Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017, Transfiguration A
Exodus 24:12-18: Matthew 17:1-9

Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Back on Wednesday I had to do a bit of driving around. It was not too much, but it was made better by the fact that Wednesday was a mostly cloudy day, on which the sometimes-oppressive Florida sun was not able to make the car time quite as miserable as it might be otherwise. No squinting, no fumbling for sunglasses. Easy.
I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing.
In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God.
It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night.
There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. I am a musician of sorts, after all.)
So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.
Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness made that drive the other day so bearable is that it obscured the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida).
And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.
(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)
In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!
Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. As it happens, as Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say.
And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud appears.
The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before.
You might notice that at the beginning of each service lately I have referred to that day as the second or fourth or fifth or seventh Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany, of course, marks the occasion of the visit of the Magi to welcome and bring gifts to the child Jesus, an event that theologically can be taken to refer to a revealing of Jesus not just to the people of Israel but to all the world. Not everyone is big on the idea of a “season” of Epiphany, but reviewing the scriptures we’ve heard does seem to suggest a theme of Jesus being revealed:
--Jesus is revealed at his baptism by John, who reluctantly baptizes him so “that all might be fulfilled”;
--Jesus is revealed as he begins his public ministry with acts of healing, so that so many came to him from all across the region to be healed;
--Jesus is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, in the teaching about being salt and light, in his declaration that he comes “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and yet overturns everything we thought we knew about keeping the law, challenging us instead to fulfill the law.
And now in the Transfiguration Jesus is revealed again, in a glory his disciples had not comprehend and we do not comprehend. We see Jesus transfigured; we see Jesus glorified; we see Jesus in his eternal-ness.
As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:
Eternal does not mean "that which has no end" but "that which belongs to the world to come". Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.

That which belongs to the world to come."
At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a nearly impossible time for us, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
Listen to him!
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#634            To God Be the Glory
#11              Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
#189            O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
#156            Sing of God Made Manifest

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: ...and Gone to Meddling

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 19, 1965, Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-34;
Matthew 5:38-48

… and Gone to Meddling

You’ve heard that saying before, right? The one from which this week’s sermon title comes? Take last week’s title, combine it with this one, speak it in a good drawly Southern accent, and you get it to best effect: “Well, now, preacher, you done quit preaching and gone to meddling.” Maybe you’ve heard it before?
I’m not sure if that saying existed in Jesus’s time, but a few of his hearers might have been tempted to invent it at this point in the Sermon on the Mount.
After all, that set of blessings we call the Beatitudes was challenging enough. That talk about being salt and light, and your righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, and Jesus not abolishing but fulfilling the law, was challenging enough. (Note that we just heard a small portion of those laws in the reading from Leviticus. Despite the unfortunate "thou shalt not phrasing, those are good laws, meant towards making us good people -- love your neighbor, welcome the stranger -- but they're not enough?) Those reversal statements from last week’s reading were more than challenging enough. But now, with today’s reading, Jesus really has done quit preaching and gone to meddling.
After all, in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a caution against excessive violence or vengeance in retribution for wrongdoing – any measure of justice or punishment extracted against a wrongdoer was not to be in excess of the wrong committed. In other words, you didn’t decapitate a thief for stealing a loaf of bread. It is, in a way, the ancestor of the “proportional response” ideal that has governed geopolitical relations for many decades (you might have heard that term if you watched The West Wing, for example). But Jesus flat-out rejects such a response.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care that nowadays, if you turn that other cheek, you will get hit again. If you get sued and your coat is taken, and you offer up your cloak also, you won’t have anything to wear. And if you offer that second mile, you’ll be another mile more worn down. Maybe those things wouldn’t have been the case in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, but those cultural strictures really don’t seem to apply anymore. I mean, just in one month I already feel like I’m fresh out of cheeks to turn. Jesus does not seem to care about this.
And if that weren’t bad enough…”But I say to you, Love your enemies and play for those who persecute you…
I really do want to throw up my hands at this point and cry out the way John McEnroe used to do on the tennis court, when a call went against him: “You canNOT be SERious!
These days I have enough trouble even keeping up with who my enemies are – or more accurately whose enemy I am, since sometimes I don’t even know I’m the enemy until someone is in my face about it. Just over the last couple of years I’ve been labeled an “enemy”:
…because I belong to this particular denomination;
…because of a school I’ve attended or at which I’ve taught (and there are several to choose from);
…because of how I vote – or more precisely who I don’t vote for;
…because I don’t choose to watch football anymore;
…because of where I have lived in the past;
And you get the idea. You don’t even get to choose your enemies anymore, and Jesus says we’re supposed to love them. “You canNOT be SERious!
What follows from there seems a bit milder, as Jesus points out that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, yeah, we know that, if we ever think about it for long. Admittedly sometimes it feels like, to borrow from an old pop song, “only the good die young,” but when our minds are working properly we know that isn’t true. It’s just that the bad things that happen to good people matter to us, because those are our friends; those are the people that matter to us; those are, if we’re honest, the people we know. We don’t know our enemies. Maybe we even don’t really think we have enemies.
The author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner had an interesting idea about enemies and how we relate, or don’t relate, to the passage we have before us. He offers a few examples from scripture – Cain’s enmity towards Abel, King Saul’s enmity towards David, Saul of Tarsus’s enmity against Christians – and notes that most of us really don’t “do” enmity like that before. He continues:

It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.

You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
 In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom—because we're as afraid of ourselves as we are of them—we choose not to look at, at all.[i]

I’ve never met Frederick Buechner, but he seems to know me pretty well.
As much as a struggle as this statement causes, as much as “love your enemies” feels like an impossible burden to bear, we haven’t even gotten to the worst part. That’s in verse 48.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s the NRSV, for real. “Be perfect.”
I know I’m not supposed to go the Greek in sermons, but sometimes you just have to, and in this case the NRSV translators have done us no favors. But what is given in the Greek frankly isn’t quite so simple as the NRSV makes it seem. I’m not sure it’s any better, though.
I could pick on the adjective τελειοι, a derivative of the word τελος which does indeed mean “perfect,” in the sense of “whole” or “complete” or “having achieved the target” more so than in the sense of “without error” that we tend to ascribe to the word. But I think the verb gets us in more trouble.
The verb simply rendered as “be” at the first of v. 48 is the Greek word εσεσθε. It is a form of the word ειμι, which is the most basic Greek world for “be” or “exist.” That’s the word we see in all those “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John – “εγο ειμι,” or “I am.”
Even if you have never looked at or listened to biblical Greek before, you could guess that εσεσθε is a rather different-sounding word than ειμι, and you would be right. It is in fact the future indicative form of that verb. It’s not present tense, and it’s not the imperative mood of the verb we would expect in a command (the way the word “love” in “love your enemies” is a command, in the imperative mood). It’s not Jesus thundering at the crowd “BE PERFECT!!!” (with three exclamation points); it’s Jesus simply making a statement of fact: “You will be perfect (whole) (complete), the way your Heavenly Father is perfect (whole) (complete).
Oh, and one more important grammar point: εσεσθε is plural – second person plural, to be precise. “Y’all will be… .
While I find some solace that I’m not on my own in this, I’m not sure all of these Greek things – the stuff I went to seminary to learn – actually makes this a whole lot better.
Remember that grudge-holding Frederick Buechner was talking about, what we’re likely to do rather than have real rip-snorting enemies? My suspicion is that we prefer it that way. We like nursing those grudges, even if the object of those grudges never knows the anger we’re holding against them. Actually seeing the “enemy” the way Buechner describes – seeing them in all their frailty and woundedness and brokenness – well, we don’t really like that, maybe because it takes our fun away or maybe because we find those things in ourselves too, when we ever allow ourselves to look.
And Jesus is saying – in this forward-looking, matter-of-fact statement – is that we won’t do this anymore, because that’s not how our Heavenly Father is. And I’m really not sure we’re comfortable with that. Even as we know in the deepest darkest recesses of our hearts that it what we need, what we desperately long for is to be whole, to be complete, to be freed of all these burdens of resentment and hatred and woundedness…we don’t want to give it up.
But this is what will be, if this “following Jesus” thing we claim is anything more than lip service. Because we are God’s, we will be like God. Because the Spirit moves us, we will move with the Spirit. Because Christ lives in us, we will live like Christ. And that’s not even a command. Just a statement of fact.
So, are we following Jesus? Do we dare?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, except where noted):
#385    All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#203    Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#771    What Is the World Like
#---       Receive the Stranger (insert)

[i] Frederick Buechner, “Enemy” (published both in Whistling in the Dark and Beyond Words)

Once again, nails it.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Now You've Quit Preaching...

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2017, Epiphany 6A
Matthew 5:21-37

Now You’ve Quit Preaching…

One of the great, or at least tricky, difficulties of preaching, especially preaching from an extended portion of scripture over a series of multiple weeks, is that even very long passages of scripture can be extremely self-referential, recalling or elaborating upon words spoken several verses or even chapters before (as later scholars so marked the Bible, of course; neither Matthew nor any other biblical author marked verses or chapters in their writings). The Apostle Paul is pretty notorious for this sort of thing in his letters; the prophets of the Old Testament frequently double back to repeat or reinforce ideas many times in their writings; and yes, the gospel writers, whether recording the words or deeds of Jesus, could string out quite a bit of instruction from one simple statement.
Our modern Bibles don’t always help us see this. Those helpful section headings found in modern editions of the Bible sometimes have the effect of encouraging us to read whatever is under that heading as a discrete chunk of text that can be read all by itself, without reference to other parts of the biblical text. Sometimes that’s not a major problem, but sometimes, as with the texts given for today’s lectionary gospel reading, that can have seriously harmful results.
Beginning with verse 21 of Matthew 5 we arrive at what in scholarly terms is a series of six antitheses, all organized according to the formula “you have heard it said … but I say to you” or some variation of that formula. Four of those antitheses are included in today’s reading (we’ll get to the other two next week), and these four often are lamented as creating unattainable standards for Jesus’s disciples, or for us modern-day followers of Christ.
These theses or statements Jesus cites were indeed familiar to his listeners; two of them come straight from the Ten Commandments, and the others are also found in the Torah, particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The first antithesis, drawing on one of those Ten Commandments, begins with the widely accepted commandment “you shall not murder” and a corollary statement from Deuteronomy that committing murder makes one susceptible to judgment. Easy enough for Jesus’s listeners to accept; however, to go from there to Jesus’s statement that even being angry at a brother or sister left one susceptible to judgment, and calling someone a fool put you in danger of Hell, was a jolt to the assembled crowds, and to Jesus’s still-fairly-new disciples as well.
The next two antitheses struck particularly hard at the men in Jesus’s audience. The long tradition by which deuteronomic regulations about divorce and adultery had been interpreted tended to slant the balance of power in society decidedly towards men, with women having virtually the status of property instead of person. Such guidelines granted all the power in marital relationships towards men – women could not, for example, give that certificate of divorce mentioned in v. 31; only men could. The reasons such a certificate could be given, while nominally limited to infidelity, could in practice be extended to just about any way a man might take offense at a woman. Once a man had decided that the offense was too much for his ego to bear, he might say, oh, I don’t know… “she was warned; she was given a reason; nevertheless, she persisted”? And he could dismiss her, just like that.
Jesus spikes that kind of reasoning, hard. To men who had been accustomed to having things there way, Jesus pronounces that the burden of fidelity and decency really was on them after all. You’re looking at her with nothing but lust? The sin is yours. You want to divorce her, when she’s been faithful to you, and condemn her to a life with no place to live, no food to eat, no way to make a living? You better believe the sin is yours. She is a person, a fully human being fully loved of God, every bit as much as you. And a man who insisted on indulging in the privilege of treating women as poverty had no part in the kingdom of God. (And yes, this is just as true now as it was then, though it is sad that this apparently still needs to be pointed out.)
The final antithesis here, on the swearing of oaths, seems even more remote from us. Swearing oaths, or making vows, only happens if we’re testifying in court or possibly serving on a jury, or some such similar official situation. But even here there is something about genuine faithfulness to be learned; the need to add anything to your “yes” or “no” is, Jesus says, “from the evil one.”
Taken on their own, these sound anything from harsh to impossible. It’s not hard to imagine not committing murder, but not being angry at someone? And pulling back from making your offering at the Temple in order to go make things right with someone? Inconceivable.
(And I’m quite certain the Stewardship Committee doesn’t really want me to make a big deal of that particular recommendation with the offering yet to be taken in this service.)
If these look harsh or impossible, well, yes, they should. They are harsh or impossible…unless you get outside of this smaller unit and look back to Matthew 5:17.
Remember that one?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what it looks like when the law and the prophets are fulfilled.
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what Jesus does in us.
When we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we no longer need to wallow or indulge in our anger or toss insults at one another. We certainly don’t need to be overcome with lust or treat one another as disposable property. The fulfilling of the law accomplished in Jesus changes the way we relate to one another. When we relate to one another in Christ, our human ways of using and abusing are left aside.
What we have yet to learn, it seems, is that fulfilling the law and the prophets is a very different thing from obeying the law and the prophets. As these examples show, it was quite possible to obey the law – to keep every jot and tittle of the law, as the King James Version of 5:18 reads – and yet not fulfill the law, and in fact be very far from fulfilling the law. Obeying the law can frankly leave us cold and indifferent towards our brothers and sisters, or – even worse – judgmental jerks whose lives are outright antithetical to the fulfilling of the law. If our relationship to the law and the prophets leaves us cold or hateful or judgmental of our neighbor, we are working against the fulfillment of the law that is what Jesus has declared is his mission in and among and with us.
So yes, these antitheses are impossible for us. But they are not up to us. What is up to us is Jesus in us. Our job is simply to be the vessel in which Jesus’s fulfillment happens. It’s not about a demand to do the impossible on our own; it’s about being the ones in whom Jesus carries out his mission not to abolish, but to fulfill.
For Jesus, the one who does not abolish but fulfills, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#415                  Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
#64                   I Long For Your Commandments
#444                  Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

#313                  Lord, Make Us More Holy

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sermon: Time to Be Salty

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2017, Epiphany 5A
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Time to Be Salty

So Jesus continues with his first great teaching episode, as recorded by Matthew, having first laid out those blessings and consequences we now call the Beatitudes. If one were analyzing this sermon (which, remember, continues through chapter 7), those Beatitudes might constitute a prologue, while today’s passage might be described as a transition from that prologue into the larger body of the sermon, one which anticipates some of the larger themes of the sermon and also anticipates some of the criticisms Jesus will expect to hear in his public ministry.
An example of the latter would be Jesus’s pre-emptory statement that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law (v. 17). While the religious authorities will in time resort to major nitpicking about Jesus or his disciples violating some corollary of some midrash of some story related to some law about table manners in Leviticus, Jesus fulfills the law – not in the manner of a checklist, but in a life in which the law is lived, en-fleshed, for all humanity to see.
Jesus also drops in a couple of metaphors for the effect he calls for his followers to have in the world. One of them is easy; for Jesus to call his followers “the light of the world” both points to a lot of scriptural allusions his disciples would have recognized, and is itself a pretty obvious metaphor. In scripture we can go back to the beginning, the story of creation itself, and God’s command to “let there be light”; we can sing with the psalmist “the Lord is my light and my salvation”, or hear in today’s psalm of how those who “fear the Lord” and “greatly delight in his commandments” will “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.”  And as for the metaphor itself, light illuminates. What is hidden in darkness is revealed in the light. As Jesus also extends the idea, light isn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel basket or behind a wall; it’s meant to shine for all to see.
But that other metaphor…”You are the salt of the earth.” That’s a little bit different. There are not so many obvious references about salt in scripture, and I doubt that Jesus meant for his disciples to recall Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a reference in Leviticus (2:13) to salt being added to certain sacrifices, and the book of Ezra apparently indicates that receiving a gift of salt from someone indicates that you are in their service, but again, those don’t quite sound like what Jesus has in mind here. Furthermore, the metaphor itself isn’t as obvious, or is perhaps occupied by many possible meanings.
To further keep things interesting, Jesus takes the image in a direction we may not expect. I suspect we don’t often concern ourselves with the possibility of the salt in our kitchen losing its taste, for example, nor are we likely to toss it out to be trampled underfoot. Of course, the salt in your kitchen is probably not very much like the salt with which Jesus’s followers would have been familiar.
In the era in which Jesus is speaking, the primary importance of salt might well have been as a preservative. It was necessary both make foods palatable and to make foods (meats in particular) last. Such was the importance of salt that ease of its transportation was one of the primary driving factors in the roads that became characteristic of the Roman Empire.
On the other hand, salt also has, or at least has been believed to have, destructive properties. Ancient armies sometimes practiced “salting the earth,” purported to be a means of destroying the fertility of the lands of their enemies; perhaps the most famous such case was during the Roman conquest of Carthage, close to two hundred years before Jesus would have been delivering this sermon.
For us moderns, salt is one of those tricky things that is both necessary to our health and harmful to our health if we get too much of it. Maybe some of you might have had your doctor tell you that you need to cut back on salt? Hmm?
Another precarious balancing act might be familiar to those of us who have lived in more northerly climes. Particular kinds of salt are among the easiest tools to attack the problem of an icy driveway or sidewalk, but too much of the stuff runs the risk of getting into the soil and (as noted above) doing damage to your vegetation, be it grass or flowers or whatever might be growing nearby.
Whatever all of these uses and dangers of salt mean, what is clear here is that Jesus means for his disciples to “be salty,” and that losing one’s saltiness risks being disposable – tossed out and trampled. When salt is being used properly and has not “lost its taste,” it does good things to that which it seasons. Food tastes better. Foods last longer.
In short, we really can’t talk about being “salt of the earth” without understanding that doing so means making the world better. There’s no neutrality about it; to be salt in the world is to improve the world. On the other hand, when we see Christians doing harm in the world, accepting or perpetuating injustice and hatred, it’s hard not to think that the salt has gone bad. We know what that means.
On the other hand, maybe that other property of salt might be part of the story too. If our saltiness in the world means that the weeds of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, or hatreds of any kind get snuffed out and can no longer grow, maybe that’s another part of being salty in the world. Who knows?
But none of this works, no matter how we interpret the meaning of this instruction, unless – what did we decide in the children’s sermon, kids? (wait for answer)
None of this works, we’ll never be the salt of the earth, unless we come out of the shaker. As long as we don’t come out of the container, as long as our light is hidden under a bushel, we’re not really living up to Jesus’s instructions. All our righteousness, all our saltiness isn’t making the world better if it never gets outside the walls of this church or any church. Being a follower of Christ happens out there, not just in here. If what we hear and do and say and sing here isn’t preparing us to go out and be salt and light, then let’s close up shop and go home.
We need to be salty, and we need to do it in a way that changes the world for the better. The world needs our saltiness, and needs it badly, and needs it now.
For the saltiness to which Jesus calls us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#667      When Morning Gilds the Skies
#314      Longing for Light, We Wait in Darkness
#515      I Come With Joy
#746      Send Me, Jesus

Get out of the shaker...