So many times this week, I thought to myself:
I never want to see an ounce of salt again.
Don’t get me wrong. Every time I fry up some Eggs in the morning,
I have to use a dash or two to get them just right.
But I’m not talking about that salt.
I mean rock salt. Salt that is used to clear our roads of snow and ice.
The salt that seeps into cracks in the road
and helps to create potholes the size of small animals in the road.
Snow. Ice. Cold.
Its only the first few weeks of February,
and apparently they’re already running out of salt
to keep the roads clear.
I can see how some of you sitting gingerly in your pews
because your backs still feel the effects of all that shoveling.
Maybe in addition to trying to clear your driveway and your sidewalks,
you put down a layer or two of rock salt
to keep them from refreezing.
Its enough to make you cry after all that work,
just to see it snow again a few days later.
* * *
Things were so much simpler as a child.
Sure, I still had to shovel snow at our house;
and growing up in southwest Iowa—
blizzard alley we used to call it–
we mastered all the best techniques for wielding a shovel.
In a way, it was all pretext for building a snowman, of course
or for the adventurous or architecturally gifted among us,
a snow fort.
Once you cleared the path, you could get out of the house
and go have a snowball fight with your friends,
or you could go sledding,
with an ice ramp at the bottom of the hill for good measure…
There is a point in life, though, where things become complicated.
I think it’s a different age for everyone, but complicated – not simple –
becomes a way of life for us all.
Shoveling the drive and laying down salt
becomes not a quick avenue for fun
but necessary preparation for going to work, or getting the groceries,
or getting to your next treatment at the doctor’s office…
Anything but simple.
* * *
So we have salt on our eggs, and salt on our streets.
When we hear Jesus offering these words to his disciples:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
WE might wonder what in the world Jesus is trying to get at.
What’s the point of being salt of the earth and light of the world, anyhow?
* * *
Matthew Reeves, once the Associate Pastor at Parkville
and now serving a church in Ohio,
reflected about this passage,
and came to this conclusion:
“There are some things we might not know about ourselves
if Jesus didn’t tell us.”[i]
You are salt, says Jesus.
And in response, Reeves says
“I don’t know that we’d choose this if Jesus didn’t assign it,
that we would be salt.
Other pantry staples are much more flashy.
You are Tabasco!
A church that’s the spice of life. I could sign on to that!
You are paprika!
A vibrant church—that’d be alright.
You are balsamic vinegar!
Who doesn’t like a church with some spunk?
But no, you are salt Jesus tells us. You are the salt of the earth.
This begs the question: Why Salt?
I don’t know what kind of salt Jesus grew up with. Kosher salt, I guess.
My cupboard growing up had Morton’s iodized salt—
the kind with the blue cardboard container
with a drawing of a girl holding an umbrella.
The spice aisle at our local Hen House has other kinds:
fluer de sel (its good on fish)
smoked alder salt (goes well on steaks)
Kosher salt is a stable. I’m proud to use Kosher salt.
Its always encouraging to find a way I might be like Jesus…
Why does our Lord call us salt?
Salt’s just not very exciting. Not to most.
But Harold McGee,
who has made a career of writing on the science of cooking
and the lore of the kitchen,
writes on salt for more than 4 and a half pages in his book
On Food and Cooking.[ii]
Compare this to the book’s one page entry on beef!
This leads Reeves to say:
“I suppose removing beef from one’s diet could be a hardship for some.
It might result in withdrawal symptoms or sleepless nights or dreams
about slow dancing hamburgers,
but really, you could go without beef.
But life without salt? Oh man. It would be like eating in monochrome.
Here’s salt’s magic, says Harold McGee:
“Salt is a flavor enhancer and taste modifier:
it strengthens the impression of aromas that accompany it,
and it suppresses the sensation of bitterness.”
Now there’s a church mission statement: strengthening aromas
and suppressing bitterness in the name of Jesus Christ!
‘The wonder of salt is in what it does for the food to which its given.
Salt takes something that’s already there—
a ribeye, popcorn, a Bolognese sauce—
and gets into meat striations, nestles in kernel crevices,
penetrates vegetable fibers so that when we eat we say,
“Oh yes! That’s good! That’s blessedly good! I’ll have more!”
But we’re not talking about the salt, of course.
When’s the last time you ate something tasty and thought,
“That’s some good salt!”
The thing about salt, is that salt is not the thing.
It exists to bless what it goes into.”
* * *
We could say the same thing about the light, could we not?
What is so special about a lamp, or a flashlight?
Light ENABLES us to see the world, in its vitality and its beauty
in myriad shapes and colors and wonder.
But the light itself is not the thing.
No one walks upon a breathtaking scenic overlook
of trees and hillside and vale and remarks:
oh my, the light is just beautiful!
Does anyone go a play at the Kauffman
or take in a work of art at the Nelson Atkins Museum
and point to the stage lights with admiration?
Even the most beautiful sunset or sunrise isn’t about the light, really,
but about the colors they evoke on the things they shine upon…
The thing about light is that the light is not the thing.
Light helps us to see and admire and work with what is around us
but the light itself is not the thing…
* * *
As we’re looking at the Sermon on the Mount these next few weeks,
I find it remarkable how Jesus TRANSITIONS
from these wonderful teachings that we call the beatitudes:
the blessings of the Kingdom of God
that God wants us to recognize going on
right here, right now, among us…
how Jesus Transitions from that
to the way of seeking after the right
the way of living peacefully
the way of shaping our spirits to love one another
and how THESE things, THESE ways of life
help us to SEE and SHARE God’s blessing and joy in the world…
A life of living this way helps us understand
what the realm of God is all about.
After the beatitudes, Jesus transitions to talk of Salt, and Light,
….and, interestingly, to talk of Law.
To all who might argue that what Jesus was doing here undermines
what was handed down to the people through Moses
the Torah, the law, the sacred words of God
Jesus counters: no,
I have come to fulfill the teachings we have received.
But Jesus’ view of how that happens challenges the Pharisees and scribes
and those steeped in the teaching handed down.
Be salt! Be Light! In this, fulfill the law given to you….
* * *
A quick detour to Isaiah might help us understand this a bit better.
Isaiah does not realize how good he has it, really.
His people can hardly wait
to get themselves out of bed and into church!
They “seek God” and “Delight” to know God’s ways.
They “delight to draw near to God.”
There is nothing they would rather do than fast.
Who are these people?
Compare that to being the church in our time and place.
Church is not the first place that most people go
when searching for delight.
I wonder why that is?
Coffee shops and bookstores are open on Sunday mornings anyway.
The games start at noon
(maybe not today, but during the regular season anyway)
and while worship at our church is optional,
kids sports teams might have
mandatory practice on Sunday mornings.
Those who decide to fast during Lent this year
will not “delight” in skipping lunch.
But here in Isaiah, the people are rushing to do churchy things.
But even so, Isaiah senses something amiss:
Where is their heart?
What are they up to?
Well, the text tells us that praise, prayer, and fasting are cherished
not as gifts that nurture relationship, that bring one closer to God,
that inspire service to others…
…No. They are techniques for drawing attention to those
who are praising, praying, fasting.
According to Isaiah, this is why they spend so much time in worship.
They fast… so that God will see them.
They humble themselves… so God will notice.
They don sackcloth and ashes… to make their voices heard by God.
Isaiah is concerned that the obsession with doing things just the right way
following the LETTER of the law, we might say…
actually distracts the people from
what is really important for the future of the community—
that is, empowering deeds and acts
that are just, and kind, and loving…
And so for Jesus, and those around him,
and so for us today, I submit. There is this temptation all the time.
One of my friends and colleagues once said that
Church ought to be the space where we inhale God’s love and grace,
so we can be sent forth to exhale God’s love and grace
in a broken world in need of redemption.[iii]
I think that’s beautiful.
When we get too hung up on formalities – as Isaiah sees them
and we lose sight on the calling that God lays before us…
we are in danger of not being all God calls us to be.
* * *
The thing about salt is that salt is not the thing.
The thing about light is that light is not the thing.
Ok, fair enough.
But here’s the other rub:
The thing about the church is that the church is not the thing.
Would we know this about ourselves if Jesus didn’t tell us?
All of THIS, really, is not about uplifting the CHURCH at all
its about how the CHURCH can serve others
speak peace to others
give its life that OTHERS may have life…
The thing about the church is that the church is not the thing.
This whole thing about discipleship–salt and light
is about finding ways that we can bring out the best in others
for the sake of God’s realm.
We are people God shakes upon the world to bless it
and to bring out the flavor of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus didn’t say: “You disciples go out and try to be salt.
You get your act together
and one day your salinity will be such
that you’ll be worth your salt in my kingdom.”
No! He said. You’re salt! The salt of the earth! You simply are that.
And Jesus says it this way because the kingdom of heaven
is simply among us,
not just among people gathered here within these four walls
but indeed out in our neighborhoods
and schools and shopping malls—
in the commonplace spaces where the church mostly lives.
As Matthew Reeves would say:
God is shaking the church over the earth,
into commerce and classroom,
division and discord, the halls of power and hallways at home.
God does this so that by our lived presence in the world
people would say not “There’s the church!”
but “There’s hope! There’s love! There’s kindness!
There’s justice! There’s life!”
By which they’d really mean, of course, Jesus does reign in this earth…
* * *
Being salt in this world of ours,
Letting your light shine in abundance and vitality,
is all about seeking to flood the world with God’s grace,
Not so that our saltiness, our light, is what people notice,
but so that people might taste and see
that the gifts of God are good!
Its not really about us, in the end.
Its about people experiencing the kingdom of God in their own lives.
Once not too long ago,
I watched with wonder and amazement as my neighbor
fired up his snowblower and dug out three other neighbors’s paths.
He’s done this so many times over the years.
But to this day,
at least one of those neighbors isn’t quite sure who the culprit is
that keeps him from lugging his bad leg outside
to work on his own driveway,
because it has already been cleared and salted
and made ready to go.
To me, one humble example of salt and light in our complex,
complicated grown up world…
* * *
The Morton’s container in the childhood cupboard—
the blue one with the umbrella girl?
There’s a slogan under her yellow Mary Janes: “When it rains, it pours.”
Salt wants to get poured out, you know?
An inch from food, and it’s worth nothing.
But as it lays down its life, as it gets poured into the world,
it becomes the tang of the kingdom of God.
Light doesn’t want to be hidden.
Under a bushel basket, it does no good….
But exposed for the world and daring to illuminate dark places,
it gives light to the whole world…
You’re salt, Says Jesus. You’re the light of the world!
May it be so for us…
[i] This section is indebted to and draws from a sermon by Matthew Reeves “You are Salt” for Heartland Presbytery, November 16, 2010.
[ii] Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science of Cooking and the Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Scribner, 2004), 604.