Fifth Sunday after Epiphany; February 6, 2011
The Rev. Marion E. Kanour; Trinity Episcopal Church, Boonsboro
“Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’” --an excerpt from Matthew 5:13-20
There is a long-standing debate about the use of this salt metaphor. It appears in both Matthew and Luke. Some scholars say the authors know salt can’t lose its saltiness—so the metaphor is actually saying, “Remember who you are! You follow Christ. You’re baptized—marked as Christ’s own forever. That’s part of you now, so be the person you’re called to be.” But other scholars say that’s a post-modern perspective that doesn’t take into account the reality of Jesus’ day. Yes, sodium chloride is a stable compound that, in pure form, doesn’t lose its saltiness. But the salt of Jesus’ day wasn’t, for the most part, pure. It was harvested from salt marshes and salt seas and was often sold without being cleaned. As the organic matter containing the salt was removed, that matter was “thrown underfoot”, since it had “lost its saltiness”, since literally the salt had been taken from it. In that case, the metaphor could be saying, “Don’t stray from the essence of what it means to follow Christ. You’ll be of no value to the movement. How can we change the world, if you lose your faith?” Or to quote the other metaphor in today’s gospel reading, “How can we change the world, if you hide your light so no one can see it?” So, one interpretation says, “It’s within you, part of you, can never be separated from you, so act congruently!” The other perspective says, “It’s your choice: follow him or not; but if you don’t follow him you’re wasting your life. Be salty and let your light shine!”
So, does it matter which interpretation you choose? Who cares whether it’s nature or nurture? Does it matter whether the soul incarnates hard-wired to love or is it enough to be able to choose love? Do you believe a mystical transformation takes place at baptism, changing the nature of the baptized so that they are truly Christ’s own forever? Or is baptism simply an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace that we’re free to leave behind without damage to our souls? In others words: are we really free to choose our destiny or does it only seem that way? Does it matter? Aren’t we just going to try to live our lives the best way we can regardless of whether salt can lose its saltiness? Probably. And so, what’s the best way to live our lives? Salty, with our lights shining so all can see, says today’s gospel. Is that true?
Elizabeth VanDeventer of Davis Creek Farm in Nelson County believes it is. She showed me that to me again this past Thursday, as together we took our steer, Elmer, to the meat processing facility in Monroe. He was a companion cow for his cousin, Elsie and was a wonderful protector for Elsie’s calf, Beau. Elsie and Beau are now both at a small, caring dairy farm in Staunton, Virginia. We get milk from there each week, so know first-hand, the loving attention that herd receives. We’re at peace with the destinies of Elsie and Beau. But, then came the hard reality—the destiny for which Elmer, as a steer, had always been headed.
They say never name anything you intend to eat. I say they’re wrong. We loved Elmer for 3 ½ years as fully as we love any of our animals. We really knew Elmer and found joy in his being. But, as a result of letting ourselves love him, it was hard to load him on the trailer. Hard to drive to Monroe. Hard to leave him there with his water and hay, knowing that in the morning, though his end would be quick, he would nonetheless be gone from us. It was because of Elizabeth VanDeventer that the experience, though difficult, will stand as one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Elizabeth has a large farm in Nelson County where she has a herd of beef cattle. They’re grass-fed, humanely-treated and loved by Elizabeth, her husband, Tim, and their three small boys. Each cow in their large herd has a name. And, in time, each steer will go to the meat processing facility to provide income for their family and food for their grateful customers. Elizabeth has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from UNC, Chapel Hill. She has observed farming practices in this country, in France and in Africa and in the process of observing, she was, herself, transformed. She came to realize what native Americans have long known: show care and gratitude to the animal who gives its life for you and you and the animal will both be blessed. No feed lots. No emotional distancing to save yourself from pain. But a willingness to love as fully and openly as possible.
I’d tried to prepare myself for Thursday evening’s event. I talked with Elmer during the day and he let me scratch him behind his ears, nudging me for more attention as I turned to fill his water trough and give him more hay. But when Elizabeth pulled up in her truck and we stood together in the pasture hitching our trailer to her Ford 350, I could feel my anxiety building. Elizabeth noticed and said with calm reassurance, “We’re going to do this together. Put yourself into the work. Don’t think about what you’re doing. Instead, put your heart into it. It’ll help you and it’ll help Elmer.”
It took two hours to load him into the trailer. Each time I grew frustrated or impatient, Elizabeth would say, “We have all night to do this. Let Elmer take his time. You’ve loved him all his life; don’t stop loving him now.” And so, we’d re-group and try a different approach to help Elmer decide to take that step up into the trailer. When at last I truly relaxed and connected with Elmer, instead of connecting with my impatience to be done with it, I suddenly felt a deep gratitude for the animal and gently touched him saying, “Thank you, Elmer.” And then the gentle giant calmly stepped into the trailer. Elizabeth smiled knowingly. I wept.
The drive to the facility was long and by the time we arrived it was very late and cold. There were no other animals present. Late night arrivals simply load the animal into a holding area and early the next morning the animal meets its fate. Elmer wouldn’t leave the trailer. The holding pen was clean, the area well-lighted and there were smells of hay and a nearby cow herd to comfort him. But Elmer was taking his time. Again my impatience surfaced. Again Elizabeth cautioned me saying, “Don’t stop loving him. Honor him even now.” And as I relaxed and spoke gently to him, Elmer lumbered from the trailer into the pen. I thought my heart would break, because now had come the moment I most dreaded—the goodbye. We gave Elmer water and hay. Then Elizabeth took me aside and said, “Give me some time with him and then you come and give him your blessing.” She stood with him for about 20 minutes and then nodded for me to come. I blessed him as I bless all animals on St. Francis Day…and then said goodbye.
I realize not everyone will insist on buying food from farms that treat their animals in the way Elizabeth does. But we will never buy feedlot beef again. I know, first-hand, the difference humane treatment makes in the life of the cow and in the souls of those caring for the cows. It is, I believe, part of what it means to keep your salt salty and to let your light shine. It ‘s how we change the world from a place where animals are viewed as commodities to a place where all God’s creatures are honored.
It can be hard to love, hard to stay salty, hard to let our lights shine when in so doing we make ourselves vulnerable to pain. But without love, all is lost…and we but clanging cymbals. Jesus knew that. So do we. May we choose love as often as we are able. Amen.
Elmer, Beau and Elsie in the following photo:
|Uncle Elmer watching over Beau|