Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus had an unusual way of teaching. He didn't do hour lectures on discipleship. He held no seminars on the challenges of Christian living. He didn't even work himself into the Education Hour or Adult Forum programs of local temples. He simply sat, as did teachers in those days when they had something significant to say, and told stories. We call them parables. And he used available images, common substances and experiences, metaphorically.
In the continuation from last week of the Sermon on the Mount this morning, Jesus teaches in a much simpler fashion that I tend to use even with our young confirmation students:
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." (v. 13). I'd like today simply to explore the depth of this metaphor.
You are the salt of the earth. Some of the meanings of that applied comparison are obvious; others aren't. Salt may be used in a number of ways—as disinfectant, preserver, flavor, or an item of great value, as fertilizer or agent of thirst. Let me take a few moments with each use of salt and how it might yield insight for our Christian lives.
Salt may be used to disinfect. Painful though it might be, "pouring salt into an open wound" is not only painful; it acts as an antiseptic. And Jesus is likely suggesting that this is one of the ways we are intended to behave in the world, casting aside those things and perspectives that tend to infect or steer astray.
For example, as salt, we are called to overcome the cultural values that draw us so cleverly into their web of self-concern. The "successful franchise mentality," a phrase I heard from a colleague while discussing this passage, infects our view both of our churches and of our selves.
We want the church to succeed, in worldly terms. We want it to be a "successful franchise," a prosperous subsidiary of the Culture of God Corporation. We want more, bigger, better.
Individually, we want this successful franchise mentality to carry over into our personal success and well-being. When illness or misfortune or crisis arises, we all too often blame God and wonder whether our faith was good enough or big enough. We might wonder too whether our church is the "real" church, where God is truly present, or if it is perhaps wanting in some way, and therefore unable to provide effective protection.
We may miss the message here by asking the wrong questions. Are we seeking success, or a life with God? Are we founded upon secular principles or mission perspective? Do we hear God calling us to be successful or to be faithful? Do we want to be the loaf or the leaven? It cannot be both. For even Jesus teaches us that a bit later in this sermon on the mount: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave with either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth." (6:24)
Salt is a symbol of disinfecting. It calls us to put aside the poisons of false hopes and misdirected loyalty.
Then there is salt as a preservative. Before nitrites and vacuum packs and freeze drying and refrigerators, salting food was one of few options for preserving it for consumption in leaner times—whether winter or famine. Salt's ability to preserve led ancient Israel to use salt as a metaphor for the longevity of their covenant with God, calling it a "covenant of salt" (Numbers 18:19)
Christians, as "salt," are called to live differently—to preserve what is good and right and true.
In this connection, it is worth noting that salt is overpowering in too great a quantity. In this age of religious pluralism and cultural relativism, I tend to think of the shrinking numbers of Christians as a potentially good thing. Perhaps God is working with us to become a special presence in the world, preserving that element in creation that provides the whole with a salty foretaste of the dominion of God.
As we in our over-salted and -sugared society know all too well, salt also provides flavor. It is the minority of the whole that makes the whole palatable, exciting, seasoned. We have an essential role to play in the mix of ingredients that exist, a role that lends a special savor.
Following an evening meeting recently, I stopped at a convenience store to pick up some milk.
After getting a gallon from the refrigerated section, I got in line behind a woman who appeared to be about thirty-five and who was not well dressed. There was only one clerk at the store. I wondered for a moment what she was planning to purchase, because I could see no food items on the counter. Then I saw the total pop up on the cash register—$110.00. That's when I realized that she was buying lotto tickets. I felt sorry for her, imagining that this was her only hope, and that she really couldn't afford to throw away that or any amount of money.
I saw her as I left, hunched over her receipt in the drivers seat of her car, straining in the dark parking lot to review her numbers before leaving.
We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. So Jesus teaches us. But there was no flavor in that woman's act. No apparent light in her eyes or her heart. No witness to a greater value. Only despair, desperation, darkness, grasping for what she felt she did not have.
I wondered how to be or to witness to the savor of life. The metaphor of salt challenges us to look for and to enhance the extraordinary blessings of life and light.
Salt too, at least in Jesus. day, was a very valuable commodity. Not nearly so common as it is today, salt was even used occasionally as a form of payment, a substitute for money. The root word, in fact, is related to our word, "salary." Our role as salt in the world, then, is to be considered both essential and highly valuable.
When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, he is also telling us that we can be used as fertilizer. Yes, fertilizer. And I mean that as a compliment.
One of the least remembered uses of salt from Jesus' era and for centuries thereafter was as a fertilizer. While we think of excessive salt in soil as one of the negative by-products of modern agriculture, just the opposite was the case for early farmers. Salt was often scattered and worked into the soil in order to enhance the productivity of the land. Indeed as recently as World War II, British farmers compensated for the lack of nitrate fertilizers by once again returning to the ancient tradition of adding salt to croplands for increased fertility.
This use of salt appears to fit most readily with the rest of Jesus' message. Note that Jesus calls his listeners to be the salt of the earth—ground, dirt, soil. As salt in the earth, then, it is the disciple's job to work in that earth, moving within and among it, making the land more productive and fruitful by subtly changing its very character. Christians are called to stimulate the growth of truth and righteousness—to increase the production of goodness in the world. It's an aspect of this metaphor that is, as you may have guessed, very close to my heart, since it works to bring us close to God's good creation.
From a theological perspective, we would consider this part of our vocation—the daily ministry of the people of God. Vocation, remember, is simply God acting through the people of God for the life of the world [an old but good LCA definition]. That statement is particularly significant in its emphasis on the life of the world as the setting for ministry. When ministry gets identified only with the gathered community where clergy have a primary leadership role, folks in the pews (or chairs) tend to identify ministry with what clergy do.
Jesus teaches no such separation of roles for clergy and laity. We are all together the salt of the earth; we share equally in the blessings and callings of the gospel.
The conclusion of a large survey of laity notes: "In spite of accent within recent years on the work of 'the whole people of God,' many in the congregation still view themselves primarily as spectators rather than ones mutually called to share a ministry with others." Or, as one layperson expressed it poignantly: "My task in the church is to show up, sit up, pay up, and shut up." (Carroll, As One With Authority, 89)
Here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus teaches that we are the salt of the earth, that we each have a unique and special calling to be a productive and fertile presence in the world—that we are the priesthood of all believers.
Being salt, fertilizing cultural barrenness, means getting deep beneath the hard-baked surface. It requires mixing things up, turning the top to the bottom again and again until all the old stratifications in the soil have been destroyed. Preachers permanently perched in their pulpits, and congregations glued to their pews, are useless sterile clumps. Indeed the salt that clings to itself forms a toxic zone, as evidenced by the salt runoff from winter highways, instead of fertilizing, it actually poisons the soil around it so that nothing can grow. That is not the body of Christ. That is a carcinoma.
As well as being a kind of soul-enriching fertilizer, salt also makes us thirsty. Airplanes and bars know that putting out free snacks like salty peanuts and pretzels will increase patrons' thirst and thus their drink sales. In the same way the church as salt should stimulate the thirst of others for the good things of God, for the amazing things of the Spirit.
Another use for salt was mentioned a few moments ago.and could hardly be missed, given the recent ice storm. Salt is used on snow and ice in order to melt them and make roads and walkways more passable. You should have seen the parking lot here on Thursday morning, with about an inch of ice covering it and making it rather treacherous. Salt and sand, along with the blessings of a sunny day, melted nearly all of that ice in only a few hours.
I'm fairly sure that this particular use for salt was not on Jesus. mind as he spoke those words on the bank of the Sea of Galilee so long ago. But I also suspect that it would not have offended him to imagine that this too might be a useful part of this metaphor's depth. We too might think of ourselves as agents of safety in the world, looking out for the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that might cause trouble, seeking to melt them away.finding ways to remove them and offer protection.
We have been encouraged, subtly and otherwise, to think of our participation in the life of the church as being equivalent to those things that we do at church. That is much like imagining that what our legislators in the state house do is solely for the benefit of the legislators themselves. What we do at church is "church work," but it is not the "work of the church." The work of the church is in the world, being salt, light, leaven, (disinfectant, preserver, flavor, valuable fertilizer, agent of thirst and protection) bringing our knowledge of God and the Word to bear upon the daily work of commerce, conversation, and community.
It is in our lives in the world, in our daily vocations, that we bring our seasoning potentials to bear. We are the salt of the earth, having received enrichment not our own. We are planters of seeds, being those in whom a seed has taken root. We are the light of the world, shedding a light whose origin is not in ourselves. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.