Have Salt in Yourselves

By Jane Lancaster Patterson

For a month or so, I’ve been hearing a Great Horned Owl hooting from the tops of the trees in my yard at dusk. I’ve been overcome by a desire to see him. How big is he? What’s he doing up there? Like a spy in my own back yard, I’ve learned how to open my back door without a sound, and move ever so slowly across the yard. Or else I try to beat him at his game altogether by sitting at a table under the trees before he gets going.

As soon as he hoots, I lift my binoculars toward the sound, and try to bring him into focus. As you know, with binoculars, you really have to have a sense for the distance that you want to focus on. So I start near. No, he’s not in these branches. I shift the focus a little further back. Still no owl. These guys are huge. He should be easy to see, if I can just gauge about where he is among the oak limbs and leaves and ball moss. I’m looking for a gigantic dark shape. Many a night I’ve heard a beautiful serenade of low hoots with intermissions of silence, but seen no owl.

This morning, we run into Jesus and his closest followers at home in Capernaum. This is the same day we heard about last week, when the disciples were embarrassed to admit that they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. This morning, speaking for the rest of the group, and perhaps trying to recover his dignity, John lodges a complaint that there is a guy out there who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “and he is not following us,” he adds. Note that his upset is not that the man isn’t following Jesus, but that he isn’t following us. This stranger used the power of Jesus’ name to do something that Jesus would do, but he isn’t following us, isn’t acknowledging our authority as the real friends of Jesus.

I thought about this issue when Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress. He is not a follower of ours. But he is a follower of Jesus Christ, and I think what he was attempting to do was pretty much what the stranger was doing in Galilee in Jesus’s name: casting out demons. Most of us don’t actually think immediately of exorcising demons when we think of the ministry of Jesus. We think about the miraculous feedings, the healings of sight and hearing. We think of “take up your mat and walk.” We think of “Son, your sins are forgiven” and “your faith has made you well.” But we skip over the regular rhythm of exorcisms that are really the repeated motif of Jesus’ actions, perhaps because we have no framework for understanding what they were about. But in order to understand the ministry of Jesus, and perhaps the ministry of Pope Francis, or even our own ministry, we really have to come to grips with this regular practice of casting out demons.

And that is where my Great Horned Owl comes in. Like trying to get a good look at a Great Horned Owl in a tree-filled suburban backyard, getting Jesus in focus means figuring out exactly where he stands, the scope and the scale of his work. Too often, we focus on him way up close. We see the dusty hem of his woolen garment as it is touched by a woman in the crowd. We see his look of compassion as he locks eyes with a demented man in a synagogue. These close-up views inspire our love and devotion, while at the same time they mask the larger scale of Jesus’ work, and its true object. Jesus was the originator of what is meant by the bumper sticker popular in the 1970s: “Think globally, act locally.”

The Gospels portray Jesus consistently acting locally: healing this man in the tattered tunic, this woman with the tear-stained face, proclaiming the inestimable value of this forgotten child with the swollen and empty belly. But if we focus only on the small-scale, we will miss the fact that his true object is global, and much of his work is intended to shake the foundations of the larger-scale political powers that held God’s people in thrall in the first century. Jesus brought to public attention the manifold ways in which people at the bottom of the social scale were held hostage, bound up, paralyzed by the Roman economic system that was developed to serve those already at the top of the economic pyramid. Time after time, the release of people from harmful demonic possession is a dramatic pantomime of God’s liberation of the poor from Rome’s unjust occupation of Israel. That is why the authorities had Jesus crucified. And that is why God raised him.

Though some people were wishing that Pope Francis had restricted his remarks to the purely religious realm (whatever that would be), in his speech to Congress he reached deeply into American history and American identity to free us from our possession by a set of values that are not really traditionally ours: possession by selfishness, possession by the urgency to set wealth as a goal rather than an instrument, possession by blindness to the consequences of our economic policies in the lives of workers, possession by willful deafness to the suffering of the creation. Francis called us back to ourselves, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” to work for the liberty of all — liberty and well-being for the creation, for the foreigner in our midst, for young people and the elderly, in every dimension of life — economic, political, private, religious — with unstinting wisdom, entrepreneurial creativity, and courage.

Most of Pope Francis’s speech called us back as a people to our own free selves, unpossessed by the demons of greed and self-justification, to honor our history by emulating some of our heroes. Focused clearly on Jesus and his wide-scale salvation, Pope Francis sought to remind us of who we really are so that we could slip free of our spiritual bondage and claim our true identity as Americans and as followers of Jesus. As Jesus said to his disciples at the end of one conversation: “You are salt. Salt is good. Be salt, then!”

In essence, Jesus’ habit of thinking globally and acting locally leaves us with the need to wear bifocals if we are going to see him clearly. Up close, we see him in a tiny stone house by the Sea of Galilee with his small group of disciples clustered close about him, maybe popping a briny olive into his mouth as they tell him of their worry that someone who isn’t following them is curing people of demonic possession.

But when we look through the other lens, and the larger framework of Jesus’ life and ministry comes into startling focus, we see how this man is rattling the people in power, how his unbinding of the poor unsettles their economic systems, how his disregard for the boundaries between Jew and Gentile threatens all their social maps, how his impending resurrection points directly to the power of God to bring to life and light and hope to all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, no matter who thinks otherwise.

As for us, called to be American salt, let us also be bifocal. Let us hope that the way we earn and spend money is connected to the way we serve a meal at Haven for Hope; that the way we listen to our children read is connected to the way we vote for the education of everyone’s children; that the freedom we possess is the freedom we feel impelled to offer to the stranger in our midst.

I finally got to see my owl. He wasn’t in a tree at all. He was so much higher up, at the top of the electrical pole on the fence line. Even from far below him I could see that he was much bigger than I had imagined. From his high perch, he could see our whole neighborhood and maybe beyond. I watched him as he hooted, putting his whole body into it, leaning forward, giving it his all. Amen.

The Rev. Jane Lancaster Patterson is associate professor of New Testament and director of community care at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.

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