Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt & Light

Matthew 5.13-20, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Isaiah 58.1-12
I’m probably asking for trouble by opening a preaching slot by encouraging you to think about who you bother to listen to.
It’s often easier to define who we don’t want to listen to. Take the two figure heads in the tube strike this week, Bob Crowe and Boris Johnson, and if you’re as fed up with all the delays and wasted time as many are I bet there’s one of them you really don’t want to hear from.
I was reading of a London food critic who dared to write about a restaurant in Liverpool and received a torrent of abuse on twitter, the little that can be repeated stated’ if we had to wait for instructions from the London front line before we tucked in we’d be as dead as artisan burgers are this year’.
It’s an example of how we illogically dismiss advice or opinions because it doesn’t come from people like us, from the same area, class, race, sex or for any other reason.

But more than this who do we really think will be the source of something worth knowing, parents, teachers, politicians, priests maybe?
Hopefully they all have stuff worth exploring but there will also be times when our own prejudices or misunderstandings turn us against them, making us unwilling to even consider the message.

It’s this sort of opposition that Paul is encountering from the church in Corinth and he is trying to point them back to the true source of wisdom, encouraging them to seek spiritual, godly wisdom and not to become too hung up about who the leaders or prominent people are, some of which want to be seen to have wisdom for their own ends.
We really need to think more about why we do stuff and what it means to God. Isaiah tells the people observing strict religious practices including fasting, sackcloth and ashes that they need to widen their horizons until they start to see the world through God’s eyes rather than setting up systems that make God seem small and capable of containment.
The point is that we need to guard against letting religious practice just become part of our weekly chores or a box ticking exercise. Been to the gym – check, completed the weekly shopping – check, done the God slot –check, now I can forget about all that and get on with the new week.
The God Isaiah speaks about is worthy of so much more than an hour a week. It’s far more helpful to think about him as we would a family member. It’s a loving relationship that deserves our time every day where there is give and take, ups and downs, but it’s continuous not contained and ultimately goes to the very core of who we are.
 As the Corinthians split along the lines of the teachings of Paul and Apollos, Paul speaks of the gift that is the Holy Spirit and how in his weakness it enables him to keep his faith in God. Understanding the Spirit will mean understanding that it’s not there to give us comfort or status, it will mean that some of the decisions we take look ridiculous to those who can’t see how much God loves us. But where we can accept the Spirit it will be a valuable companion on our journey.
I read in yesterday’s newspaper about a lady that was diagnosed with breast cancer who’s written a book called the ‘Pink Ribbon Path’ about her spiritual journey through the illness. The article also provoked us to consider the non-physical ‘cancers’ stating that ‘There are ways of thinking, bereft of generosity and compassion, that rot the mind and way of living, narcissistic and self-absorbed, that squeeze the spirit dry. That seemed to be a pretty good description of the opposite of what Paul tells us is freely available to us. When put like this the choice seems obvious but we are easily distracted at times and when this is the case I’d say it fits Jesus description of someone who has lost their saltiness.
What we heard today from Matthew’s gospel forms part of the Sermon on the Mount.
We heard Jesus say ‘you are the salt of the earth’ and ‘you are the light of the world’ to the disciples.

Last week we thought about the scarcity of light in winter and remembered the message of Candlemas, how it encourages us to be on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, for small signs of hope, to be aware of the light, even if it is faint, and to help it to grow. We lit candles as symbols of the light of Christ.
This week, therefore, has more of a salty theme. Our relationship with salt today is very different to how it would have been in the first century. Now we are told that much of our food contains too much salt even before we add more at the table and that this leads to high blood pressure and health problems. Yet when Jesus spoke salt was scarce, without refrigeration it was necessary to preserve food and could even mean the difference between life and death.
When my father was living in Spain we often drove through the Santa Pola salt flats, great tidal lakes where the salt was extracted through evaporation and piled high to resemble snowy mountains, much of it exported to colder countries to melt the ice on the roads. You will recall that we simply couldn’t get enough of the stuff last winter.
For the Israelites salt would have been something close to their heart, much of it drawn from the Dead Sea though it’s purity couldn’t always be relied upon and perhaps this symbolism was in Jesus mind when he talked of salt losing its taste or saltiness, maybe it was sometimes contaminated with other chemical deposits to the extent that it was no longer useful, much like the self-obsessed life?
Nearer to home in Essex, where the chef’s favourite Maldon salt has been collected since Roman times they can’t rely on the heat of the sun to help too much so Seawater is filtered, boiled  and then heated until the salt crystallises forming beautiful crisp white flakes.
Besides flavouring our food and de-icing our roads salt softens our water, has healing qualities and is used for many industrial processes.
Most of have heard someone referred to as ‘salt of the earth’, such individuals are generally useful, kind, reliable people.
And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to us who listen today "You are the salt of the earth."   

In other words, you are of great value.  As sprinkled salt often improves our enjoyment of food Christians in the world have the potential to be useful and improve life for others. 

What metaphor would Jesus use if he were speaking to us today to tell us that we are valuable useful people? In the East End I’ve heard great people described as ‘diamond geezers.’

If we are to be useful people out in the world Jesus then gives us the framework for this when he says ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law…I have not come to abolish but to fulfil.’ 

It takes some thinking about, a fair response could be ‘well we were hoping that you might at least be planning on simplifying things.’ After all the Old Testament contains over 600 commandments which the Israelites were expected to keep! If you want to check you’ll find them in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. 

Surely all this can’t still apply to us? For starters where do I find a local temple altar willing to receive my burnt animal sacrifice? 

Thankfully Jesus didn’t say we are still bound by the same law what he said is that it cannot be changed and that he brings us fulfilment of it. The same loyalty to God is expected but it’s based on relationship not blind obedience. 

Aspects of the old law are restated by Jesus and some even taken further. One example is the commandment found in Leviticus to ’love your neighbour as yourself’ later in this same chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says’ Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  

It’s a gross over simplification but it might help to think that most working people have their contracts updated from time to time to reflect changes in society but the core obligation to turn up and work to the best of their ability doesn’t change and neither has God’s love for us changed since the beginning of time. 

Let’s take these thoughts into the week that lies ahead and try not to lose our saltiness before we come together again. 


Kevin Bright 

9 February 2014

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