Salt and Light
Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Feb 5, 2017
On Tuesday morning I'm Panama bound, 10 days exploring all things, mountains, oceans (plural), and, of course the canal. Panama has been on my list for years, so in preparation I'm re-reading David McCullough's monumental tome, "The Path Between the Seas, the Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914." Out of 648 pages I'm on page 54. Like I said, I've read this before but, I don't know about you, I've forgotten it all. So it's like reading it for the first time. Maybe I've been to Panama before and have forgotten that too! Thank-you for reading Isaiah 58 so beautifully today, but you know what I'm going to say... I'm not going to preach on Isaiah 58 today, except to say that 6th century B.C. Isaiah's writings could not be more relevant! Worship and work need to match! As you worship on your Sabbaths and feast days, the liturgy of your worship must line up with the work of your lives. So writes Isaiah of God, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your home?" Worship mirrors work. Regular days reflect worship days.
Lots of sermons there, but not today. Rather we look together this morning to Matthew's Gospel. I wish to focus only on verses 13-16 of this 5th chapter - early in this first of five sermons in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount.
We said last week that the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, begins with Jesus seeing the vast crowds coming to hear his preaching one day. Jesus climbed a mountain near Galilee, sat down, as a rabbi of his day would. His disciples gathered around and Jesus, the consummate teacher, began to speak eight or nine "blessed sayings," "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed," or "happy," as one version translates "blessed," "happy are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." We said eight or nine "blessed sayings" depending on whether the last two blessings are really one blessing.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." To these "blessed ones" Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven, Jesus promises comfort, the earth as their inheritance, fulfilled satisfaction, mercy, the sight of God and adoption by God as God's children. So begins this Sermon.
Today I, briefly, in preparation for the Lord's Supper, wish to talk about you - you and me and two realities. Jesus said to his disciples living and serving in first century Galilee and to his disciples living and serving in the 21st century, the Conejo Valley or Burbank, that we are two realities. As Jesus finishes his "blessed sayings" being a blessing to those who receive them with an earnest heart, he turns to his disciples and says, "You are the salt of the earth, " or as the New English Bible has it, "You are salt to the world." What does salt to? Two things: salt is first of all a seasoning. Salt seasons food. Salt brings out the good flavor of food. Salt can distinguish and accent and articulate the flavor of food. Moreover, it doesn't take a lot of salt to flavor food, does it? Sometimes just a pinch of salt will do it. Now that must have been an amazing, almost unbelievable statement for those disciples to hear, "You are the salt of the earth." You, as disciples of Jesus, can influence the world for good! Remember, Jesus had just finished describing these disciples as "poor" and "meek" and "mourners" and those "mercy loving ones," "peacemakers." Yet the disciples' world was a world ruled by war and evil. What good influence could this small minority of those righteous seeking folk - whom St. Francis would later call the "little brothers - whose only weapon was purity of heart wield? How could they be salt, seasoning, to the whole world? Yet Jesus didn't share this skepticism and questioning. Rather, Jesus positively preaches "You disciples, salt and seasoning disciples, change the world for good!"
In the next breath Jesus said, "Yet if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" Now strictly speaking, salt can never lose its saltiness. I am given to understand that sodium chloride is a very stable compound. Sodium chloride is resistant to nearly every attack, yet it can be contaminated by impurities. Salt can be diluted by other powers. It has been noted that what the gospels called "salt" contained pure salt, yes, but it was also a mixture of white powder found around the Dead Sea. There were no refineries. The sodium chloride portion of the white powder was the most soluble component, so it was most easily washed out. So this washed out white powder looked like salt, was called salt, but contained no seasoning. It became just "road dust." You are the salt of the earth but don't become "unsalty salt," said Jesus Otherwise you will be "thrown out" and trampled under foot." That kind of salt is no good for anything. Salt was and is a seasoning.
So "unsalty salt" means that people of Christian faith make no difference in the world. We don't share our faith in the Word, and we don't live our faith in deed. How do we share our faith in the Word? Invite a family member or a neighbor to the Alpha Class... this is the last day to jump in at 12:30 today. How do we share our faith in deed? Share a soup can with Manna, server a meal to our guests on Wednesday evenings or a movie or sleep overnight. Write a congress person if we like, or don't like, what happens in our state or national governance. Believers, "salty believers," add the seasoning of the gospel to the world in word and in deed.
Secondly, salt was and is a preservative. Jesus as a boy must have watched his mother use salt on meat or fish (probably mostly fish up in Galilee). It was centuries before any refrigeration; it was not a part of the world with access to ice, so salt preserved food, preserved food that otherwise would decay. Salt was and is a preservative. That means that the world left to itself, by itself will decay like rotten fish or meat. Now God has set restraining influences in the world like good government and good laws. And these exert a wholesome influence in the world. Yet here in this salt sermon, Jesus is saying that the most powerful restraint against injustice in society is to come from the redeemed of God, the regenerate of Christ, the righteous of the Spirit: you and me as followers of Jesus. You, we, are the world's seasoning; you, we, are the world's preservative. How are you going to live as salt in your office or home or as a responsible citizen of the world this week? You are salt.
Philip Newell, one time spiritual director of the Iona community in the west of Scotland, wrote a little book called "Listening for the Heartbeat of God." Newell notes that followers of Jesus, acting as preserving salt in creation, are really calling back creation and justly preserving the created order, original goodness of the writer of Genesis - "Then God said, 'Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind,' and God saw that it was good." So when the believer helps heal the bay or replant the forest after a fire or buys an electric car, she is bringing creation back to its original state, a state of goodness - preservation. When the believer in Jesus looks into the eyes of a child and works for justice and Shalom for that child, when we peer past dirt and bruises of the world's bumps and tumbles, and we see the image of God in humanity, and when we see all of that, and seek to restore and preserve all that, said the Genesis writer, it is "very good." Religious leaders of Conejo, Simi, and Oxnard gathered at the Islamic Center last Thursday full of hope because we reclaimed the truth that humanity, all humanity, is made in that divine likeness, the "imago dei," the image of God, and therefore, must be cherished, protected, and preserved - "You are the salt of the earth."
The second reality of Jesus's disciples is, "You are the light of the world." One of the "lights" of New Testament scholarship lived in mid 20th century. His name was Joachim Jeremias. Before he became a brilliant writer and professor, he lived in Jerusalem, grew up there, and would travel up to Galilee as a boy, and from Tiberius on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jeremias could see lights of the ten cities seven miles on the other side of the lake. Jeremias wrote in his commentary on Matthew that Jesus as a boy also looked across the lake as it was growing dark, and he could see the lights of the ten cities, the Greek Decapolis, lighting up in the darkness. Jesus would have seen these early community lights with his disciples. So be lights of the world, said Jesus. "A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp, puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. You are the light of the world." So Jesus concludes, "Let your light shine before others." We are not to be like a town or village nestled by a valley, surrounded by trees so on one can see us. We rather are like a city built upon a hill, like those ten shining cities across a sea that we can see seven miles away! Be that kind of lamp, be that kind of shining light that gives light to all of the house. Jesus said later, "I am the light of the world." So as a good Christian, it is not our light that is the source of light, rather it is the light of Christ shining through us. I love to look at the moon at night. Especially if it is nearly full. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking, "Look at the moon's beautiful moonlight." And yet we all know the moon has no light itself. It's a very dark place. Our sun gives the moon its light. So we Christians reflect the light of Christ, and when others see that light, said Jesus, they will give glory to your Father in heaven.
Salt and light. That is our ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church. To be salt: give the world seasoning and help stop its decay. To be light: give the world an alternative to darkness by spreading truth, beauty, and goodness. Salt is found in our Christ like justice keeping the original goodness of creation. Light is found in Christ like sharing the good news. What is the good news on this fifth Sunday after Epiphany? Said Isaiah, it is sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into our homes, covering those who have nothing to wear and calling on God and in Jesus Christ, hearing God say "Here I am." "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life." May we have that life as we share in this table of grace.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the mediation of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to God, through Jesus Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Westminster Presbyterian Church