A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 9 February 2014
Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; 1 Corinthians 2:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20
Salt and light
Jesus said ‘You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world.’
I like the idea of being a light; you get put in some important place like a hilltop or on a lamp stand, and your light shines for all the world to see (or at least the neighbourhood or the family). You play a useful role; everyone looks up to you; they need you; they respect you. They might be looking at the path, but the light shines the way. Light is important. Light is noticed.
But salt? I’m not so sure. You see, light remains aloof, it retains its identity, but salt gets more intimately involved with people; it loses itself for the people it serves; salt is consumed. Light gets put on a pedestal, but salt, used properly, isn’t even noticed. It’s brings out the flavour of everything else, and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of beef,’ or, ‘That’s a fantastic soup.’ And the salt goes, ‘Hey! It’s me! You should try this stuff without me.’ But no one hears, and no one notices, and down it goes.
Salt and light
I’d rather be light than salt. But Jesus says we are both. We aren’t given a choice. There will be times when we will be called on to be a light and at other times, salt. Some of us will be more salt than light or more light than salt. We are not called to choose or to debate, but to be faithful; to be reliable; to be available for whatever role we are given.
Remember the words of the Covenant prayer we prayed last week:
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you….
Jesus said salt that has lost its flavour is of no use at all. He also said, in effect, ‘A light that’s in the wrong place is equally useless.’
I’m sure you know the story of the man searching in the street for a gold coin he had lost.
A stranger comes up and asks, ‘Where did you lose it? Were you here?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘I was down there, around the corner.’
‘Well, why are you looking here?’
‘Cos this is where the light is. It was pitch black down there — couldn’t see a thing.’
We expect to be noticed
Isaiah writes to a people who seem to have made up their own minds about service and who decided they wanted to be light not salt:
‘We’ll do it this way, thank you. We’ll fast and pray, we’ll even use sackcloth and ashes; we’ll compete with each other in bowing down low — but we do expect to be noticed. I mean, why should we fast if the Lord never notices us…if he doesn’t pay attention?’ (Isaiah 58:5 & 3)
Had Jesus been speaking to this group about salt and light, they would have said, ‘Yes, Lord, of course we’ll be a light for you. Bring the pedestal. We’re ready to be noticed!’
But what if God says, ‘I don’t need light; it’s daytime. I need salt.’
When our worship loses its flavour
Roland McGregor, an American United Methodist Minister, comments on this Isaiah passage and the ‘salt and light’ reading in Matthew: ‘Isaiah shares a message about God’s taste buds: when our worship loses its flavor and what restores its taste’ (See McGregorPage for Epiphany 5.)
What makes worship taste good? God told the people of Israel through Isaiah:
‘The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.’
Today’s reading is, of course, Isaiah’s version of the Micah 6 passage:
‘And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Micah 6:8
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters.
I don’t want salt with my apple. And keep your salt well away from my chocolate. But give me a bowl of oats without salt in it? No! And biltong without salt will make you very sick.
We don’t need a light in the middle of the day. But in the dark? When we are lost? When we need it to find a lost coin, or a lost child? Where is the light then?
It’s in the church
‘Oh, no! It’s locked up in the church. That’s where we use it. It’s very beautiful there. We can’t bring it out here and run the risk of it breaking. No; please come on Sunday, 9 a.m., and you can enjoy it as much as we do.’
‘And you want our salt? For soup? For the soup kitchen? No, sorry. You don’t understand. Our salt is very special. It has a unique saltiness to it and a mix of minerals and herbs. It’s far too special to put on food (and certainly not soup for the soup kitchen). We keep it in a special saltcellar, and we bring it out on Sundays and put it on display during our worship.
‘It’s very important, you see. Jesus told us to be salt and light, so we have this beautiful lamp and this wonderful salt as part of our worship.’
Passing the peace out there
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters. For example, we pass the peace among ourselves, and there are many times we need to be reminded of that peace. But there is a world of turmoil out there and people who have never known peace. Dare we take the peace we have received and share it out there?
To be salt and light means going to the dark and unsavoury places where people live and work and struggle and weep.
Put an end to oppression
After telling the Israelites to ‘remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice,’ Isaiah said,
If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. (Isaiah 58:9-10)
Your worship will bring flavour and light to the world if you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.
‘Biting barbed words’
Do we oppress people? Well probably not in chains in our garden sheds. And probably not on the scale that was experienced under apartheid. But a friend of mine published a poem the other day. It ponders on a lifetime of pain and anguish — a soul’s agony. Reflecting on the source of the pain, she wrote:
Maybe, it’s secrets
Done to her—or kept from her.
Maybe the silence,
Or yelling—biting barbed words
That shred a small child’s insides.
(Mirada Mudo, ‘Caught in the Un-Wished Well’)
‘… biting barbed words that shred a small child’s insides.’
‘… put an end to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.’
Sarcasm and criticism
How often do we default to sarcasm? How often do we become overly critical of our children or our spouse? Have you listened to yourself recently? I know how easy it is to default to sarcasm and criticism. On a bad day I’ll get into critical mode, and everything my wife does needs to be criticised. The only way to break the habit is to declare a no-criticism day. I know there is grave danger that the sky might fall in if you don’t criticise and correct — especially the important stuff, like how to squeeze the toothpaste tube and hang up the washing — but it’s worth the risk. If you can just hold off until tomorrow you’ll find, as I do, that the mood has changed, the need has gone, and peace has a chance.
I wonder, also, how our Christian way of speaking might oppress people around us, especially fellow Christians. For example, I passed a motivational message board the other day. The message read:
‘Worry ends where faith begins’
Now if you are not a chronic worrier, you will drive past that sign and say to yourself, ‘Amen to that!’ And you won’t understand what I am about to say.
But if you are a chronic worrier, that sort of sign just adds to your worries. You say to yourself, ‘But I do have faith; I just can’t stop worrying. So, obviously, my faith isn’t any good. I must be a lousy Christian … or perhaps not a Christian at all.’
All you need is faith
And much of what we say in church, or at least much of what people hear us say, confirms that understanding. We say:
‘All you need is faith.’
‘Just pray your worries away.’
‘If you just have faith God will heal you.’
‘If you just have faith God will protect you.’
‘If you just have faith God will change everything.’
Of course, all of that’s true. But the way we say it, or the way it is heard, people are left thinking that if my healing, protection, transformation doesn’t happen the same way as yours, or quickly enough, it must mean my faith is less than yours, my faith is not good enough.
We are not all the same
But God’s healing, protection, transformation touches different people in different ways and at different times. We have to understand that; we have to remember that when we share our faith and our good news. We are not all the same, and God doesn’t treat us all the same.
The beginning of faith is only the beginning
The sign we spoke about, ‘Worry ends where faith begins’, is a lie. The beginning of faith is not the end of worry. It might be the beginning of the end of worry; it might be the beginning of learning to live with worry and of learning to deal with worry. But the beginning of faith is not the end of worry.
I may as well say, ‘the beginning of faith is the end of alcoholism.’
Most alcoholics would know I’m talking nonsense; they know that the beginning of faith is just the beginning of a journey towards managing their alcoholism.
The beginning of faith is only the beginning of a journey where faith will grow and affect different parts of our lives at different speeds. It’s the beginning of a journey that will be different for each of us, but a journey towards joy and love and delight, of salty flavour and light in dark places.
Faith is a relationship
Faith is a relationship with God. And like any relationship it is something we grow into. We get to know, we learn to trust. We struggle a bit and the relationship suffers; we discover a bit more about the other and we grow closer.
Being salt and light, putting an end to oppression, means we allow others the same space we need. So the challenge for us this week is to find ways that we can give people around us the gift of light and salt that is making a difference in our lives; look for ways that we can share the grace that God gives us in abundance.
‘… put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word…, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.’
What do you think make worship taste good? Add your comments below.
And be sure to come back tomorrow for the prayer that followed the sermon.