Sunday, February 05, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 5
Light shines in the darkness for the upright, the psalmist sings. Isaiah declares that when we loose the bonds of injustice and share our bread with the hungry, the light breaks forth like the dawn. In another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the light of the world, calls his followers to let the light of their good works shine before others. Through baptism we are sent into the world to shine with the light of Christ.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 58:1-9a The fast God chooses
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 God’s wisdom revealed through the Spirit
Matthew 5:13-20 The teaching of Christ: salt and light
Sermon: Salt: Active and Precious
When you hear that you are salt, what do you make of it? What does such a pronouncement and label contribute to your ever evolving understanding of the job description for our calling: Disciple of Jesus? You are the salt of the earth, Jesus tells his followers. A role that is now ours to fulfill. Perhaps you, like me, are asking: Could we get a little more information here? Could we get some guidance? After all, salt has a lot of purposes, a lot of tasks it is right for, a lot of roles to play. Which one did Jesus have in mind when he said to those who were following or wanted to follow him: you are the salt of the earth?
I’m guessing our first thought, 21st century disciples that we are, is that salt is a seasoning. It’s there in just about every kitchen, on every table – in homes and in the restaurants. You can get it in little to-go packs at fast food restaurants just in case their sodium soaked food doesn’t have enough salt for you. We use it to flavor food and to bring out the flavor in food. One of those TV chefs is always encouraging cooks to give your pasta water a heavy dose of salt. As he repeats again and again, it’s the one time to give your pasta some flavor. Perhaps that is simply and obviously what Jesus is asking us to do – metaphorically. Bring out the flavor of life. Be that agent that enhances all that is good and that is desired, all that is rich in a broken world that can too often rob life of its sweetness with pain and suffering, hardship and loss. We are told that the joy of the Lord is our strength. This is a joy that is not intended to be kept inside, locked away for your own pleasure. Shake out that joy. Sprinkle it on those around you that they may see the source and their joy might increase. Spice up life, Jesus tells us, ours and those we encounter.
Being that it is winter time, perhaps another use of salt comes to mind fairly quickly. Melting ice and snow. (This may not have been on the minds of those gathered to listen to this sermon on the mountainside in Galilee, but then who says this symbol is locked in time and context. As we explored last week, this is the living word of God. Symbols evolve and gain meaning and significance in changing times and contexts.) But back to ice melt. Chemically speaking (if I remember correctly from high school chemistry class), the sodium in salt lowers the freezing temperature of water. So that when you sprinkle it on those icy sidewalks, the ice melts. So perhaps when Jesus calls us salt of the earth he is calling his followers to be the melting agent. To be the ones who reach out to the cold hearted, to the frozen-stuck, to the ones so cold that no one else goes near them. Perhaps your smile, or your Good Morning, your Please and Thank You can help to melt away their frozen shell of protection. Maybe our listening ear, open to the one who is cold with thoughts that one listens or whose progress is blocked with an ice jam that will be broken through if they can just talk it out. Be the melting agent, Jesus tells us, so that all might be warmed by the love of God we share.
Now if we were not 21st century folks, if we were living in a time before refrigeration, then one of our first thoughts about the uses of salt would be preserving things, keeping meats and other foods from spoiling. With salt, the goodness and the health of the food is retained so that all may enjoy, all may be strengthened and satisfied. There is much that spoils our life together, that robs us of the goodness and nourishment. Some things: sickness and death, we often can do nothing about. But spoiling forces like: greed, corruption, racism, sexism, oppression, xenophobia, homophobia, too often spoil the lives of, if not us, certainly those around us. Those who are robbed of the enjoyment of this gift of life, who grow weak from a lack of spiritual and societal nourishment, who continue to be handed spoilage and told to make something of it. And then are blamed when they cry out in hunger. As salt of the earth, we are being called to preserve that which is good, that which is right, that which is just for all people. Be that preserving agent, Jesus tells us, so that all might be satisfied.
After some recent dental work, my doctor prescribed a salt water rinse. He said to take some warm water, and a little salt and then swash it around in my mouth. He told me to do this three or four times a day. He said you can’t do this enough. If you think you’ve done it plenty, do it again, he encouraged and pleaded. Salt cleanses. It can wash away infection and prevent it. Used as a scrub it can wash away dead cells that obstruct healthy skin. (Didn’t know you’d be getting beauty tips this morning, did you?) Salt, when applied, is a cleansing agent. When applied. It has to agitate, it has to rub up against, it is to aggravate, so that the infection is released, that which is destructive and/or dead is removed. (But it must be applied where the trouble lies – whether that application be in our own sinful self, or in this sinful world. As salt we are called to speak truth to ourselves (we call it confession) and to abusive and oppressive power. Tiny grains though they be, when applied to the right spot, can have wonderfully healthy results. Be that purifying agent, Jesus tells us, personally and prophetically.
A good salt bath can also provide soothing for aching bodies and sore muscles. Be a healing agent, Jesus tells us, bringing peace to the world
Spicing, melting, preserving, cleansing and healing. We are the salt of the earth, Jesus tells us, Jesus calls us, Jesus commissions us. And yet, Jesus also blesses us with this pronouncement. This salty statement comes right after those humble-lifting beatitudes that we heard last week. Those inverting statements in which the lowly and meek, the poor in spirit and the merciful are told they are blessed. So perhaps it seems a bit strange and jarring to suddenly hear: “Now get to work, you grains of salt.”
Perhaps his pre-resurrection, pre-church hearers heard it differently, heard the blessing that we might miss when we focus on discerning and fine tuning our job description. For in their time, they knew salt to be a highly valued commodity. It was said that a bag of salt was as precious as one’s life. While those listening to Jesus were treated like worthless dust by the occupying forces –the Romans, and those that collaborated with them – the religious leaders, Jesus continued to use the language of blessing and told the people sitting on the hillside that they were most valued. And while the powers that be forced the payment of heavy tax, and the total adherence to the full weight of the law, Jesus said, a little bit goes a long way, just a pinch of what God has made you to be flavors the whole pot. (Later he’ll talk about mustard seeds in the same way.) And while harsh treatment by their overlords sought to rob them of their identity, Jesus encouraged them to never forget that they are salt, precious and flavor-full in the eyes of God, because if they forget it, they will feel of no more value than the dust under foot that the world wants them to be.
Yes, there is a lot of work for us salty ones to embrace. As individuals we don’t have to do it all. Some may specialize in one salt role or another. That’s why we are called to live together in this salt shaker we call the church, though many, we are one in Christ. Though the body has many parts, thought the gifts vary, we are together the body of Christ, we are gifted and united by the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, we are also unified in our preciousness with which God blesses us as his baptized children. So highly valued that God sent the Son, to spice up our lives with love, to melt away our ice with compassion, to preserve us with hope in this life and the next, and to cleanse and soothe us with grace. Embrace your beloved and valued saltiness, for Jesus blesses us, by naming us salt. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, live your saltiness, for Jesus calls us, and the world needs salt.
The Rev. Mark Erson,