Text: Matthew 5:13-16
Can we talk about chemistry? The school year has started, so I think this is OK. You know, I don’t get to use chemistry that often, so I saw an opportunity this morning and thought I better take it.
Our scripture today is about salt. Salt is made of sodium and chlorine – Sodium Chloride. You can take sodium hydroxide--a super caustic substance used in things like oven cleaners. It is used in things say, “keep out of reach of children.” And then you can take hydrochloric acid, a very strong acid that will eat right through your clothes if you spill it. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) When you mix the two together, you get salt and water.
Salt is an amazing thing. The ancient world didn’t know much chemistry, but they absolutely knew the importance of salt. Jesus used salt to describe his followers. He said, “You are the salt of the earth.” We use that expression today to describe a good, solid, dependable person.
When Jesus described his followers – when he described us – as the salt of the earth, what did he mean? In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity.
It was a preservative. In a time when there was no refrigeration – which includes most of history – using salt was the best way to preserve food. It was used to brine or cure meats and other foods.
For most of us, the most obvious quality of salt is that it gives flavor. What would food be like without flavoring?
Several years ago I watched a show on the Food Network called "Restaurant Impossible." It went out of production a few years back, but just this week I saw that it was back on the air with new episodes.
The show combines cooking and travel and building renovation and marketing and budgeting and conflict management and sometimes family therapy – all interesting in themselves, but then you put those things together with this no-nonsense chef Robert Irvine, and you have great television. At least on some nights.
The way it works is that he travels to a failing restaurant, quickly assesses the situation, and then works to turn it around. He has 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 is managed. They work feverishly with the limited budget and time schedule, and then they reopen and a crowd of diners tests out the new and improved restaurant.
Sometimes it can be just a small thing causing the restaurant to do so poorly. Robert Irvine will have the chef make four or five of their best dishes and he will taste them. And it is amazing how often one of the big problems is that the food is just bland. Tasteless.
The chef will put a little oil on the grill and then sear a steak, and Robert Irvine will go ballistic. The chef had used no salt, no pepper, no seasoning. You can fix everything else but if the food has no seasoning, if it is lacking in taste, you aren’t going to make a go of it.
As it turned out, I watched it this week for the first time in a long time, and part of the problem with this particular restaurant is that the food was just awash in salt. The cook was using way too much of it.
Jesus says that in people, in the church, in life as in cooking, seasoning matters.
As followers of Jesus, we are to add flavor - to add life, to add zest, to add joy, to add goodness. Sometimes Jesus’ followers can kind of oversalt things, if you will – aiming for power and control more than life and joy – but Jesus’ point is that we are called to make a difference, to add seasoning that blesses others and blesses our world.
Jesus says that if salt has lost its flavor, then it is good for nothing. You know, you can get those little salt packets at fast food places. You might find one of those in the back of the junk drawer that has been sitting there for 25 years, and if you open it and put in on some French fries, it will taste just fine. I am not speaking from experience here, but some of you might be able to test this out and let me know. Salt is salt, it just doesn’t go bad.
But here is the thing: in Jesus’ day, salt did go bad. The salt that we use has been processed and cleaned up so that if you keep it dry, it can last pretty well indefinitely. But in that day salt was harvested along with other natural substances. It was never 100% sodium chloride. When that other stuff went bad, you had to throw it out.
Jesus is saying that his followers are to preserve and protect and add flavor and seasoning to life. When they no longer do that, they are like salt that has no flavor.
And then Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” What a big, bold statement – you are the light of the world!
A little over a year ago, we were hit by a derecho – one of our new vocabulary words of the last year or so. At our house, we were without power for 5 days. For some of you, it was longer. When it got dark, it was really dark. Candles and cell phone flashlights only go so far.
Houses in Palestine were very dark. The lamp, such as it was, was typically a small bowl with oil and a floating wick. They did not have matches, didn’t have cigarette lighters, 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. When Jesus says that we are the light of the world, we are to help others see the way. We are to shine our lights so that others can see Jesus. We are to shine our lights of kindness and compassion. We are to shine our lights so that truth can be seen and injustice and falsehood and all kinds of wrong can be addressed.
Jesus has said that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Now on this Labor Day weekend, on this Labor Sunday, We need to hear Jesus’ words not so much as a suggestion or imperative – “You need to be the salt of the earth” – but more as a simple statement of fact. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Jesus is saying that our lives matter, what we do matters, and we make a difference. So this morning, I want to say to you that your labors, your efforts, matter a great deal.
Your work can be a holy calling. I think of counselors and therapists and social workers and probation officers and nurses and teachers who make a real difference in people’s lives. But it’s not just that – I think of accountants and factory workers and office workers and barbers and retail workers who are people of integrity and goodness. We had a plumber out to our house this week. He was humming and almost singing the whole time he worked. It was a joy to have this guy working at our house. We haven’t got the bill yet, maybe it won’t feel like such a joy, but I think in his way he was being salt and light.
I think of students of all ages who are fun people to be around, who are kind and helpful, who study hard but also take time for others. I think of all those people who are working on big issues, big problems in science and engineering and medicine and social sciences, working to make the world a better place.
What you do is holy work. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
What Jesus says, really, is amazing. And who are we to argue with Jesus? I don’t mean to leave occupations out here. And it isn’t just those who are in the ranks of the employed. I think of all kinds of folks who bring salt and light to their friends, to their family, to their neighborhood, to their church, to places where they volunteer, to our community.
David Lose, one of my professors at Luther Seminary, wrote:
Perhaps the largest challenge most congregations I know face — indeed, what the twenty-first century church faces, to be quite honest — is to overcome the disconnect most Christians experience between what we do on Sunday and what we do the rest of the week.
That’s a little hard to hear, but I think Lose has a point. Some of this may be on clergy who can spiritualize everything to the point that it doesn’t seem to have any real-life application. And some of this may be on folks who have neatly separated their Sunday experience from the rest of the week.
When we offer our time and talent and labor to God – whether through our job, through volunteering, through our family, or through being a good friend – we are being salt and light, and it is a holy calling. Sunday and the rest of the week is all one package; it’s all God’s time.
Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” This Labor Sunday is a good time to think about our work in terms of our faith, to think about being salt and light not so much here on a Sunday morning, but in our home, in our neighborhood, at school and in our places of work, and to commit our work to the Lord.
Lillian Daniel is a pastor in Davenport. She shared that on the Sunday before Labor Day, her congregation is invited to bring symbols of their work to the altar to be blessed. People bring laptop computers, shovels, notebooks, mops, boots, resumes, maybe an ear of corn. You get the idea.
She shared that not everybody plans ahead. So one time she invited people who hadn’t remembered to bring anything to come forward and leave the workplace symbols they had with them. Yes, she asked them to put their cell phones on the table.
She said that you could feel a great awkwardness. Only a few people walked forward and placed their phones at the front of the church. She said, “Don’t be scared, we will give them back after the service - Pastor Seth and I are pretty trustworthy. And you can keep an eye on them from the pews.”
This generated a lot of discussion at coffee hour. People talked about being unwilling to part with their phones. Others talked about what it felt like - both the freedom and the anxiety of it.
We may not be in the habit of asking God to bless the tools of our work. We may not think in terms of committing our work to the Lord. But our work can be a holy calling. For many of us, one of the main places our ministry happens is through our work.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May God bless your labors. May God bless your ministry. Amen.