5th Sunday after Epiphany
[Today’s sermon is
mostly taken from a sermon I preached in 2002.
With a few modifications it’s probably a better sermon than any I might
Today’s Gospel contains two images that are so well known that we may take them completely for granted. We may even miss the meaning! “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”
When I say someone is the salt of the earth, I mean they are solid, steady. They do their work, they carry their share of the load, they’re reliable.
What I discovered, back in 2002 is that what Jesus meant may be quite different. For one thing, we take salt for granted. It’s always on the shelf in the grocery store, and we don’t use a lot of it at any one time. We don’t think of salt as a food item; it’s what we use to make most any food taste better.
Go back for a moment to 1st Century Palestine, though, and it’s a very different story. People had no electricity, no ice, no refrigerators. The climate was very hot and dry. Water was scarce and trees were scarcer. Salt is used not just to season food, but also to preserve it. It takes a lot of salt to preserve meat or fish.
Salt was so precious in those days that it was part of the pay for the soldiers in the Roman army. Hence the expression, “not worth his salt.” What are we paid for our work? A salary. The word salary comes from the Latin word for salt.
Have you ever been in the tropics or the desert? Have you ever been dehydrated? I once took a walk on a beach without considering that the beach was right on the equator. I left at sunrise and within a few minutes looked like a zen fountain, with liquid flowing down all my surfaces. I hadn’t even gone a half mile when I realized I was being stupid, sunrise or not. I returned to my hotel and spent the rest of the day guzzling water and rehydration salts. Salt is vital to maintaining fluids in the body.
Because wood was scarce, most villages in Jesus’ day had a communal oven where all the women baked their bread. This oven was made out of clay. The young girls of the village had the task of collecting animal dung, mixing it with salt, and making it into patties to dry in the sun. In the bottom of the oven was a slab of salt, on which the dried dung was burned to heat the oven.
Why salt in the dung and why a slab of salt? Because salt is a catalyst that makes the dung burn hot enough to bake bread. A catalyst is an agent that accelerates a reaction.
The other thing I discovered is that in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages Jesus spoke, the word for earth and the word for clay-oven are exactly the same. This means our lesson today might have been translated, “You are the salt of the clay-oven.”
Eventually the slab of salt in the oven would lose its catalytic qualities. When that happened it was removed, broken up, and used as we might use gravel, to fill in a muddy spot in the road. A new slab of salt would be put in the oven.
Think again about what Jesus said to his disciples. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored: It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
Now we can see more directly, as the disciples would have, the connection between the salt image and the light image. The salt is a catalyst that helps the fire burn brighter and hotter. And in those days the only light other than the sun or moon would have been fire or a flame. Jesus tells his followers that they are the salt, they are the flame, and that they must not hide their light.
Would anyone light a lamp in a dark house and then cover it up. No. You would put it wherever it will give the most light. So… Jesus says that to be a disciple is to be a catalyst and to be a light. Not only must we let our light be seen, we must also be the agent that makes the light shine brighter and hotter. And not just for our own light, but for those of others as well.
There’s an old joke among Episcopalians, that we are God’s frozen people – referring to our reputation as being terribly reserved and insisting on calm good order. We tend to be wary of excitement and enthusiasm. We come from a tradition that frowns on putting yourself forward.
Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus calls us to do just that. To be a catalyst, to give light to those around you, means you must own your Christian faith and be up front about it. We’re easier with doing that in deeds than we are in words. We are willing to try to live a Christian life as long as we just don’t have to talk about it!
I grew up in an Episcopal home where I was taught that it’s not nice to talk about religion – and this was taken just as seriously as not talking about sex or money! It took years before I could begin to put my faith into words.
But I ask you – when you look at what is happening in the world, or when you see what’s happening in Washington, or even what happens here in your own community, isn’t silence the same thing as acquiescence? Is keeping silent much different from saying OK? Do you believe Jesus calls us to be silent in the face of injustice, or bullying or crime? No. Sometimes speaking words is a necessary part of our Christian action, and sometimes we have to call a spade a spade.
It is possible to own our own beliefs, to let our light shine in words as well as deeds, without trampling on others. You can take a stand without condemning those who disagree. You just start your sentence with “I”.
“I think this is wrong. I don’t think this is fair to everyone. I am unable to participate. I cannot agree.”
And just maybe, your taking a stand will encourage others to do the same—not that it will change their beliefs, but that it will help them to voice their beliefs and act on them. That’s one way to be a catalyst.
Consider the economic crisis of 2008. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened at the big banks or the brokerage firms if anyone in the upper levels of management had said, “What we’re doing is wrong. I think this is dishonest.” I’m sure there were people involved who knew it was wrong but were afraid to say so.
Being a follower of Jesus is not a job for sissies. It takes courage and faith and daring, especially in a time like ours when the culture around us does not necessarily reflect the same values Jesus taught us. We must embody those values in what we say and what we do. Be the salt in your community; be the light as well. Live the life Jesus taught us to live and, when necessary, screw up your courage and speak the truth in love.