The Church of Salt and Light

Feb 9, 2020 by

Sermon by Paula Papky

Isaiah 58:1-9a          Psalm 112:1-9        1 Corinthians 2:1-12         Matthew 5:13-20


In today’s story, Jesus does what he is so good at:  he peppers his stories and descriptions with images from everyday life.  Just think of the images that turn up over and over in the gospels:  bread, water, wells and wellsprings, sheep and shepherds, lilies of the field, birds of the air.  And perhaps the most commonplace are these images:  salt and light.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells his disciples.  “You are the light of the world.”  Salt and light.

Of all the uses of salt, I would never have thought of the one Jesus mentions to describe the desired character of his disciples.  Sure, salt makes food tasty.  It draws out the flavor of that barbecued steak.  It preserves fish.  It makes delicious dill pickles and sauerkraut.  And they might be bad for me, but I don’t see the point of low-sodium potato chips.  I want them to be salty.  Salt gives us soya sauce and miso.  Where would a meal in a Japanese restaurant be without salt from the sea?

In saying, “You are the salt of the earth” Jesus might have meant that the disciples were to add flavor and savour to life around them.  He might have meant they were to be practical and down to earth.  But I think he meant something else as well.  And I’m sorry, but we are going to have to talk about something distinctly unsavoury:  manure.  Dung.  Camel dung, donkey dung.

Let me explain.  One of the household chores a young girl was responsible for was collecting dung.  It had to be a bit dry but still malleable.  It was her job to mix the dung with salt and form it into patties.  Otherwise there’d be no dinner.  Wait!  I know what you’re picturing and I assure you there were no salted manure patties on the menu.

When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” it’s possible he was referring to the earth-oven that sat in every village courtyard for cooking meals.  In Hebrew and in Aramaic, the languages Jesus spoke, “earth” and “earth-oven” were the same word.  The earth-oven had as its base a slab of salt and then the salt and dung mixture that was the fuel.  The salt made the fire burn nice and hot for cooking the family’s flatbread and lentil stew.  Salt was the catalyst for the fire.

At some point it lost its effectiveness as a catalyst and had to be thrown out.  But getting an oven repair wasn’t a big deal back then.  You just got new dung and salt patties installed – an easy DIY project even a child could do.  Apparently, these earth-ovens that used salt and dung are still used today.

So, in saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus was teaching his disciples, “you are the catalyst, the spark, the transforming element in the kingdom that has already begun to smolder and catch fire, right here, in the midst of a people poor and crushed and powerless to change their lives.

And then Jesus turns to the image of light.  “You are the light of the world,” he teaches the disciples.  Light after darkness fell was a scarce commodity in the ancient world.  Here in the modern city we take for granted light after dark.  We have so much light at night that songbirds get confused and fly into buildings; so much light we can barely see the stars.

In Jesus’ day a house in a village might be relatively large if it accommodated an extended family and also their livestock.  The only light would have come from a small oil-burning lamp like this (demonstrate).  The lamp Jesus described would have hung on a lampstand in the homes of wealthier people.  Even it would not have been very bright by our standards but that dim light would have served for the whole house until bedtime.  Then a basket would have been used to cover and extinguish the light, so as not to smoke up the whole house.

Jesus tells his people, “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works.”  And by good works he means what he spoke about in that Sermon on the Mount that he has just delivered.  He means care for those who are blessed or honoured by God, though unworthy, even despised, in the eyes of others:  the poor and crushed in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the persecuted.  The disciples’ mission will be to lift people out of their dark despair and into the transforming light of mercy and justice.

This teaching is much older than Jesus, of course.  Way back in his day, Isaiah tells the people God wants not their false humility, not their pious fasting, their sackcloth and ashes but for them to loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, break the yoke, house the poor, cover the naked and be family, be kin, to the people living around them.  We can clearly see that Jesus hasn’t thrown out the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, as he was accused of by the Pharisees.  He has made those old teachings apply even more stringently than the Scribes and Pharisees prescribed.  You must do more than the law calls for, Jesus insists.

For Jesus and the disciples, these old teachings are actions that will shine a light on the realm of God that has already begun.  The disciples are to act in ways that let people discern the flags of dawn already on the hills; let them glimpse the transforming power of the Realm of Heaven that will one day be fully present, clearly visible.

Salt and light:  that’s who we are to be as Jesus’ followers.  We are to be a catalyst for change.  We are to lighten the darkness of despair.  Isaiah writes, “You shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.”  This is the high standard of discipleship we are measured against.

These two images prompt me to ask, how do we see ourselves at MacNeill?  How do outsiders see us?  Like the disciples we face a hostile world.  Maybe people passing by see us as that big gray building with the locked, wrought iron fence around its front door.  Or the place where all the old people go to church.  Or the place that is probably stuck in the past, disinterested in science and social science and its new discoveries.  Maybe some passersby dismiss us and declare proudly, “I’m SBNP!  Spiritual but not religious.”  It seems to be the new catch phrase.  As if to attend worship, to sing, to pray were soul-destroying activities.  And then there is so much of church history and tradition that truly has betrayed the world’s trust, from the abuse of children to residential schools to the exclusion of women and of LGBTQ folks.  Do people walking by think of these things?

How do we want to be known, I wonder, this church at the corner of King and Cline?  Do we want to be seen as a place and people of salt and light, as catalyst and consolation?  My hope is that some will see our sign and say, “Oh, that’s a welcoming and affirming place.”  Or, “That’s where they’re serious about learning to fight climate change.”  Or, “That’s where they had that speaker talk about the Indigenous lands we occupy; where they’re learning to pay attention, to honour the rights of first Nations.”

Maybe some will say – as I know some have – “That’s where they have great music, everything from violins and cellos and winds to bongo drums and shakers and chimes.  They sing music from all over the world, honouring Christians wherever they worship.  Today they sang in Xhosa, an African language. “ Or they might say, “that church has a really active outreach ministry with people in need.”

I know some already say, “That church is small but it has a lot of people taking part in worship, half a dozen preachers, a whole pastoral care team.  They have young people playing instruments, sometimes even leading the service.  Everyone there is an active part of the ministry.”  Maybe some even say, “That church has a daycare with huge wait list.”  Or, “that church has a sense of humor as well as a deep respect for the power of prayer.”

As we contemplate our present and future needs and our place in this city, we might find it helpful to use those ordinary words Jesus used with his disciples; to consider how we can be the church of salt, a catalyst for the fire of imagination, invention, action on behalf of people who are suffering.  And to consider how we can continue to have ourselves shaped into light, into a community that can discern right from wrong, that can see what needs to be done and gather those willing to make change happen; a church for those on the margins who need good news.  A church that sees the flags of dawn, the dawn of heaven on earth.  The church of salt and light.


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