Sunday, November 28, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, November 28, 1999
TEXT: Matthew 5:13-16

This morning's sermon is the first of a four part series in preparation for the coming or the end of this millennium and the coming of a new one. I will not enter into a debate as to whether or not this is in fact the millennium, nor will I be preaching on the millennium per se, for the word does not appear in the Bible at all. However, I think it is important for men and women, boys and girls in the Christian faith to prepare themselves for something exciting and new. Over the next four weeks starting today and culminating here on New Year's Eve, I will be looking at some of the great themes I feel the Church of Jesus Christ needs to address and some of the issues of living our faith as we approach the year 2000. Today's is the first; it is called On Being Salt and Light and it goes right to the heart of Christian discipleship - what is expected of us as we go into a new millennium.


Over the last few years I have developed some new heroes. They are the great advocates of culinary expertise and imagination. Never would I have dreamt when I got cable television that I would watch anything but the Sports Channel but now I'm hooked on the Food Channel! (As many of you can probably tell) As I watch Emeril Live and The Urban Peasant and my personal favourite The Two Fat Ladies (may Jennifer rest in peace), I find that my olfactory system opens when I watch what they're cooking and my arteries begin to close. As someone who has always enjoyed cooking and trying to entertain people for meals, I thought back to the time when I was a bachelor in Nova Scotia in my first church. Many people in the congregation were very kind to me and invited me to dinner on a regular basis and were most generous to this young man who had just arrived from the hot climes of southern Africa. I felt it was time to pay back these people for their hospitality and I thought where better to start than with the local Presbyterian minister and his dear wife who'd been so kind in assisting me to find my place in that village? So I invited them to dinner and worked feverishly in preparing what I thought was, maybe not haute cuisine, but not too bad for a bachelor. I'd have pork chops and wondered what vegetable to cook and having lived in New Brunswick for a number of years, thought that Fiddle Heads would be most appropriate. Looking in one of my cookbooks as to what to do to prepare Fiddle Heads it said, “Place 3 tsp salt in the water and place Fiddle Heads in.” So I did precisely that; I put three TABLESPOONS of salt in with the Fiddle Heads. My guests came and sat down and as good Christians and Presbyterians, they were exceedingly polite and congratulated me on the presentation of the meal - until they began to eat their vegetables! As their eyes glazed over and their blood pressure rose and their faces went red then said, “Excuse me Andrew. Would you have any water, NOW?”

I couldn't help but think when having cooked such a way, that the over-use of salt can be just as devastating as the under-use of salt. This great condiment that we throw around sometimes with reckless abandon, is without doubt one of the most powerful things that we have in our day and age and was particularly so in biblical times when salt was used as a preserver and purifier. When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” He did not say, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has pointed out, “You are like the salt of the earth,” or “You will become the salt of the earth,” He said, “You are the salt of the earth.” He was talking about salt being a sign of goodness, hope and purity. Even now we still use the term “You are the salt of the earth.” (I think the only person in the Bible who did not think salt was good was Lot's wife; but that's another story! ) Salt has always been seen as something that is pure. The Greeks actually called it a thein, a divine substance. Whenever Jews sacrificed anything to God, as in the Prophet Ezekiel, whether it be a ram or a bull, the instructions always were to place salt on the thing that was to be sacrificed in order that its aroma and power might be known and felt by Almighty God. Salt then, biblically and practically is a powerful thing.

William Barclay in his commentary has rightly said that it is the characteristics of salt that you and I need to look at in order that we might understand what Jesus was saying to those first disciples when he said to them, “You are the salt of the earth.” The first of these is that salt is a purifier. This was brought home to me when as a young boy growing up in Bermuda, I would cut myself as boys often do when playing rambunctiously. I would often have nicks and cuts and bruises all over me. One of the things my mother would do was to take me to the beach and have me swim in the waters off Bermuda. All the years I lived there I never had an infection in a wound precisely because the brine, the salt, in the water and the warmth of the water acted as a purifier and as a cleanser. I think that what Jesus is saying to the disciples in this passage when he says, “You are the salt of the world,” you are to be two things: first you need to have a purity yourselves, you have to be different, extraordinary in many ways. This is in keeping with the whole message of the Sermon on the Mount ? that Christians somehow are different. When Jesus said that you are to be the salt of the earth, you are to be pure. There must be a righteousness about you, a righteousness that even exceeds that of the Pharisees. As Shelley said, “We must avoid the contagion of the world's slow stain.” We must be different.

But we're not different by virtue of our own righteousness or of our own travails and works, but rather it is the righteousness that comes from God. It is the righteousness of following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. But very often as Christian disciples, we want to keep a foot in each part of the world, both within our discipleship and within the world and its worldliness. This, I believe, is one of the errors that we face. Do not misunderstand me; there is not a sense in which Jesus is saying we shouldn't participate in the world; he is not suggesting that we live apart from the world, but what he is saying is that we should not be as disciples of Christ, consumed by worldliness. When we go into the Board Meetings of this nation and we're making decisions, we do so not simply on the expedience of the world, but we make them on the basis of the Beatitudes, of the Sermon on the Mount. The way we enter into relationships with people that we know in society and clubs and organisations or business, we are the salt of the earth. We do not simply enter into those relationships as if we are detached, going with the whim and fancy of the spirit of the time and age we're in, we go in as someone who represents Jesus Christ and The Sermon on the Mount. When we hear of violence, we do not go along with the spirit of the world, we go with the one who said, “Blessed are the peace makers.” When the lowly are downtrodden, we simply do not stand by to one side, but we say as did Jesus, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” The saltiness of Christians is to be a purifying, a moral, righteous force within the world by and through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not are we to be pure, not only are we to have the righteousness of Christ, but we are to bring that righteous presence into the world. We are to be a purifying force. Jesus said, “If the salt loses its saltiness…..” (Technically I've never known salt to lose its saltiness but certainly the salt in biblical times could have lost some of its power as it became older and dry and no longer had the force to preserve that it once did.) Jesus was concerned that the disciples who follow in his name would not lose their saltiness. This is one of the great claims of the Christian faith, that we do not preserve our righteousness and our purity by being apart from the world. After all, if salt is going to preserve meat, it must be on the meat, it must be embedded incarnate and present in the world. Jesus expected his disciples, called his disciples to be that presence within the world, a presence of transformation, a presence of righteousness. I think that one of the great prophets of this century was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who told the story of when he was in the Gulag Archipelago there was a man there imprisoned with him who lay on the bunk above him. There were many problems because of the nature of prisons, within the life there. There were many who did unrighteous things and many who would become full of despair or would become greedy or try and preserve themselves and not care for the others around them. Solzhenitsyn said that the man in the bunk above him was somehow different. He wasn't like everybody else; he was kind, would give of himself. When others were hungry he would feed them off his own food. He would not speak ill of other prisoners or even speak ill of the guards. He had something. Solzhenitsyn said there was one thing this man would do every night ? he would take little strips of paper and read from them. Solzhenitsyn realised that what he was reading were fragments of the Gospels, the sayings of Jesus Christ. Each night this man would crumple these up and put them in his pocket and the next night before going to bed he would bring them out and read them. Solzhenitsyn said, “Isn't this amazing! A few fragments, a few words from Jesus of Nazareth had such a power on this man's life. It gave him a freedom, a charity, a righteousness. Not even the Charter of Rights, not The Fifteen Points of Woodrow Wilson could try and create the hope and righteousness that this man had in his life in the most diabolical circumstances.” Why? Because it was the words of Christ that so inspired him and moved him! That is the power of salt in the world.

There is one last thing that salt does. Not only does it purify but it gives flavour, it adds taste and gives life. As we stand on the brink of a new millennium I sense that at times the Christian community gets so full of doom and gloom, so apocalyptic in its ideas that we seem to think that there is no hope or need to be salt in the world. Look at those who are the fear mongers about the Y2K. Who knows what is going to happen but to use this as a tool to make people frightened I think is despicable! To have any sense of what God is going to do in the new millennium I leave solely up to God. The future, as the present and the past are in God's hands. What I do know is that God calls us to be disciples in the here and now and to bring the Good News and the light and the salt of his presence into the world in hope. That is why too many people are starting to give up when there are major issues facing us and our world as we enter the new millennium. Sometimes we do that with doom and gloom.

Before I make the next quote, I want to say that modern funeral directors, as we know them, are a cheerful and kind bunch. But during the time of Oliver Wendell Holmes they were perhaps not. So much so that Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I thought at one time that I might enter the ministry until I encountered all these clergy who looked and acted more like they were undertakers!” That is that sense of gloom and despair and hopelessness that sometimes accompanies people of faith. But what is our faith worth if we are so negative? What is our faith worth if we do not have hope, if we do not believe in the providence and the glory and grace of Almighty God, if we do not have the courage to work for those things which are just, righteous and holy that God calls us to? To be the salt of the earth is to bring the flavour of God's grace every day of our lives.


There is a second illustration that Jesus uses. Not only does he say that you are to be salt, “You are also to be the light of the world.” Light carries with it a great many meanings, particularly within our Jewish writing. The word light is often associated with God or with Adam or with the Temple or with Jerusalem or with Moses or with the Law. All these things are referred to as light within the Scriptures. So when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are to be the light of the world,” you are as disciples of mine to carry on that very grace and power of Almighty God. This is not a break from what God has done; this is the continuance of what God is doing. You must walk in that light.

There are two clear qualities of light, two things that light does. The first and most important is that light must be seen. Jesus makes this abundantly clear. He said that if you build a city on a hill its light will be seen. Here is an illustration, (certainly Augustine's rendition) that this is the light of the kingdom of God, just as Jesus is now on a mountain top, just as Jerusalem is Zion, so the city of God is built for a light for the whole world to see and it cannot be hidden. Then he says, “After all, who takes a lamp and puts it under a bowl or bushel?” No, the light is there to be seen and you, as the light of the world, are to be seen. He is saying that there is no such thing as secret or closet discipleship. You cannot be secret once you make a commitment of faith, for all of a sudden now you're going to be someone who is making a public profession of faith. That is why when people come down the aisle and arrive here, they declare with their lips upon their confirmation or baptism that this is their faith and this is what they believe. It is a public thing, this discipleship.

I know that within our tradition there is a love of modesty, humility and reticence and reluctance about making too big a deal about the things that we do, but Jesus is not saying that we should point to ourselves. He says rather that the good things that you do (and good in Greek is the word kalos which means winsome goodness) you be seen to do in order that God might be glorified. One of the things that Churches sometimes shrink from and one of the things that I need to educate people on is what the Church of Jesus Christ is actually doing. Sometimes when politicians speak about the Church within society, they have little or no thought of the things we do or stand for or the justice and mercy that we show, imperfect as it is. I think one of the features of our society as we approach the new millennium is that we do need to point to and be seen to be doing good, not that we get the glory, but that God is recognised. Discipleship must be seen as important and vital and even costly in the world.

The final thing about this light is not only that it must be seen, but that it must point to the truth. The light must point to the truth. This is Grey Cup Sunday and I couldn't help but think of the words of Vince Lombardi when he was giving instructions to his running backs and he said, “When the play breaks down and you have no idea where you're going or what you should do, just grab the ball and run for the light!” Go for the gap, seize the day and run through it. I think that's a wonderful illustration of what Christians must do: we must run for the light. It is not ourselves who are ipso facto the light; we point to the light that we find in Jesus Christ, a light that cannot be extinguished, a light that is eternal and everlasting. Sometimes we get a little confused on this issue. I read of a man who went to a psychiatrist for the first time and as he spoke to the psychiatrist he said, “My friends keep telling me that I have a complex and I wonder if you can help me.” The psychiatrist sat him down and said, “Seeing as I know nothing about you, why don't you just start right at the very beginning and tell me what the problem is?” So the man lay back on the couch and he said, “Mmmmm, in the beginning I created the heavens and the earth.”

In this narcissistic and me-centred generation this is not as funny as it sounds. There is a sense in which we feel our problems or our lives are those around which the universe revolves. Jesus Christ calls us out of thinking as ourselves as that light and calls us to point to his light, a light that provides guidance, a light that gives direction, a light that gives hope. As we look around the world this day, if we think that the gift of Christian discipleship is something that can be removed, I think we are sadly missing the point. Within our own society and within the world at large, when I look at the injustices and inequities, the immorality and problems that exist, the call of Jesus Christ to you and to me to be both salt and light, and the presence of righteousness and a pointer to the way seem so relevant and so important. May we go into that new millennium in the hope of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen