"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Salt of the World

Matthew 5.13-20

The Sunday school teacher had just finished the lesson. She had taught the portion of the Bible that told of how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Liam raised his hand. “My mum looked back once when she was driving and she turned into a telegraph pole!

Ah, salt. Good old Sodium Chloride. Even though humans require a certain amount of salt for survival, most of us take in too much, and ingesting excessive amounts has been linked to major health problems. Individuals who eat too much salt are at a risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even stomach cancer. A friend and I were talking about food over lunch yesterday and we both acknowledged low salt diets. I don’t know about you but we no longer add salt to cooking, haven’t done since I can’t remember when, and there’s almost a sharp intake of breath if a guest asks for it now. Those of us trying to eat healthily quickly learn the need to limit daily salt intake to an amount equal to one teaspoonful.

Salt is very inexpensive in our culture. In addition to small amounts of salt for the table, we buy it in big bags for use in the dishwasher or on icy pavements and by the lorry load to melt ice on motorways.
Of course, the way in which modern people view salt – abundant everywhere – is very different from those of centuries ago. In Biblical times salt was rare, hard to obtain, and considered a very precious commodity. Perhaps we can better understand why Jesus used the image in today’s gospel story: “You are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus used an analogy people could easily understand to let them know he expected something extraordinary from them for the sake of God. He placed a high value on his followers and on what he required of them – just as the first-century culture placed a very high value on salt. He taught his followers to act for God in ways as important and varied as salt was in their world. For us today the meaning has lost a lot of its impact because of how easily available salt is to us.

Now I don’t know about you but I’ve heard this story of Jesus’ countless times and when I was mulling this morning over I was asking myself what the salt analogy means for us. What is the practical application?
It sort of works like this: salt does such-and-such/has such-and- such qualities therefore we, as latter-day Disciples, should also do such-and-such/have such-and-such a quality.

Right: over to you. Let’s see if your minds are working in tandem with mine. There’s a piece of paper and a pen on the seat by you. Just jot down a couple of qualities of salt that Jesus wanted us to emulate.

For Flavour: Salt brings flavour to food. I came across someone else's sermon on this topic: “Christian faith can provide spiritual seasoning that gives life joy and meaning. To keep life from being bland and unrewarding, we season it with Christian commitment and understanding of God’s love for his children. Being salt to the world means adding flavour to life wherever and whenever possible. It means adding a zestful spirit to life and love. It means pursuing meaning in all we do and in all we encounter. It means acting in love with all whom we touch.”

So, that last bit’s not mine. I read it in a commentary and thought, “How true but how unutterably twee! Sounds lovely but how do you do it?” Right. Let’s try that again. What do I - and what do you - add to the world around us by being “salt”? I make a difference. I make a change because I’m new to the receipt, if you like. There is impact just by virtue of the fact that I am there when I wasn’t before.

I remember going out for a meal with Rachel once and ordering crab chowder. It was inedible because it was so salty. Let’s be clear: if we're not careful, the change we bring isn’t necessarily positive and we can be too much in certain circumstances. Too brash, too in-your-face in our religious certainties; too lacking in sensitivity to the needs of those around us; too unaware of where people already are in their searching for spirituality and answers. That restaurant got the receipt wrong and the food was a disaster. Let’s not forget the optimum amount of salt: it seasons. It doesn’t dominate or we shall be a disaster in God’s name in our turn.

When I was a great deal younger I was very much in awe of a group of other young Christians. They seemed to have got it all sown up: they were slick operators and incredibly holy but entirely humourless. Theirs, I realised, was not a joyful faith. It was a legalistic piety and they wound people up. I look back on it now and it was a little like I imagine Iran to be, with its religious police. Those young people were the God squad and I sometimes wonder whether they caused more damage in the name of Jesus than they caused good.
On the Yorkshire Ministry Course we were taught about mission. The one thing that really struck me from that module was the idea of Missio Dei – God’s mission. We take the initiative from God: we see where he is already at work and we join in in whatever way we can. We become the additional flavour in that situation. Mission flows from God: too many people take their own initiative, albeit on God’s behalf, but they overpower the recipe because they’re trying to lead God and not follow.

To Purify: Back to the sermon I read ; “In Jesus’ day, salt was often connected with purity. The Romans believed that salt was the purest of all things, because it came from pure things: the sun and the sea. It was used by the Jews to purify their offerings to God. If we modern Christians are to be the salt of the earth, we must accept a pure and high standard in speech, thought, and behaviour – keeping ourselves unspotted by the world’s self-centeredness. Jesus calls us to be a cleansing presence, constantly witnessing to the good that is found in God and the values of God’s realm.”

Again, faultless logic and a wonderful idea to work towards.

I know what is being got at here but it sounds a bit self-righteous. I think there are people in Tahir Square, Cairo right now who have understood this aspect of salt – it’s purity. They stand up to violence, injustice and intimidation, as do those who protest against countless acts of governments, both overt and covert around the world, against right-wing and fascist groups; against abuses both public and private. Think of those folk who turned out on the streets of Luton yesterday to protest against the English Defense League. To me that’s more about moral purity than swanning around being ever so Christian, like the old God Squad used to do, and to me that links salt with its cleansing and healing properties. When I was preparing I read a sermon by Pastor Niemoller, delivered just days before his arrest by the Nazis. It was a sermon about standing up for what was right in the Third Reich. Scary stuff. Not at all twee.

Healing: The other sermon writer goes on: “Salt was also used to aid healing. As salt in the world we can promote healing through prayer, caring for others, and supporting the least, the lost, and the lonely – holding hands with one another and administering the holy oil of anointing.” And this time I agree but let’s not misunderstand: we aren’t all Florence Nightingale. We aren’t all going to do the high profile stuff that gets us the attention. We are going to heal in quiet unobtrusive ways: we’ll be the listeners and mediators, the shoulders to cry on, the friends in need.

How frightning is the idea of being a healer in God's name? God can release from those fears to do the work Jesus commands us to do – to make a difference in the world: giving hope where there is no hope; forgiving where there is sin; embracing where there is loneliness and despair; challenging where there is prejudice; reconciling where there is conflict; bringing justice where there is wrong; providing food where there is hunger; giving comfort where there is distress or disease. I think most Christians do that. We just don't recognise it and often we don't value it.

The power of God supports and sustains us and stands with us if we risk whatever it takes to become salt to the world. And when we fail in this effort, God will raise us up and renew us and give us strength to persevere, again and again. The need will always be there.

Unlike many modern people whose health depends on moderation in eating salt, we are charged to become the salt of the earth. Let us ask for God’s strength and guidance to reach out to our various groups of friends and colleagues, our families and our neighbours in a world in desperate need of what Christian seasoning can provide and let us accept the responsibility to be a congregation more and more aware of our calling to discipleship.

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