Sermon Text: Matthew 5: 13-20
You are the salt of the earth.
When I hear that phrase I think about the limitless uses of salt, especially in cooking food. I don’t know how widely known this is, but I like to cook. It may sound cheesy, but for me, cooking is a tasty form of artistic expression. The kitchen is one of the places where I feel most creative. And for so many recipes, salt is the cornerstone of taste. Salt is what brings out the flavors in foods.
Have you ever tasted a home cooked meal that wasn’t seasoned properly with salt? It’s an enormous let down. This week I was sharing the story of some ridiculously overpriced French fries I bought once while skiing at Seven Springs. Somehow they made it through the entire process without being salted and as a result I ate seven dollars worth of potatoes that tasted more like cardboard. Has that ever happened to you?
And it doesn’t matter how much salt you sprinkle on your under-seasoned meal. Sure, a table salt shaker will add some flavor, but the real magic of salt is done at the beginning and middle stages of cooking. That’s when the flavors are transformed.
When I read the first line of today’s Gospel and I was very excited. You are the salt of the earth. I can do a lot with that line. I can use cooking and baking metaphors until we are all salivating at the thought of a succulent roasted chicken or a twice baked potato or even a chocolate chip cookie with a little sprinkle of sea salt on top.
Wouldn’t that be perfect? Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, so we should go forward into this world and season it, we should bring tastiness and flavor to this world. If we follow the work and instruction of Jesus Christ the feel and the flavor of creation will be different because of the ministry we do in Jesus’ name.
That would be a really good sermon, yes? That’s a sermon we could all get behind. Who wouldn’t like the idea that we are the key ingredient? We are salt. We make a difference. Jesus says so. In fact, I’ve preached that sermon before.
But what if I told you that that interpretation misses the mark, that that sermon was wrong? What if I told you that the salt of the earth has nothing to do with recipes and seasoning and creating mouthwatering experiences that are grounded in our religious fervor for Jesus Christ?
Sure, that will preach. In fact, the idea that Jesus sends us out into the world to season it and make it different is a central message in our faith. But it’s not really what Jesus was getting at when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”
OK, pop quiz. What was the most common cooking fuel for Palestinians in Jesus’ day? I’ll even make this multiple choice: The most common cooking fuel in Jesus’ day was A: Wood B: Charcoal C: Animal Dung D: Propane E: Electricity
The correct answer is C: Animal dung.
In ancient Israel, and even around the world in modern times, clay or earthen ovens were used cook meals. In biblical times a small collection of homes were often built together and the shared a common oven in the courtyard of the surrounding homes. Since villagers were often members of a very large, extended family, these common ovens were family ovens.
The common fuel for the oven was animal dung, something that was more plentiful and a lot more renewable than wood. If you had a few oxen or camels or donkeys at your fingertips you were set. One of the duties of each young girl was to learn how to collect dung, mix it with salt, and mold it into patties that were left in the sun to dry. This week I read that a family needed about 2000 patties to make it through one year. In many developing countries of the world, these dung patties are still used as fuel today.
For the earthern oven, a slab of salt was placed at its base. Then, the salted dung patty was placed on top of the salt slab and they would light it on fire. As it turns out, salt has catalytic properties which cause the dung patties to burn better and hotter.
But, after a year or more of cooking the salt slab loses their ability to help stoke the fire and they becomes useless. Instead of helping create a better fire they would do the opposite and stifle it. Then, as Jesus said, “it is good for nothing but is thrown outside where it can still provide a sure footing in a muddy road.”
So while using salt for culinary seasoning purposes might sound more appetizing, this is most likely what Jesus has in mind when he says, “You, my disciples; you are the salt, that is, the catalyst for the earth-oven.”
To be salt for the earth-oven is to start fires and make things burn. If Jesus’ disciples do this, then they will also be “light of the world.” You can start to see how Jesus masterfully joined these to images. He was really a clever and imaginative teacher.
Alright, so what does this new information mean for us? First, any notion of well-seasoned, mouthwatering cuisine is thrown out the window because…dung patties. Enough said.
Second, Jesus doesn’t issue these words as a commandment or as a challenge. Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world because he is giving us a new identity. These words are not commands, they are promises. When we follow Jesus this is who we will be.
So if we are the salt of the earth, if we are a catalyst made for stimulating action and creating change in this world, what are we going to light on fire? What are we going to change? What injustices will be correct? What disenfranchised group will we advocate for?
Jesus calls us the salt of the earth because once we have knowledge of Christ and the lengths that God will go to save and redeem us, we cannot be mute and we cannot be still. With our knowledge of Christ we must be moved to action.
If we look at Jesus’ ministry we can see that he started many fires and he created a lot of light during his time on earth. The salty Jesus cured the sick, forgave sins, restored sight to the blind, and taught his followers an entirely new perspective about God. Some people saw and understood. But others were singed and afraid and they put him to death.
Being a follower of Christ requires belief, but Jesus makes it clear that his disciples are also people of action. His disciples are fire starters. They stir things up. They challenge the ways of the world. Are we doing that in the name of Christ?
Earlier I said that Jesus’ words were not a command or a challenge, instead they are a promise. By the sheer virtue of our identity, through the free gift as God’s children, we are the salt of the earth. That’s the promise. And yet there is an expectation with this identity.
Jesus’ expectation is that with this new knowledge we will bring change to this world. As we look around, as we scan headlines, we know that our Christian ethics and identity can help this world and this community. The church must be a catalyst for justice. There is too much injustice in our world for us to be silent. Even our small town congregation is not exempt.
For we are the salt of the earth. We are disciples of Christ. We have knowledge of God. We are witnesses of the cross and resurrection. And now, armed with this knowledge, it is time to change what is wrong, it is time for us to advocate for justice and righteousness, it is time to light fires, it is time for us to claim our identity as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. AMEN