it’s a metaphor!

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My sermon this week grew out of three verses where Jesus talks about seeing ourselves as salt and light, and his words set me thinking about metaphors, particularly the metaphors we use to understand who we are. Thanks for reading. The sermon title gives me reason to also add if you have not subscribed to my weekly newsletter mixing metaphors, I wish you would. It is free and it comes out every Tuesday.

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For about a decade of my life I taught high school English.

Those three words–high school English–may cause a visceral response for some of you. Perhaps I should have given a trigger warning before I began. Some of us were fortunate to have good teachers–mine was Ms. Morse for senior English–while some of us felt like we were being severely punished for forty-five minutes every day. Algebra was the place that felt like that for me, but that’s a story for another time.

Today let’s talk about metaphors.

When I first started teaching, I dreaded the poetry unit because I remembered how poetry was taught to me, which was we cornered the poem in a corner of the room and wrestled all the meaning out of it, tearing it apart word by word. Neither we nor the poem survived the experience well.

I didn’t want to do that because by the time I had begun teaching, I had learned to love poetry–and not because I could interpret it. I loved it because of the images–the metaphors–that helped me find ways to talk about how life felt to me.

I taught for seven years at Charlestown High School in Boston. Seventy percent of my students were nonnative English speakers. About the same time, I learned of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye through her poem entitled “Famous.” Listen to her words.

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

I read it for the students a couple of times with the text in front of them, and then I asked different ones to read it. Then we began to talk about what lines spoke to them, and then we asked how the poem affected what we thought it meant to be famous: the river is famous to the fish; the tear is famous to the cheek; the cat is famous to the birds watching from the birdhouse.

The poet wasn’t talking about being famous like a movie star, but saw being famous as another way of saying connected or vital or important: the bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it. What she was saying about how we make our place in the world sounds a lot like the metaphors Jesus used in today’s passage: you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

His poetry, if you will, asks us to stop and think about what it means to be salt and light because he wasn’t speaking literally. Like Marisa Tomei said in the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny, “It’s a metaphor!”

And here’s the place where I don’t want to turn this sermon into a bad poetry lesson by beating the life out of the metaphors. Instead of spending the next several minutes examining all the ways we can be salt and light, please sit for a moment and see how those images land for you. Jesus didn’t go into much detail, he just painted the images and let people take them in.

What does it mean to you to be the salt of the earth, or maybe just the salt of Mount Carmel?

What does it mean to you to be the light of the world, or at least the light of Whitney Avenue?

Let me ask it this way: Who do you think of when I say salt of the earth and light of the world? Who do you know that exemplifies those things?

Now, is there anyone who is willing to share their thoughts with the class?

As I worked with these verses this week, each time I looked at these metaphors I saw faces rather than concepts. I thought of my friend Leon who flavors the life of those around him with encouragement and hope. I thought of Abby who works at the coffee shop across the street from our house and who asks people what they want to drink in a way that makes them feel like that cup of coffee is going to change their day. I think of my goddaughter Julia and her wife Shelby who both work as child therapists, helping kids who live with trauma find their footing, the way salt on the sidewalk keeps us from slipping on the ice. I think of my friend Angela, who is an amazing singer and choir leader and has led a group called Shoreline Soul for twenty years, inviting people into the joy of singing gospel music.

The faces and stories tell us so much more about salt and light that any words studies or linguistic analyses. I think that is the reason Naomi Shihab Nye closes out her poem by saying,

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

Instead of defining famous, she pointed to it in those around her. Jesus did kind of the same thing–well, I guess since he did it first, we could say it was his idea. To be salt and light is to be the one who smiles and smiles back, the one who helps, the one who listens, the one who shows up, the one who does what they do best: be themselves.

What metaphors define our lives? How do we see ourselves in the world?

The questions are not rhetorical. The metaphors we choose shape the way we look at the world and how we see ourselves in it. For example, as a nation, war is a primary metaphor for America. We have had a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs. The image conveys the crucial nature of the issues, and wars have casualties and collateral damage. If war is a metaphor, then we are always looking for an enemy. How might the way we deal with poverty and drugs—and the people affected by them—be different if we didn’t think we were at war?

How are our personal metaphors shaping us? What new metaphors do we need? When we expand our vocabulary, we create new ways of looking at the world.

As we share Communion this morning, we lean into the metaphors of the bread and the cup–images of sustenance and sacrifice, as well as pictures of connectedness and solidarity. We remember who we are and who we want to become. We come to the table where everyone belongs, where everyone can eat and drink, where we sit alongside everyone who has ever taken this meal and everyone who will come after us. We are famous to God at this table, just as God is famous to us.

We will pass the elements to one another, serving the meal and being served, as though it has cosmic consequences–and it does because we are all in this together. We are not at war; we are at supper.

Come, let us go to the table. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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