You are the Salt of the Earth

You are the Salt of the Earth, St James
Sermon for Epiphany 5, St. James, Paso Robles,
The Rev. Robert G. Eaton, Interim Rector

Annual Meeting Sunday

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)

Psalm 112:1-9, (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And the Lord said to Isaiah to tell the people of Israel:
“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”    (Isaiah 58:9)

Today’s gospel is frightening. It says two things that could lead us straight into Christian depression. First, in effect, as Father Munachi E. Ezeogu said insightfully, that if there is so much darkness and bitterness in the world today it is because we as Christians have failed in our job to be the salt and light in the world.

I’m not sure I want to go on!

And second, our failure to do so may be because we have lost our very identity in Christ, our saltness and our light-ness.

Good News.

At the same time, The message for today is that there is HOPE, hope for all you old salts…..

And even for you young salts …..who may think that you have nothing left to offer.
And there is HOPE for this old salt of a parish.

Alleluia.   (alleluia!)

And the answer is in the process of re-salting, which is found in Jesus Christ.
First, what does it mean for a follower of Jesus to be the salt of the earth?
The identity issue is clear for those who believe in Christ:   As he said, YOU ARE the salt of the earth.  That’s as clear a statement as you could ever hear.  But it is quickly followed by what Jesus implies is a possibility of demise.

So our thoughts also go quickly to “Am I one of those saltless Christians?”

And we should not disregard the further meaning of the scripture.  We can add in the challenge Jesus is making to the whole Church (as in, You ALL are the salt of the earth),  and the challenge can be applied to any program, any ministry, any function created by Christians for carrying on the Kingdom of God.

So what is saltness for a Christian?
Joyce Meyer once said, “On the job, in the grocery store, even among unsaved friends and family members, God’s people are there to bring seasoning to an unsavory situation.   If people fail to see anything different about us, we have lost our saltiness. We are no longer making a difference.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE.  And I believe that seasoning  is in fact the life and light and healing grace of Jesus Christ through us.

John Stott, in his book “The Sermon on the Mount”,  (not the A-mount, but the Mount! )   comments on this verse: “Christian saltiness is Christian character as depicted in the beatitudes, committed Christian discipleship exemplified in both deed and word. For effectiveness the Christian must retain his Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltiness.”

We’re getting the picture…

Still, Is it possible, that salt can ever lose its saltiness??!
Any chemist will tell you that common salt comprises a very stable, simple chemical compound called sodium chloride, which has a salty flavor. As it is so chemically stable, sodium chloride will not lose its saltiness, even if it sits in your pantry for years and years. (Check those expiration dates, by the way!)  However, there are ways in which salt may appear to lose its saltiness, and it has to do with exposure to condensation or rain water.  The Taste of the salt is the saltiness which can be leeched away from the larger object.

That this is possible in the land of Judea, we have proof from the journal of a 19th century observer, who, describing the Valley of Salt, recorded: “Along, on one side of the valley, toward Gibul, there is a small precipice about two men’s lengths, occasioned by the continual taking away of the salt; and, in this, you may see how the veins of it lie. I broke a piece of it, of which that part that was exposed to the rain, sun, and air, though it had the sparks and particles of salt, Yet It Had Perfectly Lost Its Savour: the inner part, which was connected to the rock, retained its savor, as I found by proof.”

So, then as Clarke said in his commentary on our gospel reading ,  “A preacher, or private Christian, who has lost the life of Christ, and the witness of his Spirit, out of his soul, may be likened to this salt. He may have the sparks and glittering particles of true wisdom, but without its unction or comfort. Only that which is connected with the rock, the soul that is in union with Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit, can preserve its savor, and be instrumental of good to others.”  Well that’s the answer.

And so Each of us must look to see our saltness status and our relationship with Jesus, then.  Let me focus on some more publicly visible areas of a parish where this can be a larger problem.

I’ve been in ordained ministry now for nearly 30 years.   My father was an Episcopal priest, and I’ve grown up in the church, seen lots of clergy, and seen them come and go.  So I speak from that experience and perspective.

Clergy, the ordained ministry, as Clarke also mentioned, are a good example of what can happen.  Here are individuals which the Church has deemed worthy of being the embodiment of the salt of the earth, and especially within the Body of Christ itself.  They can be individuals who have become such open and powerful vessels of God’s love, and justice, and mission.   You might think of some priest who has been such in your life.  But over time, both external stresses of the work  and demands of the ministry, and internal character and emotional weaknesses (like every human being) can bring one of these salted ministries straight to a tragic end, or just to such a diminished capacity that there seems to be nothing left.  And no single clergy retreat, therapeutic series of sessions, or sabbatical can seem to fix it.  What’s been lost is what even clergy need to do, and that is being attached to the Rock, to Christ himself.  It is the Christlikeness that seems to escape, even with a discipline of prayer.

Again, Music ministry, Outreach ministries, teaching ministries are all very common areas in the church of both grand saltiness, leading to emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and also areas commonly falling into a ministry of complete loss of purpose from what it was, leading to congregational confusion, and bitterness.

Even powerful ministries can lose track of the need for “Crying Out” to Jesus.

What then do we do with salt that is no longer salty?    No longer useful to God’s kingdom?

What if we came to the conclusion that this Parish of St. James has lost its saltiness, its effective outreach, its decisive witness in Christ to the community, its ability to reach out to the lost and usher them into the kingdom as baptized disciples?

Shall we burn it down, and start over?  I…I’m sorry,  should YOU burn it down and start over?

‘Cause as your Interim I’ll be gone in a while.

Is there any hope?

We certainly expend a good deal of energy talking about what needs to happen to get things going.   The Episcopal church and most mainline denominations have called together the best and the brightest to consider solutions, plans, programs to see former saltiness restored.

This has been going on for decades.

Since this introspection has been going on for a long time, What shall we do?    Shall we find even  brighter people to get together to find solutions?

I’m not going to make fun of intelligent people; I don’t think I’m one of them particularly, but….

You know , all members of Mensa have I.Q.s of at least 140.

At one Mensa convention, several members who went to a local cafe noticed the shaker with an S on top, for salt, contained pepper and their pepper shaker, with a P on top, was full of salt. You can imagine what was going through their minds at that moment…..How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling anything and using only the implements at hand? Clearly, here was the marvellous Mensa mystery!

At the table they presented ideas, debated them, and finally came up with what they felt was a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer.

They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution.

“Ma’am,” they said, “we couldn’t help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt and the salt shaker contains…”
“Oh, sorry!” interrupted the waitress. “Here,” and she unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.
Hmmm.  Perhaps the human solution is further away than we thought.

But Yes,  there is an answer, at least that‘s the message God gives today.
And it is a promise!

We see in the OT reading what he promises.   He promises Renewal, he promises refreshment, he promises fresh springs, he promises things growing up where they weren’t growing before.  We could call that re-salting.  Some call it renewal, some call it re-energizing.  some call it resurrection.  Again.  Some call it new impact.

First, there is the rebuke of disobedience, and the call to repentance, return to the Lord.  What hope is there?? you might think as you heard the beginning of that prophecy.

Then We hear in the prophecy given to Isaiah the root of the mercy of God, to which I’ve already alluded:
We need help, and we cry out, and he will say “Here I am.”

“I am.”

Bing, That’s who Jesus says He is.  I am.

We need help in being his people, we cry out to Jesus, and he says here I am.

So as Christians we should be able to see that God’s mercy is not left out in the Old Testament, but the same opportunity and more is given to return, in fact the same mercy, now freely given in Christ.

So here it is:  Jesus says, You are.    Then he defines what happens when you stop being so, or lose it somehow.   Jesus is the head of the church, but the body is definitely human.  We act differently than God, don’t we.  When one of us loses our salt for various reasons, we tend to shun, and be shunned, because those people aren’t what they used to be.  It has been said that the Church shoots its own wounded.

But not Jesus.   You may have lost saltiness, but you are still The Salt of the Earth.  And that’s your identity, “In my name”, says Jesus.  Because that’s who He is, and He’s given it to you.

And one more set of verses in the gospel tell us that although Jesus comes to fulfill the Law, he does not simply abolish it.

So you, because you as salt may have lost your saltiness does not mean YOU are thrown out and trampled.

Let’s hear now even more the OT solution from the NT.

Jesus said in just a few more chapters in Matthew, Come unto me (I’m using the Rite One Prayer Book version)  “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Or as Eugene Peterson translated the verse in The Message bible,

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.”    Mt 11:28

You will find the solution in getting away with Jesus.  Coming to Jesus.  Abiding with Jesus.  Allowing Jesus to work in you.  But its not just about spending time with Jesus, its about, in this case, taking the saltiness from the time with Jesus and allowing it to season the world, perhaps one soul at a time.

You are not to selfishly hold tightly onto your saltiness.  It will dissipate that way, too.

I’ll finish with illustrating how it works with the world.  You make the connections in your reflection to Christian ministry, a parish, a diocese, a whole denomination.

Paul, in his teaching, talks about the importance of what it means to be a person who understands, in humility, who they are:  frightened, fearful, trembling human beings, just like Paul.  And yet the power of God is able to come into the midst of that trembling human being and make a difference in somebody else’s life.   Saltiness, of you being who you are in Christ, is what will go through.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?   But we have the mind of Christ.”

And our job, then, is to take our human lives and put them literally adjacent to someone else and their human life and allow The Conversation to take place.

So that our saltiness in Christ —- not because we are going to MAKE it happen that way, but because we ARE that way – will move through that person by the Spirit of God so that a holy conversation can take place.

And this is what it looks like:

You have suffered in your life.

You somehow have had prayers answered,

Healings have taken place,

Things of God that you can’t explain,

Ways that God has changed your life,

Callings,

And so many times this message, this presence of God in Christ has come

when YOU’ve been in distress; when you’ve had your darkness.

And so YOU’ve cried out, “Lord, please help me.”  And when he comes into those moments, besides the discipline that might need to happen for discipleship, God’s presence comes, and if you will, a residue. And that residue is the divine presence of God in you.

So then you, being the salt of the earth – and wanting to do something about and with that – looks for people who have gone through, or are going through, the same situation that you have.

And now you can come alongside this person and say, “I see you are going through this, would you like to talk about it?”

And because you have already, and because you have a divine source, and because you have found The One to assist you or is even continuing to assist you, you can say, “I hear what you’re saying.  I’ve been there.  Let me tell you how I dealt with it in my own life, and about The One who helped me.  I believe He can help you, too.”

This is what saltiness is all about, how you share that with the world, and how the world begins to respond.   Simple conversation between people who have like concerns and needs.  Yes, there are those who have been gifted by God through the Holy Spirit and speak to crowds of people and say, “Come to Jesus”, and they do.

But the work of the 99% of the Body of Christ; the work of the Salt of the Earth being most everybody else, will be You, recognizing there are people with needs, and You can take your life, and your saltiness in Christ to that moment, that Appointment with God (as JBPhilipps called it), and make a difference in that soul.  That’s you.  and that’s the need of the world.

And if while you are looking don’t see anybody around who seems to have shared your own travails, well, then, you can ask, “Jesus, I would like to be the Salt of the Earth, so lead me to a place, or a specific person with whom I will be able to have a conversation; where I can be empathetic and sympathetic, and I can allow your Presence in me, your saltiness in me, to reach into their lives and offer your help,  and so they too can cry out to you and look for your help and assistance and refreshment in their lives.”  And he will lead you.

That’s the work before us.   Is it that simple?   Well, there is more to the life of discipleship, but yes, that is the simple beginning, and the main course through out your life.  Daily coming to Christ, allowing him to resalt you, and looking for those moments when you can share what He has done in you.

Certainly, our Christian lives in ministry will have their twists and turns, ups and downs.  But the source and the solution for life is found in our desire, in our continual crying out, to be in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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