You are the Salt of the Earth, Epiphany 5(A) – February 5, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

Youth ministers are a vicious lot. They are wonderful human being, but they are vicious.

Youth ministers are wonderful because they work with a population that many people are either afraid to work with or simply don’t know how to work with. They have a life-long, enduring impact on the youth they serve; but youth ministers are vicious because they have come up with the following activities:

  • Take an onion. Put a stick in it at cover it with caramel. Have the youth bit into it.
  • Take some Oreo cookies. Remove the cream filling and replace with tooth paste. Have the youth eat the cookies.
  • Take a Twinkie. Remove the cream filling and replace with mayonnaise.

I told you they were vicious. I’m not relating all this to raise your ire about youth ministers or make your stomach turn. All these gross-out object lessons are meant to teach young people about how appearances can be deceiving and the importance of gaining a deep understanding of situations so that we don’t just jump into moral and mortal danger.

We all want authenticity, don’t we? We all want the inside to match the outside. When promised a caramel apple, who wants to bite into an onion? Nobody delights in a toothpaste Oreo to say nothing of a mayo-Twinkie.  The inside should match the outside. Sugar and salt look identical to the eye but they operate differently on the tongue. Which one is which? Only a full tasting will be able to finally decide.

Today Jesus has a lot to say about salt and the importance of salt being salt and not something else, “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 underfoot.” Well, what does that mean?

First, it’s important to remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples: it’s these folks that he is describing as the salt of the earth. That is good and bad news for them, and therefore us.

We see that Jesus has a vision in mind, a standard by which we disciples should be in the world. We are meant to be the salt of the earth, a sort of leaven or spice for the world. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this metaphor of salt.

Salt, in a dish, is not just salty, but since it is such a fundamental flavor it highlights all the others. In a word, we followers of Jesus are meant to enchant the world, to draw out the flavors of all the world, existence, everything!

For too long Christians have been the people who want to quit the earth, to escape into an abstract spiritual existence. But here we see that Jesus would have his followers deeply engage with the world, indeed to act as a spice that enlivens all the rest. With this spice, the world feels things more deeply, the highs are higher, the lows are lower. With this spice of Jesus’ disciples the world feels, thinks, and acts more profoundly.

Now, before all this, Jesus says that we are the salt. The key word here is are. He doesn’t say, “You will someday be the salt of the earth,” or “Continue to work at becoming the salt of the earth,” no, “You are, the salt of the earth.” For Jesus, we disciples are indeed already the salt of the earth, this is a spiritual reality, we are already the salt of the earth, it is a state of being that is already in place. This calls to mind the great saint Evelyn Underhill who said that spirituality is more about reminding and remembering than learning something new. We are this salt of the earth, if you don’t believe me, ask Jesus.

So with this reminder that Jesus has a clear idea of what we are to be in the world, this enlivening spice, and that we are indeed that spice, we come face-to-face with the prospect of how we are doing in the light of Jesus’ statement. In other words: how are we doing in living with the standard that Jesus has laid out? Are you living as the salt of the earth? Are you enchanting and enlivening the flavors of life, are you feeling, thinking, and living deeply in the pain and joy of the world or are you living in another way that Jesus doesn’t describe? He is pretty harsh too when considering the prospect of salt without saltiness: “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 underfoot.”

It seems to me that a life of saltiness that Jesus is getting at here is one that, without fear, moves into the world in love and affection. We salty ones don’t allow ourselves to be bowled-over by the tragedies and disappointments of the world, but we also don’t allow ourselves to fall into quiet resignation over injustices. We followers of Jesus, we salty ones, walk a brave line of love into the deepest experiences of life, neither being swept away nor disengaged. This brave walk of course happens only because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit which, in my experience, is more about granting patience and tenacity more than anything.

So what does this salty life look like anyway? To me it seems that a salty life of following Jesus is one where, first and foremost, the disciple has begun to make peace with themselves. Where in your life have you shied away from the cold facts of life? Which relationships have you let grow cold because the truth is just too awkward? Which aspect of your personality and habits are hindering a zest of life, what needs the salt of Jesus?

Next, I suppose, is that the salty ones begin to move beyond themselves and gently offer themselves to others; hopefully simply as presence, ally-ship, and friendship and not as an overpowering fixer. We are salt, not cayenne. Salt allows the flavors of others to shine. Cayenne insists on being forward and in your face. Being salt means that we listen, we notice, and we don’t have to have our way.

Being salt for the earth means to remind the world of what God created it to be: a loving commonwealth that is created for the flourishing of all and that anything other than that is not living in accordance with how God desired things to be. You are the salt of the earth, called so by Jesus himself, no go, be salt and nothing else, not sugar, or an onion, or a toothpaste Oreo.

Walk bravely into the world and know that we go together empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 5(A).

A loving Law, 5 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.

The gospel today underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.

The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.

As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.

Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?

This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”

So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.

Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.

On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.

Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Jesus empowers, 5 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Sodium chloride – salt – has gotten a particularly bad reputation in recent decades. 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.

Those trying to eat healthy quickly learn the need to limit daily salt intake to an amount equal to one teaspoonful, including all that is contained in food itself prior to whatever we pour out of a shaker. They also discover that salt can be found in over-supply in cheese, butter, margarine, snack food, breakfast cereals, canned goods, soy sauce, and processed foods. It is used in many foods as a color additive, a binder, an element for giving texture, and a control agent in making bread.

Salt is very inexpensive in our culture. In addition to small amounts of salt for the table, we buy it in 40 pound bags for use in water softeners or on slick winter sidewalks and by the dump-truck load to melt ice on roads and bridges.

Of course, the way in which modern people view salt – abundant everywhere – is decidedly different from those of centuries ago. Because in Biblical times salt was rare, hard to obtain, and considered a very precious commodity, 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 they could easily understand to let them know he expected something extraordinary from them for the sake of God. He placed a high value on them 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.

Our being salt to the world would help others learn to make life special and not be the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence described by Thomas Hobbes. 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 flavor 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.

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 behavior – 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.

In ancient times, salt was valued as a basic ingredient of a good life. As salt in the world, we can serve as a basic nutrient for others. We can become nurturing agents for those around us – caring, helping, enriching, teaching, and bringing them to Christ.

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.

We could do well also to make an application from the use of salt to thaw ice on roads. As salt in the world, we can help melt the iciness of life. Frozen relationships can be melted by applying the warmth of Christian love. We can take that love and wear down the indifference or lack of feeling that often overtakes human beings.

Salt has, for centuries, served as a preservative to prevent food from spoiling. If we, as salt in the world, become preservatives of God’s goodness, we can help prevent spoiling and corruption wherever we find it. As followers of Jesus, we are committed to preserving Christian principles that keep ourselves and others from going bad.

It might be instructive to note something Jesus did not say. He did not tell his disciples to become the “pepper of the earth.” Pepper calls attention to itself, as opposed to salt that, when properly used, only highlights what it flavors. Jesus does not expect us to call attention to ourselves in our salting efforts. Rather, we are to make others more acceptable, more meaningful, more loving.

We can focus on the immediate context of Jesus’ charge for the disciples to become his salty followers. It came immediately after his expression of the beatitudes. So the seasoning takes on the character of the values he exhorted.

Sometimes salt is discovered in domes or dried from water of the ocean as well as being found in boxes in our pantries or shakers on our dining-room tables. For the salt to become effective, to do its work, however, it must be released from its container. God can release us from what entraps us so we can truly salt the people of the earth.

God can release us 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; tolerating 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.

Jesus empowers us to purify, to heal, to nurture, to thaw the frozen, to preserve, and to season the people of the earth. 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.

Unlike many modern people whose health depends on moderation in eating sodium, we “salty” Christians do not need to go on a spiritual salt-free diet. Let us rather become the salt of the earth. Let us reach out to our communities in a world in desperate need of what Christian seasoning can provide. As Christians, let us remain pure and committed and let us accept the responsibility to help make ourselves and others a people more and more in keeping with the values of God.
— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.