Friday, February 15, 2019

“Salt and Light” - January 27, 2019

Text: Matthew 5:1-20

If you are sitting here this morning feeling a little hungry, maybe your stomach is growling, well, as they say, you have nobody to blame but yourself.  We had a wonderful and bounteous breakfast buffet here this morning with all kinds of offerings – biscuits and gravy, eggs, potatoes, bacon, fruit, coffee cake.  I think the bigger concern is probably staying awake through the sermon after having this big meal and then sitting down in the nice, warm sanctuary.

We had all of these wonderful foods, but it is really the little things that really make a meal work.  When it comes to food, you can have quantity, you can have variety, you can have color and texture, you can have fiber and protein and antioxidants and nutritious choices, but when you get right down to it, if you don’t have flavor, then you have a big problem.

The Food Network used to have this show called "Restaurant Impossible."   Anybody ever watch that?  I loved it because it combined cooking and travel and building renovation and marketing and budgeting and sometimes even conflict management and family therapy – all interesting in themselves, but then you put those things together with this no-nonsense chef Robert Irvine, you had great television. 

The way it worked was that he would travel to a failing restaurant, quickly assess the situation, and then work to turn it around.  He had an interior designer, a carpenter, two days and $10,000.  They might remodel the dining room, tweak the menu, update the kitchen, or change the way the business was managed.  They worked feverishly with the limited budget and time schedule, and then they would reopen and a crowd of diners would test the new and improved restaurant.

What always struck me was how sometimes it was just the smallest of things that was causing the place to do so poorly.  Robert Irvine would have the cook make four or five of their best dishes and he would taste them.  And it was amazing how often one of the big problems is that the food was poorly cooked.  Bland.  Just tasteless.

The chef would put a little oil on the grill and then sear a steak, and Irvine would go ballistic.  The chef had used no salt, no pepper, no seasoning.  You could fix everything else but if the food had no seasoning, if it was lacking in taste, you weren’t going to make a go of it.

Well, some folks like a little more seasoning than others.  That is why I was assigned to bring hot sauce for our breakfast this morning.  And as it turns out, in our scripture today, Jesus talks about seasoning as well.  In people, in the church, in life as in cooking, seasoning matters.

Our scripture comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  And to be honest, it is a pretty imposing passage.  It is a big chunk of important teaching.  You could get 10 or 15 sermons from this passage of scripture without even trying.  But to get a sense of what is going on here, we need to go back to the very end of chapter 4.  Jesus went through Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news and healing people of disease and sickness.  And the crowds started growing.  We read that they brought to Jesus “those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demioniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them  And great crowds followed him.”

The people following Jesus were needy.  Many were sick, many were very poor, many were looking for some kind of hope.  This is the group following Jesus, and to these people, Jesus says, you are blessed.  He spoke not to spiritual superstars, not to the strong, not to people with excellent credentials.  Instead, he said, those of you who are poor in spirit, those of you who mourn, those of you who are meek, those of you who want so bad for the world do be just – you are blessed.  Those who are maybe not altogether pure, but at least pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted because you are doing the right thing, you are blessed.

Nobody talked to these kinds of people in that way.  They were usually told that they were not good enough or not clean enough or not wealthy enough.  They were usually told that they didn’t count for much, didn’t amount to much.  But Jesus told them that they were blessed.  Not happy, not lucky, exactly, but that God looks at them in their distress, in their hurt, and says that they are beloved of God and that they have a blessed future.  God meets people in their suffering and brings a future with hope.

He says that they are blessed when they are persecuted for his name’s sake – when they are persecuted and suffer because they are following Jesus – and that this made them like the prophets who went before them.  Now understand that nobody had ever compared these people to the prophets.  But Jesus does.

Anna Woofenden is the pastor of a unique church community in Los Angeles.  It is called the Garden Church, and the church is literally an urban garden.  In the middle of the city they have a plot of land filled with various fruits and vegetables and herbs and flowers, with a big cedar stump table.  On Sunday afternoons, people bring their food scraps in five gallon buckets for the big compost pile, and they sing and pray and read scripture and share communion.  Then they have a meal together on picnic tables.  That’s the church.

Woofenden wrote,

Grandmothers and little children, downtown lawyers, construction workers and people recovering from addictions all sit and share a meal together.  On any given Sunday you might find a weathered man who’d been living on the streets planting beet seeds with a six year old with autism – a child whose mother was once asked to leave her former church because her son was “disriptuive.”

One day James was walking down the street with a colleague, both in suits and carrying briefcases when they heard a voice call out, “Hey James!”  The speaker wore camo shorts and was on a bench near the alley where he slept at night.  James replied without missing a beat, “Hey Derek!”  As James and his colleague continued to walk down the street, the colleague turned and asked. “How do you know him?”  At that moment Derek’s friend, sitting on the same bench, asked the same question.  “From church!” Derek and James both replied.
Jesus is talking to a group of followers that includes both James and Dereks, and he says to them, you all matter to God.  You are all blessed by God.

And then Jesus says to this crowd, “You are the salt of the earth.”  This is a word of affirmation that Jesus has for his followers.  And it is an expression we still use.  We describe someone as the “salt of the earth,” and by that we mean a good, solid, dependable person.

Why did Jesus speak of these followers in this way?  Well, salt had a couple of important uses in the ancient world.  For one, it was a preservative.  There were no freezers.  They did not have sodium benzoate or monosodium glutamate or the host of other chemical preservatives that are used today.  Salt was the most important food preservative, used to brine or cure meats and other food.  It was valuable. 

And then, of course, salt adds flavor.  It’s a seasoning.  Today, we have all kinds of spices and flavorings available – you can go to the grocery and easily get anything from Adobo to harissa to fenigreek to Old Bay to chili lime to Everything but the Bagel seasoning.  In ancient Israel, there weren’t so many choices. 

And salt was important for its healing properties.  Medicines were limited.  But you can gargle salt water.  You can treat a wound with salt.  Salt is very important today, but it would be hard to overestimate the importance of salt in that culture.

But here is the thing: salt could go bad.  The salt that we use has been processed and cleaned up enough that if you keep it dry, it can last pretty well indefinitely.  But in that day salt was harvested along with other natural substances that could and did go bad.  When that happened, the salt was good for nothing.  You had to throw it out.

So the point Jesus is making is that his followers are to preserve and protect and add flavor and seasoning to life.  When they no longer did that, they were like salt that had no flavor.

The sad thing is that so often, Christians are not exactly known for adding flavor and zest and seasoning to life – it is almost the opposite.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”  Not to make a dig at undertakers, because there are plenty of funeral directors who are wonderful people, but we get his point.  Following Jesus is not supposed to make us dull and lifeless.  We are to add interest and flavor – we are to be engaged in life.

And then Jesus says that we are to be light.  “You are the light of the world.”

Light, of course, allows us to see.  Houses in Palestine were very dark.  The lamp, such as it was, was typically a small bowl with oil and a floating wick.  Now they did not have matches, didn’t have cigarette lighters, didn’t have those Elon Musk flamethrowers, and oil lamps could be difficult to re-light.  So when people left the home, the lamp was sometimes put under an earthen basket that allowed enough air for the flame to burn but also insured that it could burn safely.  But that was not its purpose.  A lamp was not meant to be put under a basket; it was meant to provide light.

William Willimon told the story of a group of church women who wanted to do a service project.  They wanted to be salt and light in their community.  They lived in a small town where students would flock on spring break and over the summer months.  Young people came to drink and hang out at the beach and invariably some would get into trouble.

This group of women decided to something for people at the jail, so they made up toiletry kits.  When they visited at the jail, however, they were taken aback by the conditions.  For one thing, they were surprised by the sheer numbers.  There were over 30 people in the jail each week.  They never would have guessed that in this little town.  And then they were shocked by the procedures at the jail.  Young people were thrown in with older people; first time offenders were in cells with repeat offenders.

So one woman stood up at a church meeting and said, “Our jail is a disgrace.  It does more to encourage crime than discourage it.”  And the more time these women spent at the jail, the more they didn’t like it.  There were signs of excessive force.  There were rumors of money changing hands to get better treatment.  They didn’t like what they saw and they didn’t like what they heard.  And that is when the trouble really started.

The group went to share their concerns with the jailer.  “I knew we were asking for trouble when we let you women in here,” he said.  “What goes on here is none of your business.  Why don’t you stick to church work?”

An older woman pounded his desk and said, “This is church work!”  Eventually, an investigation was launched.  The jailer resigned and conditions improved.

To be the light of the world is to shine light on the world around us.  And then light is also a guide.   If you have ever got up in the middle of the night and stubbed your toe o something, you appreciate the value of some light.  I remember going on a camping trip.

We moved to Ames from Arthur, small town in Central Illinois.  I would explain to people how to get to our house or how to get to the church (the explanation was the same – we lived in the parsonage next door to the church).  I would tell them to turn off the highway onto the main street and keep going till you got to the flashing light that didn’t flash and turn right.   Seriously - we had one stoplight in town, a flashing yellow light and it didn’t even work.

I think that when it comes to shining our light, we can be like that flashing light that doesn’t flash.   

Salt and light are among the simple necessities of life.  And Jesus called his followers – he calls us - us salt and light.  Jesus says that in fact, we are blessed, all of us, and we are called to be a blessing to others – to all of the world.

Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote an article on why he is a Christian – or as he puts it, why I am still a Christian.  In too many people’s minds, he says, Christianity has been identified with beliefs and behaviors that are the opposite of what Jesus lived and taught.  What he says has a lot to do with the idea of being salt and light in the world.  He wrote,

I refuse to be a Christian who lives in fear of people who look or speak or worship differently than I do.  I refuse to be a Christian who believes that God blesses America more than God so loves the world… I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with Grace.  I refuse to be a Christian who can’t see the image of God in people of every color, every religious tradition, every sexual orientation…

I refuse to be a Christian who sees the world in a hopeless spiral downward and can only condemn it or withdraw from it.  I refuse to be a Christian devoid of the character of Jesus; his humility, his compassion, his smallness, his gentleness with people’s wounds, his attention to the poor and the forgotten and the marginalized, his intolerance for religious hypocrisy, his clear expression of the love of God.

I refuse to be a Christian unless it means I live as a person of hospitality, of healing, of redemption, of justice, of expectation-defying Grace, of counterintuitive love… I am still a Christian—but I refuse to be one without Jesus.

To be a Christain, to live as a follower of Jesus, means that we are salt and light for our community and for our world.  Amen.

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