The Illumination of Life
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 9, 2020
Reading: Matthew 5:13-20
Our English teacher gave us a school project when I was a student. She wanted us to go home and write an essay over the weekend about salt. We all looked at each other with bemusement. We knew that it was going to require a great deal of imagination to make anything out of it, and we were horrified. But, as stalwart students, we wrote our essays on salt. Some reported back about the chemical make-up of salt and the background behind it. Some talked about the mining of salt, some talked about the properties and usages of salt, some talked about the problems of salt. Then one extremely intelligent student – not me, full disclosure – wrote an essay on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and why it was important for peace of the world. S.A.L.T. 1 was, as far as he was concerned, one of the singular most important decisions of the twentieth century.
He wrote eloquently about how Brezhnev and Nixon had met in Helsinki in 1972 after the deliberations had begun in 1969. He foresaw problems with SALT 2, and he was right, in ’79 they didn’t sign it. He knew these things and boy, was he smug about it, I’ll tell you. But what an essay he wrote on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
You can imagine, when I sat down and I looked at our text this morning and thought, how am I going to preach on salt and light, that he immediately came to mind. I thought the words of Jesus are quite relevant to the essays that were written about that. They all speak in a powerful way about peace and the need for peace as we found earlier in the Beatitudes. There is a sense in which the properties and usages of salt are important. Every single one of those essays has relevance for our text this morning.
When you look at this passage carefully, it seems very strange to our generation. Jesus is sitting down with his disciples, it’s all part of the Sermon on the Mount, and these are phrases that were probably remembered and put in a little later, of things that Jesus said to his disciples. He said to them, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in The Cost of Discipleship, he did not say, you are like the salt of the earth. He did not say, you will become the light of the world. He said definitively, you are.
What did he mean by this? And why would we find anything that has any meaning for our own life and our own witness today? Let’s look at these two things carefully. What did Jesus have in mind when he said to the disciples, “You are the salt of the earth?” Biblically, salt had always been seen very positively. It was an integral part of creation and life. Every time salt is used as a reference in the Bible, it’s positive, perhaps with one exception, and that was dear Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt and who probably didn’t think much of it. Everyone else though, thought salt was a positive thing. So, when Jesus says to the disciples “You are the salt of the earth”, he is saying something positive, and that’s the way it was understood. But as the great Scottish theologian, William Barclay, points out, the only way to really understand the power and the importance of what Jesus was saying, is to understand how salt was used in biblical times, and what those properties were that made it so powerful.
Salt purifies and preserves, that was its major usage. Meat would go rancid if it wasn’t put in salt. Salt was kept outside in a box for people to use. It was part of cooking, part of cleansing and bathing, part of life. It was a purifier. I look back and think of how, as a young boy growing up in Bermuda, I used to get scratches, grazes and cuts, like all children, and my mother and father would always take me down to the beach and get me into the sea to swim around for a while in the salt water. This was a cleansing activity, and then they’d apply other things later as needed. There is something powerful about the purifying and healing properties of salt. You put salt on a wound, and the salt has a way, with the water, of being able to purify.
What Jesus is really getting at is that the disciples are to be a purified group of people. They are to be a righteous and a holy people. They're supposed to live in accordance with a standard of purity and life that was deeply meaningful. The problem, of course, is when we talk in such terms, that we think that this purifying power, this wonderful gift of salt and righteousness, makes people think that they are to be self-righteous, that when you use the phrase, “salt of the earth” you think that somehow you are better than everybody else.
Jesus clearly had a high standard, and you can see that later in our reading. Jesus says, “I want your righteousness, your sense of purity, to go beyond the purity and the righteousness of the Pharisees.” He wanted them to be a purifier and a healer within the world, but it was more than that; it was a reference to how we live and how we speak in concrete terms. The Apostle Paul, for example, in the Book of Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your conversations be seasoned with salt. Let the conversations that you have, be full of grace, and let others be able to hear the good things that you have to say.”
Now, that’s a powerful message in our day and age because it reminds us that what we say and how we say it, should be seasoned with salt. It should be constructive, it should be healing, it should be purifying. We live in a vulgar age. We live in an age where even those who are in positions of power and authority, use expletives and horrible language to denounce others. We live in a world where it is often easy to speak ill about someone else. For those who follow Christ, according to Paul in Colossians, to speak with words that are seasoned by salt, to be pure and to be righteous, is an important thing. The problem is that in this vulgar world, we often think that it is better for us if we avoid the world. There have been some who have interpreted “You are the salt of the earth” to mean complete avoidance from the world, like, living in a quarantined cocoon, and after the last couple of weeks, we all know how hard the notion of quarantine is.
There were those who, particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth century as Christian writers, felt that avoiding what Shelley called “the contagion of the world’s slow stain” was essential for being a follower of Christ. That to be salt of the world, you had to withdraw and not engage in the world. But that’s not realistic, that’s not what Jesus had in mind. On the contrary, what Jesus had in mind was something much more powerful, and that is that salt needs to be applied. There’s no point having a purifier if you don’t use it. For Jesus, salt was a powerful thing, and because it’s a powerful thing, it should be used, it should be known, it should be active. Because salt is a powerful thing, it can have negative impacts as well. Salt can become contaminated. Jesus said, “Do not let your salt lose its saltiness.” Don’t let it be trampled underfoot, don’t let it be abused, don’t let it be misused.
Now, we know that salt never loses its saltiness, it never changes in that regard, but it can become contaminated. In Israel, in the time of Jesus, salt was placed buckets or boxes outside of a home, and it was very easy for the weather and for other things to contaminate the salt, and that salt therefore became something that was basically useless. For Jesus, this powerful substance could become toxic. We know from a health standpoint that too much of it, can be toxic for us in terms of hypertension and things like that. Well, Jesus knew, maybe not that, but that salt can have a negative effect if it is not used or applied properly.
I was thinking back to something that happened in my culinary history when I was a bachelor. I shared this once with a Bible study group here, so some of you might have heard this before, but I was living on my own in a manse, and frankly, I had never had to cook for myself before so I was a novice, a neophyte, I was out there on my own in the dark world of the culinary recipes. And it is a dark world. I was always invited by the Presbyterian minister and his wife in the village of River John, to dine with them, because they knew that I could not properly cook for myself. But realising how kind they had been to me, I decided to reciprocate, you know, as Christians do. So, I invited them to my house for them dinner. They came, with fear and trepidation, but they came, and I sat them down. It was a beautiful table. I remember the menu to this day; I had chicken and it was actually succulent and crispy at the same time. I had beautiful potatoes, done in the oven, just right, perfect. I’d decided to cook as a green, fiddleheads from New Brunswick. Everything seemed perfect. I had the table beautifully set, I had the napkins folded, it was exquisite, I’ve got to say. Until we started to eat. After about – I don’t know – three or four minutes, I found that the jug of water that I had on the table had already been consumed. There were looks of bemusement of the faces of my two guests. I, however, had hardly eaten a thing, because I was more interested in whether they were surviving the meal.
When I realised that the woman concerned, Jill – dear Jill – leaned over to me and said, “Andrew, by any chance, do you have the recipe for the fiddleheads?”
I said, “Well, yes, I do, actually, I did get a recipe from someone in Moncton. I have it.” I showed it to her.
Then she said, “Did you cook them according to this recipe?”
I said, “Absolutely. I used just water and two tsps of salt.”
She said, “Well, that’s very good,” and she looked at me quizzically and she said, “what does tsp stand for?”
I said, “tablespoon. “
Immediately she looked and she said, “Ah, tablespoon. How many tablespoons of salt did you put in with the fiddleheads?”
I said, “Oh, I don’t know, two, and maybe I added a little bit more for some flavour; three tablespoons of salt in with the fiddleheads.” She said it tasted like iron on steroids. That was her description. It was a disaster. Well, the chicken was all right though, and the potatoes, so two out of three ain’t bad for a United Church minister, I didn’t think.
Oh, salt can be toxic. It can be powerful. It can hurt, but it needs to be applied, it needs to be used, it needs to be part of things, and when it is it can be transformative.
I’ve been re-reading the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. What a read! In it there is a story of a man who was in prison with him, in fact, his cellmate, who suffered greatly at the hands, not only of those in positions of power and the jailers, but also some of the inmates. He was a kind and a gentle man. When people were in trouble, he was the one who would go to their aid. If people were being abused, he would stand with them and in between those who were assaulting them. He would give of his meal when others were hungry. He was a remarkable human being. Solzhenitsyn could never understand quite where he got all this power from, but he noticed something about his cellmate: He would tear up little pieces of paper and put these little pieces of paper in his hands every night, and then he’d put them under the mattress. These little strips of paper were quotes from the Sermon on the Mount. This man lived his whole life based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peace-makers, and happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and blessed are the pure in heart, and blessed are the meek.”
Solzhenitsyn looked at these passages and realised how much power this man had in his life, even though he was the most vulnerable, often the most abused, the one who suffered at the hands of those in the prison. Solzhenitsyn said that there was more righteousness and more hope in this man than in any charter of rights, or any fifteen points of Woodrow Wilson. He said, this was profoundly changing the life around him. Solzhenitsyn was touched by a man who was the salt of the earth, and his source were the words of Christ. Powerful.
Salt not only purifies, not only has to be applied, but it gives flavour. On Friday I attended a Christian school assembly. I was the speaker. There was great music and lots of children, and it was classic Toronto, diverse as you could ever imagine. What an incredible student body it was. They were singing the hymns, doing contemporary music, and prayers. It was great, I got them to wave and speak Africans, and we had a wonderful time. There was such joy though – this is the point – there was such youthful joy and exuberance, it was touching it was enlivening. That is what the Good News, that’s what the salt of the earth do; the salt of the earth don’t mope around in a self-righteous fog, always wanting and condemning the world to be something other than it is, but rather just being salt, bringing flavour, being Good News. Oftentimes it’s seen as the opposite, being the salt of the earth is seen, rather than something joyful, being a sting on a wound. That’s often how the Christian life is seen.
I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ comment, “There was one point in my life when I wanted to become a minister, but I realised that all the ministers I met, acted like undertakers.” No disrespect to any undertakers who might be in the congregation today, but you get his drift. More like those who are dealing with death, rather than dealing with life.
Oh my, how often being salt of the earth is seen not as giving flavour, not as giving joy, and yet look at what Jesus said at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, look at the Beatitudes, what is his opening word? Makarioi, which means “blessed, or joyful, or happy are those who follow Him.” To be salt of the earth does not mean to be miserable, but to bring flavour and joy of the Good News to the world.
He also said, “You are the light of the world”, and this is another powerful image. Maybe better understood than salt, maybe not quite worthy of the same reflection, because it just seems so obvious. The light is often referred to in the Scriptures as representing Adam or Moses, the people of Israel or the temple, Jerusalem or God Himself – positive, light as opposed to darkness. A light radiating into the shadows of the world, this is the power of light.
You've got to remember that light was so hard to find at night in the time of Jesus. A simple candle or a small fire in the middle of the room was placed on a pedestal high above, so it could radiate to all the corners of a room. There were no switches, no multiple lights. One room, one light usually was the method. Light was important. You put it on a high place where it could be seen, just like Jerusalem and Zion was a light to the nations. So, Jesus is saying, “You are the light of the world, you are being like the new Jerusalem, you are being like the new Zion, you are there for the world to see.” And of course, for light to be effective, it must be seen. And what must be seen in this light? Jesus defines it, he says, “Let your good works be seen. This seems almost antithetical to everything that we’ve ever been taught. Don’t let others see the good that you do, do it quietly, do it sort of in a demure way. Don’t become obscenely obvious when you do good, and certainly don’t do good in order that you can get recognition for it, which is one of the great malaise of our culture. No, don’t do that. We get that, but at the same time Jesus is saying that you are the light of the world, you've got to be seen, you've got to be winsome, and that is the word for the goodness that he uses. It means winsome, a winsome light that you shine in the world, not to promote yourself, but to point to something beyond ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago I made comment, if some of you will recall, about an NFL player who was being interviewed, that was asked about God and how it was an absolute travesty. Well, this last week, another NFL player was being interviewed about his faith in God, but this time, in an articulate manner, and with a sincerity. It was the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, after having won the Super Bowl. It was a humble and thoughtful interview. Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback, said the following:
Faith has always been important to me. Obviously, I want to win every game, but I'm glorifying God every single time I'm out there. As long as I'm doing everything the right way, in the way that Christ would want me to do it, then I can walk off the field with my head held high and be able to be the person that I am. I know God watches over me on the field, I know that God is there, I know that God is there, because He sings with me and He loses with me.
Mahomes embodies a kind of humility, but it also lets his light shine before others. Let others know and glorify God. You see, there are two ways you can do that; you can do that like our narcissistic age that points to itself, look how good I am, look how wonderful I am, look how splendid I am. Or you can do it this way and point in glory beyond ourselves.
When Jesus said, you are the light of the world, he knew that what they were doing was representing him, and that he is the true light of the world, and the true source of righteousness, but the disciples’ lives had to point to it.
How much better this world would be if those who ascribe to him their faith, would live like that. How much better we would be, if we took his convictions seriously, and how much more, as salt and light, we could give God the glory. What a better world it would be. Amen.