, our soul truth. Light can’t be hidden very well. Nor can the truth. The truth will always come out. It may take a long time. But the truth comes out, even if it takes decades, generations.
Just this winter more truth finally came out about Emmett Till. Till, just fourteen years old, went to visit family in the south. A white store clerk accused black Till of flirting with her. Her husband and a friend kidnapped Till, tortured and beat him, and threw his body in a river. All back in 1955. But now that store clerk admits she lied on the stand. Till never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.” Sixty years after his gruesome death, Emmett Till’s truth is finally seeing the light of day.
And I can’t think of Emmett Till without remembering his mother. She took his body back to Chicago but she didn’t hide her grief. She invited the world to see, opened his casket, made plain what was done to her little boy by showing his beaten and bloated body. What courage it must have taken, what strength of person; yet she held up a light like a city on a hill that illuminated all the evil of racism in our country.
Hatred, as it did with Till’s murder, tries to hid the truth. But the truth will come out.
Jesus knew people facing hatred might try to hide their truth. But Jesus called them to be public, to let their truth shine, illuminating the night like a city on a hill.
Jesus faced hatred. In doing so he wanted to inoculate his followers from it. Our body politic may be infected; which is why Jesus’ needs us as T-cells ready to recognize and organize against hatred.
Salt and light; these are Jesus’ plan to deal with ugly hatred. Be constant. Bring hardened hearts to life. Let your truth blaze.
Alleluia and Amen.