February 5, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church , Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Law
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
If I were to stand up here and preach about theology and history and scripture and never once give you an illustration or story about my main point in real, practical everyday language, I think most of you would be asleep, or at least reconsidering having brunch next week instead of coming back here. Stories and real-life examples of how to apply our faith in everyday terms helps add color and life to a sermon.
That’s why I’m going to begin today’s sermon with a story. I believe that soft-serve ice cream is, almost always, improved by eating it with french fries. French fries not as a side dish, per se, but as utensils. Now, some who have witnessed me doing this have boldly ventured to call the practice weird. But, I stand firm in my position that salt is a wonderful addition and improves almost any food. Even, and maybe especially (?), ice cream. Have I got any fellow salty-tooth's out there?
I confess that I told you that story partly to see if there would be an outcry from the die-hard “sweet-tooth's” in the room, and partly I told you that story to be more like Jesus. Yes, that’s right. Jesus knew the power of an illustration in a sermon. Especially a salty one. In fact, salt was such a valuable and sought-after addition to any kitchen’s food in the 1st century, everyone’s ears perked up when Jesus brought this flavorful note into his Sermon on the Mount.
But instead of flavoring our favorite foods, Jesus was using salt to talk about people. You, specifically. He started his sermon by giving an upside down and unexpected list of who was blessed (which we read last week) and then he looked right out into the crowd of people gathered to listen to him and said: You are the salt of the earth. Forget the French fries and the saltines. It’s you who have what it takes to bring brightness and flavor to the world. It’s you who have what it takes to shine with God’s light. Jesus was choosing to use two ordinary, everyday things to help his listeners get his point. And while light is a much more common metaphor in the Bible, this is the only passage where God’s people are compared to salt. So why? What was Jesus trying to say?
Let’s think about it: salt is simple but it’s also universal. In Jesus’ day, like today, everyone knew what it was because it had many uses. Some of them are uses we are familiar with…. what are some of the ways you use salt?
Strengthen flavor (if you add salt last while cooking, it enhances every other flavor in the dish)
Preserve food- that’s why bacon’s so good, right?
Anyone ever use a line of salt to keep ants away?
And the use we all know well this time of year, how about melting ice? I still remember the time we found our daughter, who was two at the time, in the back seat of the car licking the bottom of her boots. I guess I passed on my salty-tooth to her.
Salt-- or sodium chloride-- is the only mineral that humans remove directly from the earth and eat. Salt is a necessary part of every diet of every living thing. But what’s more important is that without salt all food would be dull. Some of the first cities in the ancient times formed around places where salt could be obtained. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. In fact, our English word for “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt.
When people began to figure out that they could use salt to preserve food into the cold seasons, whole societies of people began to live and survive on foods that were not in season. Salt changed everything. But there was precious little of it, compared to the need. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were made to tax salt, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt.
In Jesus’ day there were other uses for salt that we are less familiar with: it was rubbed on newborn children. In the Ancient Near East salt was used to seal covenants between people, and between people and God. Salt was also sprinkled on sacrifices to God, and understood as a metaphor for wisdom. Salt has for many centuries, even in Jesus’ day, been used for wound care, disinfecting the wound, removing impurities and helping it heal faster. It’s no surprise, then, that salt became associated with God’s preserving, steadfast and restorative grace.
In the 20th century salt has become much more accessible and instead of rationing our salaries to buy a precious little amount of salt to sustain our living, we are inundated with salt in just about every food on the grocery store shelf. We have so much salt in our lives, some people are dying of too much salt. Salt coats all of the roads and is inevitably sitting on the carpet right beside you right now. We couldn’t escape it, even if we wanted to.
But as we read Jesus’ words this morning, context is so important. In Jesus’ day salt was scarce and absolutely fundamental to living. That’s why when Jesus says: You are salt of the earth, in his context this was like calling the people a rare and vitally important element of life, not to mention a luxury in making food flavorful. In other words, Jesus’ words struck a chord.
These days we still have sayings that are popular that relate people to salt. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “those people there, they’re real salt of the earth kind of people.” Or you’ve heard someone say, “Wow! You have some salty language,” (I get that all the time…). What do we mean when we call people salt of the earth? What does that have to do with “salty language” and what does Jesus mean when he calls people salt of the earth?
Well, first of all, notice what Jesus doesn’t say: “you will become salt of the earth if you follow me.” Or “If you do X, Y and Z you will surely be salt of the earth.”
No, instead he looks out at the people who are sitting on the hill listening to him and he says simply: “you are salt of the earth.” You didn’t do anything to earn or deserve it, but by nature of being a child of God you are salt of the earth.
In other words, Jesus believes that we, as People of God, are, at our core, comparable to salt. Bright, important, difference-makers. We are made in the image of God for the purpose of bringing integrity, perseverance, goodness and vitality to the dull places of this life. In other words, we are of great value. We have the potential to affect the world for good in so many different ways. This is who we are and what we are made for.
But then Jesus issues a warning. Salt is of no good to anyone if it loses its saltiness.
Loses its saltiness?
The irony is salt can’t actually lose its saltiness. It’s a mineral that can’t be scrubbed of its flavor or dulled with time and age. But here’s the thing that Jesus is saying: Salt will definitely lose all of its salty effect if it’s never, in fact, used. If it sits in a shaker on your spice rack while you’re cooking. If it stays in a bag in the garage during a snow storm. It doesn’t ever make into the canning jar when you’re pickling your cucumbers. Salt is only useless when salt is not used. I think this is what Jesus is getting at.
You see, salt is only special because of what salt does to other things…. In of itself sitting in a shaker, or bag, or box, salt is worthless.
What does that mean for us?
Each and every one of us have the potential to change the world, like a grain of salt, with one small, itty bitty, tiny act at a time. To recall Micah 6:8 from last week. Every act you do with humility, justice and kindness shows your saltiness. Lifting up someone else instead of yourself. Doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Getting out of the way so someone else can shine. Caring for the earth with each and every little thing you are able to keep out of the landfill by reusing or recycling. Every time you speak up and out against something you know is wrong. Every time you use your voice and your influence on behalf of someone who has less voice and less influence. Every small act of kindness. Every time you treat someone else with dignity. Holding doors open, returning eye contact with eye contact, allowing the human in you to see the human in someone else. Each of these small, seemingly insignificant things is a morsel of salt in a dull world. And we know how far a single grain of salt can go in changing the equation.
Essentially, don’t shy away from what you know is right. Be the salt of the earth. Be the light. Cut through the superficial. Bring contrast and change to a world that has become stale and stagnant with the way things always have been. Bring a spark of justice to a status quo that privileges only the powerful. Light a fire of kindness where there is hatred and mistrust. Disrupt the dullness. Be the french fry that shakes things up with the ice cream. Be bold and confident that you carry God’s love. Don’t be afraid of making the world a better place.
And the thing is, none of us have to change to be this way. We just have to let our God-given salty goodness out of the shaker we keep it hidden away in. All it takes is being who we were created to be by God in the first. Kind, compassionate and justice-seeking people. Who and what you are and all that you give to the world has the potential to make the world a better, brighter, more decent and palatable place. Don’t you ever forget that. Don’t you ever keep that hidden away. Let your light shine. Let that salt sizzle. Use who you are to make a difference.
Grace and Peace,