Third Sunday before Lent - Sermon - Matthew 5. 13–20
The problem with metaphors is they often break down or listeners may not fully understand them depending on their context. Metaphors which may have been powerful centuries ago can sometimes lose their meaning or impact in modern times.
I was thinking about that yesterday as I pondered Jesus’ words in todays’ Gospel reading from the introductory part of the Sermon on the Mount and when I asked my younger son to tell me what he thought about when I mentioned the word “salt”.
Can anyone of you guess, I wonder?………….
It was “ bad health”!
He’s a health conscious 22 year old who has grown up in a world of food labelling and in a time when medical science has clearly established that too much salt is positively bad for you. It is well known that salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease and strokes. Consume too much of it on any day and you might notice bloating, difficulty sleeping or dehydration. Our body needs only a small amount of sodium a day (less than a teaspoon) and given it’s to be found in sandwiches, sauces, tinned soups, snacks and lots of other processed foods, it’s not hard to exceed the recommended daily allowance.
So for my younger son, talk of salt necessarily equates with health. Whereas, I can’t help but think of the abundance of other good uses salt can be put to, from removing blood and red wine stains, using it to gargle with when suffering a sore throat, or to ward off pests in the garden or even throwing some on an icy garden path. More recently I discovered that a saline solution is a good way of inducing vomiting in your pet if it has eaten something harmful and researching for this sermon I also learned that salt can be used to relieve bee stings, cool bottled drinks quickly, or even to deodorise smelly canvas shoes!
I also can’t think of salt without remembering a wonderful visit to the magnificent salt mine near Krakow in Poland where spectacular chandeliers, a chapel and an amazing depiction of the Last Supper can be found, all fashioned entirely from salt.
In Jesus’ time salt was viewed favourably too. Known for its positive uses as a seasoning in food, and for its important qualities as a preservative, when Jesus, called those listening to him “the salt of the earth” it was a compliment and is, of course, still used as such today. In the ancient world salt was sometimes used as currency. We know that the word salary derives from it. And rabbis used salt as a symbol for wisdom.
Salt is amazing. It preserves, cleans, disinfects, heals and, of course, brings out and enhances flavour. Some commentators suggest that we as Christians are to be seen as a “moral preservative”. Being followers of Jesus our purpose is to bring out the best in people and to bring the great and wonderful things of God’s kingdom to others.
However, Jesus, was quick to remind his followers that salt can lose its taste and become useless. Today we might argue, given the abundance of other uses for it, that salt shouldn’t be thrown away just because it will no longer add much flavour to cooking, but let’s just focus for a moment on how it loses its flavour or saltiness. Does anyone know?
Well the fact is that pure salt doesn’t. Salt might lose its flavour under certain conditions, when it contains chemical impurities, or absorbs humidity from the environment around it, or when it evaporates leaving behind a substance which looks like but doesn’t taste like salt and the salt we use in cooking today often contains certain additives or other seasonings which is why it may bear an expiry date of anything between two and five years, but pure salt in fact has no expiry date.
Salt becomes weakened or diluted because of the environment it is in.
I can’t help but think about the extent to which we, as followers of Jesus, might have our faith weakened or diluted or “lose our flavour” because of the different environments we sometimes find ourselves in. It’s so much easier to feel holy in the sanctity of a quiet church than in the busy, pressured environment of the workplace or at home when struggling with family responsibilities, isn’t it? We know how outcomes for children can vary enormously depending on the environment in which they are raised.
Jesus goes on to tell his listeners that they are “the light of the world”, that they must not hide their light but let it shine before others so that their good works might be seen and those who see them might praise and thank God as a result. The image of a brightly city on a hilltop is an evocative one and reminds us of the greater corporate effect of the combined lights of individual disciples. Followers of Jesus are to shine collectively, in community.
Light is amazing isn’t it? It helps us to see and sheds light on confusion, fear and misunderstanding. It can shine brightly in the unlikeliest of places. Just one tiny candle in a room can banish darkness. These days “light shows” are increasingly popular. Awe inducing things of beauty they mesmerise and stimulate us. But we’ve also learned how to harness light for its energy properties.
Whilst in the gospel passage Jesus is very much referring to visible light in order to convey the need for us to be visible and for our faith to shine in the world so that others know we are practising Christians, nowadays we know that some forms of light, such as ultraviolet light, can be invisible to humans yet nonetheless have healing qualities. I can’t help but think about those Christians whose light might not be as visible as others but who nonetheless have a significant impact on the world in which we live.
Jesus makes clear our light is to shine not for the sake of ourselves but for the sake of others. As one writer observes, light is amazing as long as it’s illuminating something else. We’re not meant to hide our light but sometimes obstructions can arise and block it.
What are the things that stop your light from shining more brightly?
Commentators opine that Jesus uses the salt light and sayings to define the identity of those who follow him faithfully and to characterise the work of himself and his followers. The salt and light images challenge us as Christians to reflect upon our significance for the world as a whole. Christians are not simply to be just like everyone else but are called to be different, with a distinct role.
Forgive the pun, but when reflecting on the properties of light I couldn’t help but think about how too much light can be damaging and destructive. Excessive light can blind and disorientate. And even in Jesus’ time, it was known that too much salt would ruin a good meal. Only a small amount is actually required.
I wonder if that has something reassuring and encouraging to say to us, as members of an institutional church which is in decline? Should we really be so anxious about reducing numbers or so fearful of becoming an even smaller minority?
Sometimes people complain they can’t offer much. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed when world problems seem so immense and our own contributions seem so insignificant, but remember, only a little salt is needed. A little salt makes a big difference just as the smallest act can have the greatest significance, especially if it is one of many. A quote from Mother Teresa comes to mind:
We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
Both salt and light are absolutely essential for life. Sodium plays an important role in the cardiovascular system and body’s metabolism, helping the body maintain normal fluid levels and playing a key role in nerve and muscle function and without light we’d cease to exist. Each is essential, but has its necessary effect on its environment only if it is both distinctive from it and yet fully involved in it. As disciples we must, as one writer puts it, function in society as an alternative and challenging community and by visible goodness bring glory to the God who has made us.
Richard Young (Rector)