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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Who Is Salt?

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Who Is Salt?

You are the salt of the earth. What does that mean, to be salt?

There's a wonderful book on the world history of salt, called, "Salt,
a World History," by Mark Kurlansky. You may remember Kurlansky also
wrote, "Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," as well
as, "The Big Oyster: History on the Half-Shell." He's a very
specialized historian. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to read
Kurlansky's book about salt, so I went to Redbox and rented the movie.

Boy, was I surprised. Turns out the movie's not a documentary at all.
Instead, it was a spy thriller starring Angelina Jolie. It's very
violent, and not at all about the mineral. The movie does feature a
lot of actors yelling, "Salt!" very loudly, usually as they're firing
machine guns at Angelina, who can dodge bullets by doing that thing
where she runs up a wall and flips over while shooting back with
pinpoint accuracy. If I were Brad Pitt, I'd let her adopt however many
kids she wants. Ultimately, the plot transcends incidental devices of
strangulation and nuclear holocaust to become a very sensitive coming
of age story about Ms. Salt's self-discovery and finding her greater
purpose. As it turns out, Salt's greater purpose is killing an yet
unknown number of Russian secret agents. Everybody has a gift. The
movie's tagline is, "Who Is Salt?" Now we know.

I was disappointed because I'm certain Jesus was thinking something
different when he told his disciples to be like salt.

"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 under foot."

Salt without taste does meet a violent end, but far less gruesome than
anyone in the movie. What is salt that's not salty? I guess it's just
a dumb old rock, common gravel, nothing you would want to put in your
mouth. I've heard a number of sermons - and preached a few myself -
about what it means to be salt (metaphorically), but when you really
look closely at the scripture, Jesus talks a lot more about what it
means to be un-salty salt.

Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples they're the light of the world.
But he talks at least as much about what it means to be hiding under a

I think we under-tell this scripture by coming up with flowery, poetic
interpretations about what Jesus meant when he said we're supposed to
be salt and light. That's only half the story, and, when you think
about it, a rather self-congratulatory half, at that. "We are the
world's salt," and, "We are the world's light." It sounds very
affirming. Sadly, it's only half the story.

It's human nature for us to imagine Jesus as we'd like to see him.
Usually, I imagine him giving this sermon on the mount with a hopeful,
uplifting, encouraging tone. Kind of like Oprah. "You are the salt of
the earth." But given how much Jesus talked about the salt that's lost
its flavor and the lamp that's hiding under a basket, it begins to
sound as if Jesus is kind of frustrated. As in, "You're the salt of
the earth, people. But if the salt has lost its taste, it's no use to
anybody. You're the light of the world. So why are you hiding under
your baskets?" On the one hand, he's telling people about their
greater purpose, but on the other hand, he's asking why they're still
so tasteless and dim. Which is a possible reason he jumps off into
saying, "Don't think I've come to abolish one dot of the law and the
prophets." In other words, it's like, "Hey, folks. You already know
what you're supposed to be doing. Get down off the hillside and go BE
the world's salt and light."

Christianity is not about making ourselves feel good. Christianity is
about making other people feel better. The prophets which Jesus came
not to abolish said it, and it's not complicated at all.

... to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,

... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor
into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to
hide yourself from your own kin...

... Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing
shall spring up quickly

We know this stuff. But it's so tempting, and so much easier, to go
see the movie about Salt than to be salt. It's so much safer to be a
flame hidden from the wind than to throw off the basket and let our
light break forth like the dawn.

Jesus's warning is at least as important as his affirmation, maybe
more. Probably because he knows how people are in real life, instead
of how they appear in the movies.

A little salt can go a long way. A little light can make a huge
difference. You know how it is when you're in a darkened room, maybe
like a movie theater, and someone flips on a light. It hurts your
eyes. It can be blinding. Or, you know how when you've been eating a
salty food, like popcorn, and you forget and rub your eyes, the salt
stings. It hurts.

You're the salt of the earth, but you don't have to salt-ify the whole
earth. Just a little care and love means so much to people who don't
have enough. You're the light of the world, but you don't have to
arc-light the whole place all at once. Just a little light means so
much to people who feel darkened and alone. And when we get together
and combine our greater gifts and purposes instead of acting like lone
agents, who knows what God might lead us to do? A little salt and
light, shaken up and used well, could do a whole lot of good.

Jesus didn't preach his sermon on the mount to make people feel all
fuzzy and comfortable. I think he wanted to make their eyes a little
irritated reminding what their hearts already felt and their minds
already knew. "You ARE the salt of the earth; you ARE the light of the
world." So what is this salt and light going to do? What good are you
going to go do because of the flavor and power of the Holy Spirit that
God's already implanted in your soul?

Maybe you're already doing everything you possibly can to shine the
light of Christ in the world. But I doubt it. No matter how used up
you might feel, I know you've still got some salt left in your shaker.
You've still got more light in your lamp. I know that because God put
it there. God who is the source of infinite purpose and infinite
goodness puts a good-sized helping within you. And God will always add
more if you're feeling run out.


- James

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blessed Are...

2011-01-30 Matthew 5:1-12
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

[Insert playing of Slim Smith - Beatitudes 1]

That's the sound of Jamaican singer, Slim Smith, singing the Beatitudes. I had never heard of Slim until last week when I was trying to find some religious music about the Beatitudes to listen to while writing the sermon. You probably have all his albums, but to me it's a totally different sound, and more, it's a totally different way of hearing the Beatitudes.

Slim Smith was, and still is regarded as one of Jamaica's greatest singers. Slim had a string of #1 hits and lived the good life. He also had a whole lot of problems. Slim died in 1973 while trying to break into his parents' home. He cut himself on a broken window and bled to death. It's the rags to riches back to rags story we hear so often. A great talent, an inspiration to his country, swallowed up by his own demons.

When I hear Slim Smith singing, "Blessed are the poor," and "Blessed are the merciful," and, "O Lord, Don't turn your back on me," I wonder if I have any right to even read aloud this scripture. It reminds me that Jesus would have been much more comfortable with Slim Smith than I would. For that matter, I wonder, was Jesus more comfortable with Slim than he is with me? After all, when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he wasn't preaching ABOUT the poor, ABOUT the meek, ABOUT the persecuted; he was preaching TO them. 

Now, we may not live like rock stars, but we've got a whole lot more going for us than Jesus' original church of the lakes and hills. We have so many more, countless more blessings to be thankful for. Thanks be to God we don't have to live like the poor in Jamaica, or Haiti, or worse. By grace or by providence that we, truthfully had very little to do with, we were lucky enough, blessed enough, to be born who we are, to live where we are, and to eat, speak, and believe as we do. We are blessed.

But then, as soon as I say that, I feel like the Pharisee in Luke 18 who stood in the middle of town, praying, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector [over there, the one who smells like old cheese, and who I came over here to get away from]'. I wonder, was the Pharisee really blessed or was he just a lucky jerk? I want to thank God for my blessings, but if you stand me next to a slim Jamaican child who gets to eat every couple of days, who's also thanking God for HER blessings, I may not hold up so well by comparison. Am I blessed to have everything, or is she blessed to have anything?


Jesus was all about flipping the traditional idea of blessings on its head. The idea that relatively healthy and wealthy people are blessed, or even more blessed than people who aren't isn't anything new. It's what people thought back in Jesus' time, too.

What Jesus was trying to tell the people on his lakes and hills is that the amount of blessing in your life has absolutely nothing to do with external appearances. You may live like a rock star, or a middle-income suburban Caucasian. You are no more (or less) blessed than the people who are economically poor, physically hungry, or societally persecuted. Your degree of blessing has absolutely nothing to do with appearances, nothing to do with circumstances. It doesn't matter if you're rich or you're poor. It doesn't matter if you're meek or obnoxious. It doesn't matter if you bathe in rose petals or if you smell like the dog pound. If you're counting your blessings, start somewhere else. Start beyond the circumstances.


People who are poor in spirit are usually the ones who've had their optimistic, go-getter spirits sucked out of them. 
People who mourn are those who have lost something, lost someone. They've had their hearts broken.
People who are meek have often been made meek by the force of someone else's will.
People who hunger and thirst for righteousness know what it means to endure without them.
People who are persecuted and reviled for who they are or what they believe have to hang on by their fingernails to their dignity.
All this is to say that judging by the people in Jesus' list, people who are blessed would rather not be. They're trying to get out of their un-blessings.
Or, to put it another way, Blessed are those who hope and pray for blessings. Blessed are those who hope and pray - and act - for a better world. Blessed are those who work for a world where no one is poor, no one is broken-hearted, a world where no one is persecuted, reviled, or treated unjustly. Blessed are those who dream of a better world, especially when this world tells them to wake up and shut up.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on your circumstances. 

Circumstances are NOT permanent.

That's another message in the blessings Jesus preaches. 
He's saying, if you're broken-hearted now, you will be comforted. 
If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you will be filled.
If you're trying to make peace in the middle of a war, you will be called children of God.
He doesn't say you won't be called a lot of other things first. He doesn't say when things are going to turn around; but he does say they will, and in some pretty miraculous ways. Things are always darkest just before they get really, really dark. But Jesus came as a sign that even the deepest darkness won't last forever. Jesus came to show us that no circumstance is permanent. Not even death. It's like Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Rom 8:22-25)

Whatever your circumstances - good or bad - they're NOT permanent. So if you know the good stuff won't last forever, you're thankful for what you've got. If the bad stuff won't last forever, you're hopeful for when it'll be past. 
Thankful or hopeful.
Thankful and hopeful.
However you say it, it sounds pretty blessed to me.