Today, right about now, our sister-in-Christ Claire Hoffman is beginning worship at the Church of the Epiphany where the bishop is present for his official visitation, and where Claire along with a number of others will be confirmed by the bishop as an official adult members of The Episcopal Church
Confirmation is one of our seven sacraments that is reserved for the bishop. And, because of the number of parishes in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, the bishop is able to visit only every 2½ years. Claire was eager to be confirmed and we are grateful for the invitation by the people of Epiphany. We look forward to celebrating with Claire in the coming weeks as she rejoins us for worship as an official Episcopalian and a member of our parish.
The sacrament of confirmation fulfills the definition of a sacrament as being an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward sign of confirmation is the laying on of hands by the bishop; these hands continue the apostolic succession, in that as hands were laid upon the very first apostles, they have been handed down through the generations without breaking that succession.
The inward and spiritual grace present at confirmation and within all other sacraments is through the presence of the Holy Spirit. As liturgical human beings, we appreciate the outward and visible signs – our tangible, human rituals – that assist in drawing us into the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – drawing us into a deeper mindfulness of God’s presence in our lives – a clearer tangible view of his call to serve, which is particularly important to us at these times of rites of passage.
The prophet Isaiah, as the mouthpiece for God, is speaking to the people of Judah whose spiritual practices had become adulterated, watered down, and misdirected. In our lesson from Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah speaks specifically of fasting – an important spiritual discipline; many of us will pursue some practice of fasting during the season of Lent, which begins in a few weeks.
But, those to whom Isaiah is writing were grumpy fasters; actually their fasting made them even grumpier. There fasting was a form of showboating. Isaiah was speaking to those for whom fasting was an outward and visible sign of their superficial commitment to worship. Their fasting ignored the inward and spiritual grace. Isaiah speaks to us as well, cautioning us to make our ritualistic worship and spiritual disciplines vessels for a greater sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – cautioning us against the temptation to make our religious actions a showboat.
Jesus, too, is speaking of showboaters. Last week we began our journey with Jesus as his ministry begins with his premier Sermon on the Mount. This week’s Gospel lesson continues that sermon as Jesus begins his warnings to his disciples about the pitfalls that they will encounter – the pitfalls that so many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had fallen into.
Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, … It is no longer good for anything.”
The imagery of salt is one with which Jesus’ audience could relate. Salt is essential to life. It was particularly essential for food preservation in the centuries before refrigeration became common. There is historical evidence of the recognition of the importance of salt for over 8000 years. Wars have been fought, tax rates have been determined, and communities have developed over the availability of salt. In ancient times, roads were built for the specific purpose of transporting salt from seaports to inland areas. Salt was bartered and has frequently been used as currency. Roman legions, were paid in salt; thus, the word “salary” from the original Latin translation of the word “salt.”
In the negative, salt was sprinkled throughout the properties by the victors of defeated nations to prevent plant growth for years to come – rubbing salt on the wound, we might say.
And, from early times, salt has been an important element in religious practices.
Jesus’ reference to salt losing its taste is uncertain; surely, he knew that salt cannot lose its saltiness. Salt can be adulterated by contamination; it can be watered down by the tiniest amount of moisture; it can be misdirected in ways that actually cause damage, but it cannot lose its taste.
Perhaps Jesus was emphasizing that his followers could not lose their faithfulness in the same way that salt cannot lose its taste. Salt cannot lose its taste; we cannot lose our faith. Jesus was directing his words at the religious leaders who had exploited their power to the point of alienating and persecuting those whose spirituality they were charged to protect.
Jesus is warning these leaders and warning us that our faith becomes adulterated when our outward and visible religious rituals lack the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit. When our worship becomes complacent and misdirected, our faith feels watered down. And, worst of all, when we use our religious practices and political opinions to alienate others, we inflict permanent damage on the faith journeys of others who are looking to us outward and visible Christians for guidance toward inward and spiritual grace.
As followers of Christ, we are the salt of the earth. Our worship and our sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. The outward and visible signs lack meaning without the inward and spiritual grace.
We are the salt of the earth. As faithful Christians, we have the capability to bring richness to the spiritual journeys of those we encounter in our daily lives. Conversely, we have the capacity to misdirect and alienate.
It will not be the hands of our bishop that invoke the Holy Spirit upon Claire this morning. God will do that. But, the bishop’s hands will symbolize for Claire, for all those being confirmed, that we brothers and sisters in Christ are present with her this morning through the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – salt that cannot lose its saltiness, faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.