You can listen to this sermon here.
Good morning and welcome to week number two of Discipleship 101. I'll be co-teaching this course with Father Keith, but I'll be teaching from up front here. This five week course is based on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel. As Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed him began to swell to the thousands of disciples and so, very early on, Jesus took the time to lay out, in detail, what it meant to be a follower of his teachings. He started, as Keith told us last week, by flipping their worldview upside down and pronouncing God's blessings upon a lengthy list of losers: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers and those who are being persecuted.
This morning, we hear the continuation of Jesus' great sermon, and more lines that are familiar to us all. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” “Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Many of us have heard these words repeated so often that we don't even pay attention to them anymore. Worse yet, they have come into such common usage, that they have lost their meaning. Ever hear someone refer to a group people as being “real salt of the earth type folks”? This usually refers to a humble and unpretentious group of people. Certainly Jesus would lift up these qualities as noble, but it seems clear that humility and lack of pretense is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke this famous phrase.
As I said before, what Jesus is doing throughout this Sermon on the Mount is laying out a way of life for his disciples, his students, his followers. Lessons on how to live as a part of society are some of the earliest lessons we receive. Who taught you how to be a member of society? Certainly your parents and grandparents. As you grew, your relationships with your friends helped develop your sense of right and wrong. Eventually, you found yourself in school where your teachers took on the task of teaching you how to live as a member of civilized society. Many of us subscribe to the philosophy of poet, Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten.”
Share, don't hit, clean up, say you're sorry, watch out for traffic: these are the rules of a civilized society. Rules that we all are supposed to live by. But as we all know, many people don't think the rules apply to them. There's the guy in the black Honda Civic who weaves in and out of traffic doing 75 miles an hour down highway-59. There's the lady with what seems like a thousand items in the ten-items-or-less lane at Winn Dixie. Sixty cans of cat food do not equal one item. Then, of course, there's anything you might see on MTV or read in the pages of People Magazine. Some people just won't play by the rules, and we all have names for them. Names like jerk, idiot, or Charlie Sheen. My name of choice is “moron.” In just a minute, I'll share with you why I think moron is a Biblical term, though in next week's lesson, Keith will probably tell you why you should never, ever use it. Something about Jesus saying, “if you insult your brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, 'You fool' you will liable to the hell of fire.”
“Y'all are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to the crowd assembled. He doesn't say, “if you do this, you'll be salty” he says, quite plainly, “y'all are salt, period, end of story.” As ubiquitous as salt is on our dinner tables and in modern medical journals, salt was a highly valued commodity in the ancient near east. Roads were built because of it. The Greeks considered it divine. The Romans used to say “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.” When Jesus raised up this image of his followers being the salt of the earth he opens up for them four very distinct qualities. In no particular order they are: purity, preservation, and seasoning, and wisdom.
First, purity. Salt is pure sodium chloride and in its pure form coming from the Dead Sea, it is a dazzling pure white. Salt was used by both the Romans and the Israelites during ritual sacrifices. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to purify them from the dangers of life. Second, preservation. Before the invention of refrigeration, the most common means for keeping meats from spoiling was to salt cure it. Without salt, meats would putrefy rapidly, but the liberal addition of salt would keep the meat from becoming corrupt. Third, seasoning. We are most familiar with salt as a seasoning agent that sits in a shaker on our kitchen tables. Jesus' disciples would have known that use for salt too. Food without salt is awful. Salt engages electrical pathways that allows our tongues to taste flavors not available without it. Finally, wisdom. The Rabbinical literature of Jesus' time readily used salt as an image for spiritual wisdom that was to pervade all of life. Once the salt of wisdom was added to the soul it could never be taken away. In telling his disciples they are the salt of the earth, Jesus says, “y'all are the examples of purity on earth, y'all will keep the world from rotting away, y'all give life its flavor, y'all have the spiritual wisdom for God's good creation.”
And then he goes on to say, “but what would happen if salt could lose its taste?” We can ask right back, can salt possibly become unsalty? None of us has every poured salt from the shaker only to find a flavorless white crystal sitting atop our mashed potatoes. Pure Sodium Chloride, at least according to what I've read, cannot become unsalty. So what is Jesus talking about here? There seem to be two popular answers out there in Biblical Scholar land. The first is that salt has some insulating properties and so it was used to line the walls of ancient ovens. Over time the salt would break down and lose that quality. Eventually, the walls of the oven would have to be scrapped clean and the useless salt thrown out the window to be trampled on by men and women. The second popular answer has to do with the source of salt in ancient Palestine. I guess they didn't mine it like we do today, rather they collected it as it evaporated out of the Dead Sea. A white ring would form at the edge of the water and that white ring was collected and used as salt. Sometimes, however, that white ring was nothing more than a collection of random minerals as a rise in the water level caused the salt to dissolve again into the Sea. Collecting this mineral concoction thinking it to be salt, many folks found themselves with rotting meat and tasteless food because their “salt” had lost its saltiness and so it would be thrown out to be trample on by men and women. My guess as to what Jesus is saying here is a less popular third option. Matthew records Jesus' words as, “what happens when salt becomes “moronos” moronic, foolish?” What Jesus is doing here is breaking down his own metaphor. Salt can't become unsalty, but we most certainly can quit following the rules. We can join the ranks of the moronic.
What happens when disciples stop living as disciples. What happens when we refuse to be examples of purity? When we lower our moral standard in the name of what is easy? When we allow ourselves to be made impure by the wants and desires of this world? We act like morons. What happens when we quit preserving the world from corruption? When we cease to share in God's dream for this world? When we open the door for others to live a life of sin? When we abuse the good earth that God has given us? We act like morons. What happens when we quit giving life its flavor? When we walk around with sad looks our faces for fear of having too much fun? When, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “we turn people away from Christ by looking and acting like undertakers?” We act like morons. What happens when we cease to be wise? When we choose on whim and not on Spirit? When we chase after foolish goals? When we know the right answer and do the wrong thing? We act like morons. When we fail to live the life that God intends for us, we are living a moronic life.
“Y'all aren't morons,” Jesus says, “but if you're fixing to start, don't, because if you do, how on earth can you become salt again?” All of us, I'm willing to bet, have failed to live the life God had in store for us. All of us have quit playing by the rules. All of us have acted moronic at some point. So how do we become salt again? The first answer to that question is that on our own it is impossible to become salty again, but thanks be to God, he refuses to leave us living as morons, and so he offers us forgiveness. Through repentance and the forgiveness of sins, God can restore our saltiness, return us to purity, use us for preservation, put the seasoning back in our lives, and offer us his wisdom.
Most of us know the rules for life; we learned them long ago. All of us have failed to follow them from time to time. All of us have given up our saltiness, but God offers it back. Most of the time, y'all aren't morons. If you're fixin' to start, don't. If you already are, quit and ask for God to make you salty again. Let your saltiness and your light so permeate this world that everyone can see it and give glory to your Father in heaven. Amen.