5 Epiphany A—2/5/17
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
Pr. Scott Kramer
I remember a time as a young adult when I had just turned legal age. Wine and beer were familiar to me but cocktails were completely foreign. One day I was out to dinner with an older and more experienced friend, who explained some of the drinks listed on the menu. I settled on a Mai Tai. When the drink was served I took a sip and exclaimed, “That’s really salty!” My friend looked at me, astounded. “Salty!?” he said. (This is a Hawaiian drink, for crying out loud!) We called over the waiter, who dashed back to the bar, puzzled. He returned, embarrassed. The bartender had reached for what he thought was sugar and instead he’d grabbed the salt!
Well, it’s an easy mistake to make, right? Salt. Sugar. They look so much the same.
One day Jesus called his disciples together, looked at them, and proclaimed, You are the salt of the earth. But blessings are often accompanied by warnings, and he then said: 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.
I have a container of Morton all-purpose natural sea salt with me here, and, funny thing, there is no expiration date on the label. And why is that? Because…salt doesn’t lose its flavor, even if it were left on the shelf for a thousand years! So—what in the world is Jesus talking about?
Well, what is the only way that salt isn’t salty? By being something other than salt!
Jesus’ words are not so much designed to comfort and reassure us as to poke and to prod us to ask this question: To what extent are we salt, and to what extent are we…something else?
Martin Luther had an answer to that, when he described baptized Christians as simul justus et peccator, which means, Simultaneously saint and sinner. All of us are both saint and sinner, every minute of every day. Our task as disciples of Jesus is to recognize and celebrate those areas where we are salty. Our more important and difficult task, though, is to recognize and confess those areas of our lives, individually and as a community, that are without salt.
The thing about table salt is that it looks like lots of other things. It looks like sugar. It looks like aluminum sulphate, used in gardening, like I have in this container. Likewise, we who claim the name of Christ go to church. That looks Christian. We might be respected members of our church. We might have family in the church going back generations. We might have held a particular office in the church for decades. We might be major donors of the church. But friends, lots of things look like salt. According to Jesus, appearances don’t necessarily count for much. It’s the taste test that tells the tale!
And what does salt taste like in the mouth of God? Jesus answered that question when he summed up the life of faith in one sentence: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind…and your neighbor as yourself. ALL your heart? ALL your soul? Does anyone here do that ALL the time? And just who is my neighbor, Jesus? Well, first off, he once said, Anyone who says they love God but hate their neighbor is a liar! Who is my neighbor? Oh, it’s the foreigner, the stranger, the prostitute, the tax collector, the woman, the child…the enemy. Translations in our own day might include the immigrant, the refugee, the sexual minority, the person of color. Anyone here love like that all the time? Do we even want to? To be salt is to put love first, and our love has to exceed appearances (vv. 17-20).
Lots of things look like salt. But it’s the taste test that tells the tale. According to the one we call Lord, if it ain’t love for the outsider, it ain’t salt. And if it ain’t salt, it ain’t got flavor. And if it ain’t got that salty flavor, it’s no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under foot.
Hard words, friends! But hard words may be what are needed in our own time, because over the centuries, evidently, soft words haven’t worked. How is it, for example, that Christians were complicit in the slaughter and conquest of Native Americans? How is it that Christians were slaveholders for three centuries? Where was the salt of the earth? Where was love? And how is it, during WWII, that American Christians in the Pacific Northwest were silent during the internment of Japanese-Americans? Or, again during WWII, how is it that American Christians were silent when a boat loaded with Jews seeking refuge in America was ordered back to Europe? How is it that Christians were silent while African Americans were beaten, lynched and abused before, during, and after the Civil Rights era? And sometimes it’s right under our nose, like in this neighborhood covenant from the mid-20th century that I’m holding—my neighborhood!—that explicitly bans all non-white people. Not all Christians were silent. A few were the salt of the earth. A few understood what Christian love looks like.
The point here is not to beat up on those who have gone before us, or even to beat up on ourselves. The point is that those who ignore or refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it…over and over and over again, in every generation. Doomed to be tasteless, thrown out and trampled under foot.
You, dear friends, are the salt of the earth. I catch glimpses of that when I experience you hosting a conversation between Muslims and Christians right here in this space. I catch glimpses when I see some of your folks year after year roll up your sleeves and serve Jesus in our midst, the men of ARISE. You no doubt can name other areas where you pass the taste test—you taste salty!
But friends, the day may be coming—in fact, it may already be here—when you discover what you are truly made of. The day may be at hand when you decide either to merely look like salt, or to be salt. Your response, individually and as a congregation–to refugees, to immigrants, to gay and lesbian people, to children, to Muslims, to non-white people—your response will say a lot. You will have to decide whether you will choose fear, tradition, power, privilege, racial identity and national loyalty as more important than discipleship to Jesus Christ. Many congregations, for example, are right now asking whether they would be willing to provide sanctuary for refugees, in order to be…the salt of the earth.
It’s the taste test that tells the tale. To follow Jesus is hard but the question is simple: What does it mean to love the world as God has loved us? What does it mean to be salt—to be Christ–to the world God loves?