02.09.2014 Preaching Text: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13a, 14a)
The other night my mother related a question a friend had asked her. “Who created God?” she had wanted to know.
Our knee-jerk reaction is to say that God’s existence is a mystery. Which it is. But on closer theological inspection, the deeper truth is that God is not “created” at all. From the biblical point of view, that is, God is “uncreated.”
The reason this is important is because we’re so conditioned to treat God and all godly things as if they were part of Creation, rather than the spiritual force that brought Creation into being. Heavenly things, in other words, remain separate and distinct from life here on earth.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us about this strange “world” from which he comes, one that is, as I say, separate and distinct. Its logic is different from ours. Its wisdom, its ethics, what it most values, stand in stark relief to much of what we commonly assume regarding such things.
But because heaven’s internal logic is so different from our own, and because its logic so often remains hidden from the world around us, we are naturally tempted to co-opt God, to make God a part of our world, rather than holy (as separate and set apart).
To Jesus’ original hearers, his sermon was probably a bit startling, so novel would much of it have sounded. But for us, living two thousand years hence, these same words perhaps serve more as a reminder of things we know already but easily forget (or never quite learn!).
Jesus uses two metaphors in our reading today from Matthew’s gospel. The first is salt. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says.
Curiously, the phrase, salt of the earth, is most commonly used today to describe a person who is down-to-earth, real. But for Jesus’ original hearers its meaning would imply something quite uncommon, something of extraordinarily high value.
For salt was, in the ancient world, an expensive and valued commodity. Which, when applied to human beings, suggests a rare person of solid worth and great usefulness.
Salt also symbolized purity. It is, after all, the natural by-product of the sun and the sea, two very pure, basic entities. As such, it was commonly used when ritual sacrifices were offered. A follower of Jesus, by inference, was to be a person of purity, honesty, and trustworthiness, in word and deed.
Salt was also a preservative, used to safeguard meat and other perishables, keeping them fresh. For the Christian, this meant preserving the ways of God, of keeping morals and standards high, and passing those standards on to others. The very presence of a faithful Christian, in other words, assists in preserving goodness against any and all corruptions.
Finally, salt lends flavor to things. The faith brings zest to life. But if such zest is absent from our practice of faith, we must be about reclaiming its essential radiance.
Which brings us to light. This image speaks to us perhaps especially, given that it is the word used to describe our church: a beacon! Christianity symbolizes a beacon of light that shines into our world, guiding and directing all who are lost to safety and warmth, in the same way a lighthouse serves that same purpose for those tossed about by a dark and turbulent sea (thus betraying our seafaring, Cape Cod heritage).
But if salt loses its saltiness, or if we place our light under a bucket, neither serves its purpose.
Jesus’ point, thus, is clear. In a world where heavenly things are so easily subsumed by the ‘this-worldly,’ the faithful are tasked with reclaiming sacred ground.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about the state of the church as the new study group begins its work. One of the articles I passed out at our first meeting (after we reviewed a number of troubling statistics about church attendance) argues that the seeds of Mainline Protestant decline are long-standing, and not just the result of events over the last 40-50 years.
Curiously, the author points out, the more conservative, evangelical churches, unlike the Mainline ones, weathered the upheavals of the 60’s relatively unscathed. The reason, it is suggested, is that the evangelical churches always remained wary of getting caught up with secular culture. As such, unlike us, they were never considered part of the cultural “establishment.”
Instead, they remained outsiders who continued to stress not the transformation of human beings by means of cultural institutions and instrumentalities, or through law, politics, and social policy, but by focusing primarily on ‘making disciples,’ by changing hearts and minds by means of specific Christian tenets.
Tony Robinson, in his well-researched book, Transforming Congregational Life, makes the point that with the proliferation of any number of secular agencies and organizations over the years, many of the traditional functions of the church have become almost unnecessary.
Today, innumerable social service agencies provide food and clothing for the needy. Political think tanks and policy advocates offer government officials advice and counsel. Social groupings, especially the newer technological ones, connect people together, for better or worse.
In days past, as I say, these functions were served almost exclusively by the church. Today, however, people don’t need to go to church to connect with others, to serve the community, or to find a rational for political or social ordering.
If I want to get the latest buzz on political matters, for instance, I can stay home and peruse the newspaper, read in-depth articles on the Internet, or watch a few of the Sunday morning news programs – all in the comfort of my own home.
No, the one thing the church has to offer, as you’ve heard me say time and again, is to transform human lives in accordance with the mind and spirit of the God of Judeo-Christian faith, to change hearts and minds in and through the unique and life-changing love of Christ, and to present that holy love to our world, as salt and light. Only this, or so it seems, can change our world.
The reason the evangelical churches have continued to thrive, relatively speaking, at least in my opinion, is that they tend to focus on the things of faith. And in a world increasingly desperate for spiritual answers, these churches offer…answers!
What I fear we’ve forgotten over the years is that we in the Mainline Protestant churches have a profoundly rich theological tradition of our own, one distinct from that held by our more evangelical brothers and sisters.
Is it not time, I keep wondering, to reclaim that rich tradition, that it might prove once again to be the salt of the earth and light to the world? Amen.