Last Sunday, we examined the Beatitudes, the beginnings of Jesus’ masterful Sermon on the Mount, words which spoke God’s own blessings into the hearts and lives of those facing heavy challenges – the poor/poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled.
Download PDF: Sermon_05February2023
This Sunday we continue reading where we left off last week, and the difference in tone and pace is stark. Following the lyrical ebb and flow of the first twelve verses, rhythmic to the point you could easily clap them out – “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5: 5,7) – starting at verse 13 we move into what feels like a stream of consciousness, Jesus saying things as they come to him and only loosely stitching them together: you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hid, nobody hides a lamp under a bushel basket, and (if we continue to the end of the chapter) a whole bunch of quick points about the law and the prophets and anger and adultery and divorce and oaths and retaliation and loving one’s enemies. What starts out with the gentle rhythm of a folk song composed and sung by an unhurried singer/songwriter, quickly accelerates into something paced more like the finale of the William Tell overture, frantically racing from thought to thought as if being pursued.
I name this, because I want to don’t want to lose the connection between these two very different things: these edgy words about salt and light are adjacent to the slow and beauteous words of the Beatitudes that precede them, all of it spoken to a group of souls gathered on a Galilean hillside who were thirsting for guidance and encouragement in Jesus. For what Jesus says in these words is not just a quick reproach to those who have “lost their saltiness” or “hidden their light under a bushel”, but, like the beatitudes that preceded them, an encouragement to trust the source of these things and the way that they dwell within us, full of potentiality.
In preparing for today’s sermon, I branched out from just reading stuff and watched a show I’d heard of for months. Samin Nosrat wrote an award-winning cookbook in 2018 entitled, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” which has since been developed into a popular four-part Netflix series. In the episode on Salt, she points out that as a seasoning and as a preservative, salt is pretty much universal. There are thousands of different kinds of salt, some strong, some subtle, and in general she uses a lot of it. What struck me most of all for today’s purposes, though, is her assertion that salt’s main task is to bring forward the fullness of a food’s flavour, not to be a salty distraction on its own. “Salt enhances flavor” she says, “and it has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient…. Though salt also affects texture and helps modify other flavors, nearly every decision you’ll make about salt will involve amplifying and deepening flavor.”
I find this most interesting, as when I hear Jesus telling his listeners to be like salt, my mind immediately goes to my stereotype of someone I would describe as “salty” – someone who, in addition to cussing a fair bit, is opinionated to the point that my “fight, flight or flee” meter gets set to “fight.” Sometimes raising a stink about something is what’s needed in order to force change to happen. (Sometimes the best way for a baseball manager to make a point is to get thrown out of the game!) But what Samin Nosrat suggests about the function of salt – and what I think Jesus may also have been getting at in his use of this ‘salt’ metaphor – is that the main function of salt is to draw forth the essence, the fullest flavour, of something it’s been added to. Sometimes when I crave something salty, that’s all I want – salt is the tastebud sensation I’m after – but in the overall scheme of things, the irreplaceable value of salt as a seasoning is not so much as a free-standing flavour but to amplify, to deepen, to enhance, to bring forth the best of what’s already there. My sense is that this is a large part of what Jesus was encouraging, too, as salt: to amplify, deepen, enhance, bring forth the best.
Salt, of course, gets used for other things – various salts help melt the ice on our winter roads, iodized table salt helps reduce the incidence of scurvy, salt has been used for millennia to help clean wounds, and as mentioned earlier, salt has been a life-saving food preservative across cultures and across the ages. But it’s clear in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is talking about the savour of salt, the way it enhances flavour, so let’s take that as it is. “You are the salt of the earth” says Jesus. “You, grounded ones, are the ones tasked with being the salt that can bring out the best in bad situations. You are the ones capable not only of enduring, but actually improving things”. And thinking back to the Beatitudes we heard last week, Jesus was ostensibly speaking these words of salt-as-flavour-enhancer to the mourners, the impoverished ones, the persecuted, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers – the same audience. Jesus says to them, and anyone still willing to listen, “you are salt.” YOU have the innate ability to change things for the better, YOU carry God’s own ability to help people express their best, most just, most charitable selves. Jesus names the saltiness within and calls us to let this season our dealings with the world.
In transitioning to the next point of his sermon, Jesus says something that has been widely debated, perhaps even amongst that first group on a hillside. “If salt has lost its taste”, said Jesus, “how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”
Over the ages, Bible commentators have loved to debate this. Most contemporary commentators make the point that good old Sodium Chloride (NaCl) does not and cannot lose its saltiness, and that Jesus was being ironic here, more or less saying that his followers can no more be “un-salty” than salt could lose its saltiness. Others, not so drawn to the idea of Jesus being ironic, have made the argument that while pure salt doesn’t lose its saltiness, when salt is mixed with other things or diluted too much it can definitely lose its oomph, and Jesus is warning his followers against letting his message get too “watered down.” Either way – whether Jesus is using irony to confirm the deep, salty goodness of those seeking to live his way of resilient love, or is simply concerned about his message of life getting too diluted – the warning here is to not deny, hide or simply not use this gift of saltiness. Our calling is to bring Christ’s own salty love to bear in all our dealings with the world.
That message, of not hiding or squandering our capacity to bring Christ’s inclusive, equitable, transformative love into all the scenes of our lives, is picked up and expanded as Jesus moves on to the metaphor of light: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5: 14-16)
As we have become more aware of the dangers of portraying light as good and dark as bad, and the injury that such language continues to cause for people of colour, I appreciate the way that Jesus builds his metaphor here. He talks not so much about the contrast between light and darkness, but rather focuses on the kind of illumination produced by an oil lamp, and how effective it is to lift that high, get it into the open. While it seems a bit misplaced, his image of a city on a hill has that same “up high, into the open” sense to it, and in case we missed the importance of getting full advantage from a source of light, he gives us the silly image of someone covering up a lamp that they went to the trouble to light. Then, he gives a “why” beyond the “why”: we shine our light not for our own self-aggrandisement, but so that people will see through our actions God’s own justice, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, advocacy and inclusion. Our shining is Holy love, put into action, and a witness to God, the source of that love.
These are such wise words for the Church to hear over the aeons, whether the Church has at that time been growing or declining or in stasis. We are to consistently bring Christ’s own ethical standards of justice, kindness and dignity into all that we say and do, and such actions are to point not to ourselves but to God. For good reason, folks under the age of, say, sixty-two are suspicious of organized religion and outright dismissive of anything done in the name of the Church, and amidst that cynicism our task is to keep being the salt, keep finding ways for the light of Christ’s love to shine into difficult and shadowy situations. Our task is to keep on declaring by our words and our actions, that God is all about inclusive, healing love – God is not interested in reinforcing empire, creating hierarchies, creating hardship, or blaming the victim. Whenever we bear public witness, we counter the idea that God is either imaginary or – perhaps worse – that God does exist, but as a deity who is petty, racist, misogynist, and irrelevant. As our friends at Affirm United stress, it is so important for progressive Christian communities to be public, intentional and explicit in the way we live Christ’s expansive welcome – to shine Christ’s own light of invitation and joyous inclusion, to the benefit of all people and to the glory of God. My hope is that our Building Accessibility Upgrades will be that type of witness, putting our money where our mouth is by making this building more accessible and invitational for broad community use. I encourage those who’ve not yet made a pledge or donation to help us cover the cost of this tangible form of witness, to do so as they are able.
Even when we are at a low ebb, even when we are disheartened by the prevalence of greed and aggression at work in the world, Christ says, “my child, you are salt, you are light, and nobody can diminish either of those.” We are called to reach beyond ourselves as salt and light, but we are also encouraged to hear the personal encouragement within that – the same kind of encouragement Jesus spoke to the merciful, the mourner, and the pure in heart, through the words of the beatitudes.
Back in 1992, Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love, included a memorable quote so so closely aligned with the call to be salt and light that I’d like to close with it this morning: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous’? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”
In that same vein, my friends remember what Christ Jesus spoke to that gathering on a hillside, and what the risen Christ still speaks to us today: you are the salt of the earth, so be salty. You carry the light of Christ, so illumine even as you are illuminated. And may all of it, beloved ones, be for the cause of justice, in the name of the Holy One. Amen.
Nosrat, Samin. https://www.saltfatacidheat.com/salt and “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” television series on Netflix.
Williamson, Marianne. A Return to Love (NYC: Harper Collins 1992). Quoted by Grady, Constance. https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/7/30/20699833/marianne-williamson-our-deepest-fear-nelson-mandela-return-to-love
And on salt: https://koyuncusalt.com/en/salt-library/how-long-does-salt-keep-its-flavor#:~:text=We%20have%20emphasized%20that%20in,degrade%20over%20time%2C%20unlike%20spices and https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/sodium_chloride
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church