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Pass the Salt Please

A sermon delivered by Kathy Pickett, Pastor of Congregational Life, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on February 6, 2011.
Matthew 5:13-20, Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12

The question I have been asking and exploring in my doctoral work is, “What does it mean to be the church?” It might sound kind of silly that I would be asking this question after twelve years of vocational ministry, but I believe the church is in a season of time that requires us to ask ourselves, “What does it mean for us to be the church in the twenty-first century?” It seems that we are in a time, much like the disciples, where need to step back from what we already know and listen to Jesus.

Jesus has been busy traveling about Galilee inviting the disciples to come join him, teaching, preaching, healing, and becoming quite famous as a result of it all. While traveling about teaching, preaching and healing, Jesus looks around and notices that the crowd following him had grown quite large. So that everyone could hear and see him, Jesus climbed up the side of a large hill with the disciples following close behind.

The area was similar to that of a natural amphitheater, and folks gathered in to hear him.

Some sat on the large rocks; others threw their blankets out, opened up their picnic baskets, put their fish on the grill, and settled in to listen to what he had to say.

Jesus finishes the first half of part one with, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV).

Persecution, slander, and evil?

Can you imagine the questions and the looks on the disciples faces?

“So, we are blessed by being poor, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness?”

Peacemakers and persecution, that’s what we signed on for?

I would imagine at this point some folks picked up their picnic baskets, folded up their blankets and went home.

Moving on, perhaps trying to make a little clearer, Jesus continues with part two:

“You are the salt of the earth; 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 underfoot” (NRSV).

This would be really great news for my family. The saltier the better. Some of my family members are the kind of salters that pour salt on even before they taste their food. I thought we were really bad until our daughter-in-law joined the family a few years ago. At a recent family dinner everyone was going through line, getting their chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans and looking for the salt. Finally someone asked for the salt loud enough that Jackie heard and she said, “Oh, it’s here by me. I like to keep it close to my plate.”

Using the metaphor of salt made a lot of sense, to Jesus’ audience. Throughout the Old Testament salt was used as a purifying agent and a sign of God’s covenant. The ancient church understood the importance of salt as a preservative and would have understood how essential the proper use of salt is for living the human life.

Folks must have still looked a little confused, so Jesus kept on teaching,

“You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (NRSV).

This past week one of our church members showed up in my office. We chatted about putting together a spiritual disciplines retreat and then we started talking about what it means to be the church. First she told me she had been thinking about trying to find another church – she wasn’t feeling any spiritual aliveness and wondered if she needed something new. Somewhere in her journey of trying to figure it all out she realized it wasn’t up to other folks to create that spiritual energy for her, but instead it was up to her.

As we continued, she shared that she had really been working hard on being the light of Christ, seeing if that would make a difference. When she is checking out at the grocery store she makes sure she thanks the sacker and has been extra friendly to those waiting in line behind her. At work she has been listening better to co-workers and praying for their concerns. The past couple of days she has been going to neighbor’s houses and helping them shovel piles of snow.

What she is figuring out, by being herself, being intentionally present in other people’s lives, her lamp is being fueled with spiritual energy, and her light is shining brightly.

What Jesus is calling for, and what Matthew is trying to help the church understand, is a radical shift in understanding and being. The disciples are not told they have to try harder instead, Jesus says they are the salt and light for the world. By following Jesus, by believing in him, by living out their lives as pillars and beams, they are already changing the world. For the early church, surrounded by, and living under the rule of oppression, poverty, injustice, and religious intolerance, Jesus’ call to be salt and light is indeed radical. It would mean taking huge risks, having great courage, and faith enough to shine brightly in the midst of great darkness.

February is Black history month. I think I would be remiss to not mention Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many men and women, black and white that lived out what I think Jesus wants to the church to understand.

King was a doctoral student and had been asked to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama while he was at home for the holidays. The church was without a pastor and after hearing King preach they asked him if he would consider taking the pastorate, if they decided to call him. At the same time, he had offers by two churches in the East, each who were interested in calling him, and three colleges who had offered him attractive and challenging positions. One was teaching the others, a dean and administrative position. All, except the church in Montgomery were removed from the days of segregation.

 A move to Montgomery would mean having to use separate public bathrooms, waiting rooms, eating places, and sitting at the back of the bus. The segregation days of his childhood haunted him and he had the opportunity to escape them. A move back to the South would also mean his wife Coretta would have to put her musical career on hold.

Of course the call came, “Would you come to Montgomery and be our Pastor?”

King shares that he and Coretta talked, thought, and prayed, for several days and came to the conclusion, that despite the disadvantages and inevitable sacrifices, their greatest service of faithfulness would be lived out in the South.[1] 

We all know the rest of the story. King was a disciple, he was a follower of Jesus, he wasn’t perfect, he was human, but he understood the radical call to be salt and light, and the prophetic cry of Isaiah, to:

“loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke,
 to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
to  see the naked, and cover them,
   and to not hide yourself from your own kin (NRSV)”

In King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he concluded by saying,

“I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land, and the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”[2]

Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.

When I think about the church today, and the situation many mainline protestant churches find themselves facing, the question I ask of the church and of myself is, can we remain faithful?

Are we salty enough?

Are our lamps burning brightly?

Can we look towards the future with hope and renewed imagination, remembering that we are the salt and light of Christ?

Baptist World Alliance president David Coffey says, “When Jesus urges his followers to be salt and light, he is making a bold claim for his church. At all times and in all places the church is salt and light. The church’s primary role in being salt and light is to serve as “the counter culture,” preserving what is best, while exposing what is wrong. We are called to be concerned for the well being of every human being made in the image of God, but not only by meeting human need, the church can best help the poor, “if we ourselves are poor in spirit, if we mourn over our sin and the effects of sin in our society, if we are meek and hunger for justice.”[3]

Eugene Peterson’s translation of this text says it well,

“We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill…Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, and be generous with your lives” (The Message).

Amen

            [1] King, Jr., Martin Luther, Stride Toward Freedom, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).

            [2] Carson, Clayborne, Kris Shepard, Ed., A Call to Conscience (New York: Hachette, 2001).

            [3]  https://ethicsdaily.com/bwa-head-says-churches-need-prophetic-pioneers-cms-8146, February 10, 2011.