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June 25, 2017

 “You Are Salt. You Are Light”

Matthew 5:13-16

 

Today’s famous two-part saying by Jesus comes just after his challenging list of Beatitudes, which we have gone through over the last two weeks. This next section, a two part saying is in affect a summation of what has come before, - to help the poor who are crushed by their poverty, to comfort those who mourn, to be meek, to hunger for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure, to make peace and to be strong in the midst of persecution. These are the marching instructions for Jesus’ followers in his first sermon, and they are ours as well.

 

In summing up this section of his sermon, Jesus said two things. First, “You are the salt of the earth; let’s begin by focusing upon this statement. What did Jesus mean by telling us we are salt? I would like to share with you some of the characteristics of salt to see if we can find Jesus’ meaning here.

 

We begin with a little history about salt, which is something we take for granted these days.

Some of the earliest evidence of salt processing dates back to around 6,000 years ago, when Neolithic people living in Romania were boiling spring water to extract the salts; a salt works in China has been found which dates to approximately the same period. Salt was prized by the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Hittites and the Egyptians. Salt became an important article of trade and was transported by boat across the Mediterranean Sea, along specially built salt roads, and across the Sahara in camel caravans.  In the Middle East, salt was used to ceremonially seal an agreement, and the ancient Hebrews made a "covenant of salt" with God and sprinkled salt on their offerings to show their trust in their Creator.(, Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5) Salt was a very valuable resource in ancient times.  What can salt be used for today?

 

First of all, salt gives flavor to food. Salt makes food taste better. I love popcorn with a bit of butter. But it just doesn’t taste right without some salt. In fact, when a piece of popcorn that is unsalted falls to the ground, our dog Angus tends to ignore it!  I can remember both of my parents putting salt on melons in the summer. They claimed it brought out the flavor more. So one of the things Jesus was saying was that those of us who claim his name should add flavor to the world wherever we live and work and play- We too should make the world taste better. When we help the poor who are crushed by their poverty, comfort those who mourn, live in meekness, hunger for righteousness; when we are merciful, pure, make peace and are strong in the midst of persecution-we are salt. The Beatitudes bring a new flavor into a bland, cold, uncaring world. 

 

For dietary reasons, many people are on a low salt or no salt diet. Is anyone out there in the congregation on a low or no salt diet? Too much salt in a diet can lead to all kinds of problems- hypertension, high blood pressure, heart attacks, etc. Sometimes for individuals, a salty diet is the last thing they need. But Jesus’ words today are meant for the world- The world has been on a low salt diet for a while now- not a lot of comforting, mercy, purity, peace, and hope out there these days. So in this case, an increase in salt is a prescription that can bring flavor to and save the world’s life.

 

A second characteristic of salt is that it keeps food from spoiling. It is a preservative. Salt has been used for thousands of years to preserve food. So then, according to Jesus, Christians are to be preservers of life, from birth to death into eternity. We should preserve life by advocating and demonstrating Christ’s love and his justice. Life in this world spoils and begins to decay when some people have too much power and others have too little, when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. By working to overcome these disparities, Christians arrest the decay. We preserve life. A tangible example of this is this congregation’s dedication to mission- both local and global mission work. When we send folks to the border of Syria to work with refugees; when we send people to Jamaica for dental mission work; when we open our doors to those in need through our community dinners and through our homeless shelter, when we donate food to the food bank, we are salt-we preserve life.

 

 

The third thing that is true about salt is that a little bit can go a long way. Paula often complains that I put too much salt on popcorn. You really don’t need a lot of salt to make a difference in the taste of things. Consider that Jesus began his ministry with just a bit of salt- 12 disciples. Those disciples eventually lost their saltiness and turned away from Jesus one by one, until at his arrest and crucifixion, only he was left - one grain of salt which neither pain nor suffering nor even death could destroy. With his resurrection, he began re seasoning the world. First, the disciples were re-seasoned and became salt whose flavor and power could no longer be taken away. And through them, others were seasoned with the salt of Christ. The seasoning process continues, as there are now an estimated 3.5 billion Christians worldwide. And although the church is shrinking here in the U.S. It is growing exponentially worldwide, especially in the southern hemisphere. Although our P.C.U.S.A. denomination is down to about 1.7 million adherents in the U.S., it is estimated that there are more than 25 million Presbyterians worldwide.

 

Now let us move on to the second part of the salt saying. “But if salt has lost its flavor, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by others.”  There are some who say that salt cannot lose its flavor; that Sodium Chloride (NaCl) will always taste like salt. That may be true of modern day salt, but theologian and historian James M Freeman says, "Salt produced by the evaporation of seawater in hot countries is said sometimes to lose its saline properties. The same result is also sometimes seen in impure rock salt that has long been exposed to the air. When such is the case there can nothing be done with it but to throw it out into the highway, where men and beasts trample it down." (Manners & Customs of the Bible by James M. Freeman, page 335)

 

Like salt in some cases, we disciples can lose our flavor. Our faith can be less tasty. How do we lose our saltiness? We lose our saltiness when we lack connection to a worshiping body, to other people of faith. We lose our saltiness when we don’t act on our faith and make a difference in the world.  We lose our saltiness when we don’t study scripture or pray consistently. We lose our saltiness when we do not fellowship with other Christians, when we “get out of the habit” of attending church.

 

 

In time we lose our flavor and blend in with the rest of the world, and our faith in Christ becomes good for nothing. What good is it to be salt and lose its flavor? What good is it to have faith in God but do nothing with it? Don’t let that happen to you. Keep on being seasoned by your participation in the church’s worship, prayer, fellowship, service and study. Season the world with your saltiness for life. Season the earth as an advocate for what is just and right and honorable.

 

Next comes Jesus’ second important saying. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men or women light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.” Light is good, and is used for the image of God throughout scripture. “The people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light: They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” “God is light, and in God is no darkness at all.” (Isaiah 9:2, 1 John 1:5). We cannot find our way without light; we cannot see God or our neighbor without light.

 

We talked at length about this part of Jesus’ teaching at the Back Porch Bible study last Tuesday. A couple of folks spoke about feeling the need at times to hide our lights under bushels-in conversations with other friends, or in trying to share a point from a Christian perspective in the midst of a philosophical discussion- with the way Christians have been portrayed in media as non-thinking, science fearing and homophobic, it can be a little difficult these days to want to shine our light before others.

 

Bill Sager shared a story about working at a hospital founded by a number of Protestant churches in Pakistan, a heavily Muslim nation. He mentioned that the staff was a combination of Christians and Muslims, and that there was a big cross up on top of the hospital. Apparently, there were lights directed towards the cross, so that come nightfall, the cross would be lit, shining the symbol of Christ throughout the community. The Pakistani Christians, however, were nervous about having the lights turned on. They didn’t want the cross to shine, which might cause anger among their Muslim friends and coworkers. It was preferable to have the cross in the dark in Pakistan.

 

And yet Jesus is calling us to bring light into the darkness, to be lights that turn away the shadows.  What does it mean to be light to the world? We can be light in many different ways. Christian Author Joni Eareckson Tada writes, “Some Christians are like candles: they glow with a warmth that draws people to them. Then again, you have the flashlight sort of believers who seem to be able to look right through you. Christians with the gift of teaching remind me of reliable, steady light bulbs-dispelling darkness, showing things for what they truly are. Then there are the laser types, cutting right through the tomfoolery and getting things done. Lighthouse people have a way of leading others out of the darkness and guiding them back to safety.”

 

What kind of light are you? Does it shine before others? Does it shine only when convenient or only when there is little cost? We are called to shine our lights in whatever form they are, to shine all the time in the darkness around us. We are called to share God’s hope, love, mercy and justice with a dark, hopeless, loveless, merciless and unjust world. 

 

In conclusion, Rev. Carols E. Wilton wrote, “Notice Jesus doesn't say, "Go out and *be* the light of the world." He uses present tense: "You *are* the light of the world." It's as though he's saying, "Like it or not, you already *are* light. Same thing with salt. You are the salt of the earth... The creator‑God has placed within you a fire, a yearning for righteousness, a chance to show our faith in what we do and what we say, in how we treat others ... That fire can be a beacon for others, pointing the way to God. The salt can be the spice of life, bringing flavor to a bland world.

 

 

A wise old rabbi by the name of Zusia was speaking to one of his colleagues. He predicted, "When I appear before the judgment seat of God, I will not be asked, 'Why weren't you Moses?' Or 'Why weren't you Abraham?' I will be asked 'Why weren't you Zusia?"- Jesus didn’t say to us, you can become salt; you can become light. He said plain and simply, “YOU ARE salt. YOU ARE light.” God calls us to be who we are- to be salt and light, to be the authentic children of God we were created to be.  May we go from this place, bringing flavor and brightness wherever we go. Alleluia. Amen.

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