This little light of mine...

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, FEBRUARY 5th, 2017

All that talk of salt in today’s Gospel reading got me thinking. Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

But, here’s the thing. Salt is.... salt, isn’t it? It can’t lose its saltiness, can it? I mean, gold can’t be too golden, or not golden enough, can it? It’s just gold, isn’t it? I mean, salt is salt, right? It’s been sitting in the earth, or dissolved in the sea, for billions of years, hasn’t it?

 Rock salt - the mineral halitite from a Holocene era sea-bed

Rock salt - the mineral halitite from a Holocene era sea-bed

So what’s going on here in Jesus’ comments?

Well, it turns out, through my research into mineral deposits of first century Palestine, that there are differences between the salt that we buy in the store, and the salt that Jesus’ hearers would have known.

 Salt marshes in the Holy Land

Salt marshes in the Holy Land

The salt that would have been common in first century Palestine was typically collected from the salt marshes in the region. This salt was cheap and easy to get a hold of - but it was full of mineral impurities and had the tendency to "lose its taste" if not stored carefully. So, it's not that the salt itself would become ‘unsalty’ but that the salt found in the mineral compound collected from the salt marshes would leach away if the marsh salt were allowed to become damp. Once the salt content had dissolved and drained away, the residual mineral would be tantamount to salt that had “lost its taste”. The result would be dirt which was useless for anything except to be tossed out and trodden underfoot.

So how might Jesus’ original hearers have heard his message about salt in their contemporary idiom? Well, perhaps something like this:

“Friends, I want to say this to you,” says Jesus. “You are the salt-seasoning that brings out the flavor of the Kingdom of God here on earth and preserves the kingdom of God around you. But if you lose your saltiness, how will people taste that godliness any more? You will have lost your worth and won’t be fit for anything any more.”

In today’s diet, we tend to view salt with a certain amount of suspicion. We consciously try to cut it out of our diet, we look for alternatives to it, we avoid those delicious salty snacks that raise our blood pressure and will be eaten in large quantities this afternoon (Superbowl LI).

So, it is easy for us to forget just how important salt was to the very survival of our forebears. Salt wasn’t just about making already good food a little more palatable, it was an essential way of preserving food, and enabling people to survive through the winter, or through famine, or through sea voyages. It might have given them a bit more angina, but that was better than the alternative, generally.

 Salt-preserved fish

Salt-preserved fish

Salt was important for curing all manner of meats and fish, important for making meat and fish that was not very fresh seem more palatable, and important in making brine which preserved fresh staple produce like olives. In short, salt was a life-saver.

So, when we listen to Jesus’ words about salt, we need to bear in mind that when he describes us as the salt of the world, he isn’t just saying that we are a nice little sprinkle that makes our neighborhood a bit more appetizing, he’s saying that we are quite possibly one of the most important ingredients in our society and that, if we are committed to, we can make all the difference between its survival and its ruin.

That puts Jesus’ words in a whole new light, doesn’t it? It turns us people of faith from something vaguely-interesting-but-optional into something really quite essential. A whole new light.

Talking of light, let’s move on to Jesus’ second metaphor. He describes his hearers and, by extension, us as the light of the world. We know, clearly, how essential light is to the proper functioning of the world. You obviously don’t need me to tell you that. But, there again, how often has this phrase been used, to the point that it becomes just comforting white noise? Listen to what Jesus is saying: you are what illuminates the world. You are what makes it possible for people to see what’s really going on. You are what makes it possible for people to see the path they are on and the road ahead of them. You are what stops people from lumbering about like catatonic zombies and crashing headlong into disaster. Actually, he didn’t really say that last bit, but you get the general idea.

 A oil-lamp on a lamp-stand, from late antiquity

A oil-lamp on a lamp-stand, from late antiquity

In the world of first century Palestine - frankly, in a world that anything before the last nine decades or so - light was as precious a commodity as salt. The working day allied itself to the hours of light. You had to do what you could do in the daylight, and then you rested and slept. Artificial lighting was complicated and difficult and generally insufficient and murky. So, to be the light of the world was an accolade that we, with our cavalier, throwaway attitude to light, don’t easily understand the impact of. To be the light of the world was to be that which made so many things more possible, which enabled the lost to be found, which made the outlook much more obvious.

And then, after having painted this picture of us being these two such precious, life-giving commodities, salt and light, he says this about light: if you light a lamp, what do you do with it? Put it in a box? No, you put in on a lamp-stand. What’s the point of lighting a candle and then not using it to see?

For us, the logical conclusion of the metaphor is actually rather devastating.

Why would Jesus have said something like that to his original hearers? Again, because we take light for granted, and because it is so easy to get, so cheap to maintain, the starkness of the message can pass us by. His hearers would have understood the utter, visceral ridiculousness of lighting an oil lamp and then putting it under a basket. No one would dream of doing that.

And here is the message for us: if we have the salt that can preserve the kingdom of God in this community, why would we let it go to waste?

And here is the other message for us: if we are the light that lights up the way to God’s kingdom for this community, why on earth would we put it in a box and choose for everyone to stay in the dark?

To spell it out in its most obvious terms: we’re Christians, we have been given gifts by God to share with everyone else. If we don’t share them, but ignore them, or hide them, what are we really saying about those gifts?

We know what God wants of us. Just open the Bible to any page, and it will be full of descriptive information. As we heard a couple of weeks ago in our readings, when we ask the question ‘What does the Lord require of us?’ the answer is right there: ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.

OK, you might say, but what does it actually mean to do justly, and love mercy? It’s complicated to be just and merciful, isn’t it? Well, yes and no.

We actually need look no further than our first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah. He is very specific about what God requires of us:

It is to loose the bonds of injustice. It is to let the oppressed go free. It is to share our bread with the hungry, and it is to bring the homeless poor into our houses. It is to clothe the naked, and it is to meet the needs of the afflicted. And, it is, also in the words of the Old Testament, to welcome the stranger in one’s own land.

If you were hoping that I wasn’t going to say anything about this corrosive political climate we are currently in, then I’m going to have to disappoint you. But I want to make it clear that I am not about to make party political comments, rather, I am going to repeat what I said in my sermon two weeks ago, that our pledge of allegiance is to a higher authority, to God in Christ.

My job as a priest in the church, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is to emphasize what our Christian calling is – including in practical terms. And if sometimes there is a disconnect, a difference, between that and what we are asked to do as citizens of this earthly country we belong to, then it is the job of the church to point that out.

The teachings of the Old Testament, and the teachings of Christ, are very straightforward indeed about how we relate to people in need. We never, ever, under any circumstances, turn them away, but we tend to their needs, and we see those people as our very own sisters and brothers.  That is not to say that, in our modern world, it is necessarily easy to know exactly how we go about doing this. After all, Jesus also said that we should be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves. But the conversation we should be having in this country is HOW we welcome refugees, not IF we welcome refugees.

George Washington praying for this country at Valley Forge, PA

I’m not saying that any of this is going to be easy. It’s a tough, demanding road. It involves lots of complex policy work, and lots of complicated dealings, and doubtless it will involve difficult and even dangerous situations, but our faith is unambiguous about it. There are lots of Christians and of other faiths who are trying to welcome people who have fled from the most unimaginable horror, and in fear for their very lives, and who knock at our doors. We wouldn’t turn them away if they knocked on the door of this church right now, and neither should we turn them away from our country.

It is the kindness of strangers that will help these neighbors of ours to survive and, in time, to experience again some of the fullness of life that God intends for all us of. It is that which is God’s dream for all of us, wherever we come from and wherever we go.

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