Today begins a couple of Sundays where our Gospel readings come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I have heard many people say to me over the years that, “The Old Testament is about an angry God who likes to smite people, while the New Testament is about a loving God that Jesus teaches us about.” Or, in other words, the Old Testament is all Law while the New Testament is all Gospel. To counter that teaching, I point to numerous passages in the Old Testament that show a God who loves his people immensely. And in the New Testament, I point to the Sermon on the Mount as an example of Law. Over the next couple of Sundays, we will hear Jesus giving us examples of how he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but rather to fulfill them. As I have encountered these passages over the years, I tend to fall into despair: what does Jesus mean by them, really? And how can I ever be expected to live up to them? If you’ve ever felt this way when reading portions of the Sermon on the Mount, or hearing them in church, don’t worry: this is a typical Lutheran way of viewing passages of law: the law is a mirror to show us how much we need Jesus’ forgiveness, so let us throw ourselves on his mercy and trust that he will forgive us. It is not a bad way of looking at these difficult passages. However, when we do this, we tend to forget that Matthew wasn’t a Lutheran, and neither was Jesus. Neither one of them had as much of a problem with the relationship of good works to faith as Lutherans tend to have. And so, I think in order to try and fully understand what Jesus is telling us in his Sermon, we need to take off our Lutheran glasses for a moment and look afresh at the teachings we find here. When we do so, we may find good reason to hope and not to despair.
So, let’s begin by looking at the teaching we get in today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.” Before we get into what Jesus means by this metaphor, and whether or not salt can actually lose its saltiness, let’s clarify one language issue from the start. One of the great deficiencies of the modern English language is that there is only one word for “you”, whether it is singular or plural. Of course, if you’ve spent any time in the South, you know that they remedy this deficiency by saying “y’all” when they mean a plural you. So, let’s make Jesus’ teaching a little bit clearer here: “Y’all are the salt of the earth.” In our individualistic American culture, we think it is up to each one of us—alone—to fulfill this description by Jesus. Sometimes it is. But what would it look like if we, as a community, were indeed “the salt of the earth”?
Before we answer that question, let’s see if we can figure out what Jesus means by calling all of us salt. Salt is necessary for life. Salt is used as a preservative as well as for flavoring. In fact, salt was so valuable in the ancient world that it was distributed to the Roman soldiers as part of their pay, and this is where we get our modern word “salary”. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “You’re not worth your salt,” you can understand how in the ancient world that would be a huge insult.
So, let’s look at the use of salt for flavoring. Salt is used in almost everything we eat, including recipes for cookies that usually call for a dash of salt. If there is too little salt, then you have something like the chicken noodle soup that my mother made once when her doctor put her on a low-salt diet. It was inedible without the salt, so the rest of us were adding much salt to the soup. Or, if you have too much salt, the food can also be inedible. After spending 2 ½ years in Taiwan, I came back to discover exactly how much salt we Americans add to our ready-make dishes when my mother made a pre-packaged pasta dish as a side for dinner one night. I had never before realized exactly how salty those things are, and discovered that apparently in Taiwan, not much salt is used in fresh-made food. So the use of salt must be exactly right—neither too little nor too much.
As a community of Christians in the Powell area, then, Jesus is saying that we are and will continue to be salt for Powell, giving this town the essential flavor it needs to make life palatable. And we need to bring just the right amount of flavor to the community—too little, and no one will know that we are here. Too much, and everyone will know that we are here, and wish that we weren’t. For Jesus to call us salt means that we need to be visible—to the right degree–to the surrounding community. What then does that look like for us?
One way of not being salty enough and becoming invisible to the community would be to blend in with it so completely that we are indistinguishable from the rest of society. For example, if all we are known for in society are good works, then we become just another community service group like the Kiwanis or the Lions or the Eagles. And I mean no offense to any of those groups, because they do very good things here in Powell. What I mean is, the good works that the congregation of Hope Lutheran Church does come from a different source and we have a different reason for doing them. We do good works in the community, like giving to Loaves & Fishes and to Boys & Girls Club and other groups, as well as volunteering to help them in other ways, because the love of God compels us to. The good works that we do are meant to be windowpanes through which the love of God shines (and so we also see what Jesus might mean by describing us as the light of the world). So when someone asks us why we give so much of our money and so much of our time to helping others, our response should be, “Because God has done so much for us through his Son, Jesus Christ, and I want to show that love to my neighbors in need.” This is how we are the salt of the earth—doing things for a different reason, and being the windows through which others can see the love of God.
There is a way, however, that we as Christians can become too salty for the community. Some of you may know that there was a debate aired this week between Ken Ham, the guy who runs the Creation Museum and who believes in a literal six-day creation as described in Genesis, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who, as a scientist, believes that the theory of evolution is the most correct way we have to describe how the earth was created. There was a lot of hype about this. Looking at the Facebook comments from both my conservative and liberal friends, each side claimed victory in the debate. However, there were many of us on the sidelines who were groaning because we thought that people in America were going to get the impression that Ken Ham represented all of what Christianity believed about creation. And the rest of society was going to think, “Oh, those crazy Christians. They won’t believe evidence that’s right in front of their faces that the earth is older than what they think it is. I’m so glad I have more sense than to become a Christian and believe in that nonsense.” This is an example of one segment of Christianity pouring too much salt into society, so that the rest of our culture wishes all of us weren’t around.
The problem in this case is that those of us in the middle on these issues don’t speak up loudly enough. What would happen, for instance, if we as a community stood up and said, “We don’t believe that science and faith are incompatible. We believe that God delights in us when we ask questions. We are willing to reexamine what we believe the Bible says when scientific evidence gives us something that we think contradicts what we believe. After all, the Christian faith didn’t crumble when Galileo and Copernicus proved that the earth rotates around the sun instead of the other way around. We believe that doubt is an essential part of a stronger faith. So scientists, your doubts are welcome here and we will encourage our children to continue to have faith as well as encourage them to examine things that science puts in front of them. After all, we’re Lutherans, and we say “yes” to either/or questions all the time.” That, I believe, is an example of just the right amount of salt to add flavor to our society.
One of you, several months ago, brought up this question in reference to Jesus’ salt metaphor: How does salt lose its saltiness? After all, I’m sure all of us have had salt sitting in our cupboards forever, and we never notice that it goes bad or loses its taste. Whereas our table salt is pure sodium chloride, salt in the ancient world was seldom pure. The salt collected around the Dead Sea contained a mixture of other minerals, so it was possible to imagine the salt content being washed out and “losing its saltiness”. This part of the metaphor was a reinforcement of the image of losing our distinctiveness as a Christian community and melting in to the surrounding culture—that is, of not being salty enough. When we continue to gather around the Word and Sacrament each week, however, we are reminded of the source and the purpose of our community. When we do this, we will neither run the risk of losing our saltiness nor of becoming too salty for the society around us. Let us therefore continue the cycle of meeting together frequently and going out into the world to be salt for those around us. Stay salty, my friends. Amen.