Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

If you like salt, your taste is for saltiness.
If you like sugar, your taste is for sweetness.
If you like lemon, your taste is for sourness.
If you like beer, your taste is for bitterness.
If you like soy sauce, your taste is for umami.

That’s your new word of the week, umami, unless you speak Japanese, then you can simply say ‘I knew that.’ It seems we ‘discovered’ this fifth taste some time in last few years, and now it is firmly on the list of what constitutes our sense of taste.

Umami also has the distinction of being initially virtuous and often bad. The first taste of umami most people get is through breast milk, and that’s a good thing. One of the most common ways we adults get it is through MSG, and that is not-so-good. And your taste for umami will often come with a heavy dose of salt, like a nice rich broth, and that’s a mixed blessing too.

Dr. Jim is nodding just now, and has likely told some of you to cut back on the salt. That cup of tomato juice—that’s half the salt you’re supposed to have in a day. And that can of soup you were planning for lunch? Back away from the can opener. Drop it, drop it!

But Jesus said we’re the salt of the earth. That’s a good thing, right? If you look up common phrases in English you will find that ‘salt of the earth’ means a person of great worth, in the same way that salt was highly prized in the time of Jesus. ‘Worth your salt’ began is a way to describe a good Roman soldier, sometimes paid in salt, and also the origin of the word salary.

So ‘salt of the earth’ is a scarcity metaphor, meaning that something as precious as salt is a good way to describe the best kind of people. And we’re salt of the earth, unless of course, we lose our saltiness.

Now you scientific types might chime in at this point and say ‘yes, but salt is just sodium chloride, and sodium chloride is a very stable compound, so how is this possible? And we could simply say ‘well, Jesus was no scientist—the son of God—but obviously not a scientist.

But wait! Salt in Jesus’ day was a crude form of salt, often from salt marshes or impure rock salt, and if a little condensation happened, the sodium chloride might dissolve. In other words, the salt might lose it’s saltiness.

So now that we have established that the loss of saltiness is verifiable in fact, what about in metaphor? What did Jesus mean when he said ‘lose its saltiness’? If ‘salt of the earth’ means person of great worth, then ‘losing our saltiness’ could be as simple as becoming bad people or doing something bad. And that certainly explain the result of this loss: “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

But that seems too simple, a perhaps too ‘judgey’ for the Jesus we know and love. No, I think the secret to understanding stale salt can be found in the next couple of verses: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

In other words, we have been given something—salt and light—and these precious things must be safeguarded. Salt must be preserved, much in the same way it will preserve other things, and light must be shared, never hidden, or diminished in any way. Maintain what’s good and share it—it may be as simple as that.

Of course, what follows is the ‘so what?’ These are fine words, be salt and light, preserve and share, but what do they have to say to today: to Central, to the United Church, to the Christian church, to the world out there? What practical application can we make using these words beyond ‘keep on being good’ and ‘stop being so humble’?

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I belong to a Facebook group called the “Below Average Ministers,” meaning ministers under the average age of 57 for our denomination, not intellectual ability. It is a fine group for mutual support and sharing ideas, gentle challenge and seeking feedback on some matter. We also like to discuss breaking news in churchland.

On Tuesday, the national church released the initial report on the Comprehensive Review, an effort to quiz every congregation across the country on the future of the church. Your Church Council Executive was interviewed in the fall, one of 600 that added their voice.

As expected, the direction that emerged from all these interviews was ‘give us less red tape’ and ‘give us more autonomy.’ Safeguard the identity of the United Church as welcoming and open, and give us the kind of support we need and skip the stuff we don’t need. Piece of cake.

On Thursday, the same group rolled out a suggested format for the church that might provide the things we learned on Tuesday. The Below Average Ministers were not impressed. The new church would eliminate most of the church structure we now have, more-or-less leaving congregations and a national office. Even those most open to change were more than a little taken aback.

Now, all of this is just a suggestion, a trial balloon very likely to pop when presbytery and conference get their hands on it. And for those who reside in the soft and comfortable pews here at Central there may be little change—even with massive restructuring—there may seem to be little change.

Part of effort, I think, is to find the salt. Where is the vitality of the church, where is the worth as in ‘worth your salt’? And for Central at least, the salt is found in the work of a busy congregation. (So this is the lampstand part of the sermon, where I tell you how good you are and you try to keep your heads. Pride is a deadly sin, so feel good after I’m done, but not too good.)

Over a dozen people are employed on this street corner, in three organizations dedicated to an end to poverty and well-being of people in Weston-Mount Dennis. Countless people volunteer time and money to the effort, captured by the vision of the world made new through the compassion and mercy of God as revealed in Jesus.

Somehow the wisdom has emerged that healthy congregations with a vital sense of mission are the salt of the earth. Having a regional body, or having a super-regional body, or even having an effective national office isn’t really saltiness. These things wax and wane, but the strength and the salt of the church is found right here, at the local level.

I like to tell colleagues that we here at Central are on our fifth denomination since 1821, and it would seem highly unlikely that the United Church of Canada is the last one.

First, they look at me like I’ve just committed treason. Then they ask for the list (M.E.U.S.A., M.E. Can., W.M., M.C.C. and U.C.C.) and then there seems to be a moment of recognition. Denominations are just vehicles for congregations to come together to express a common sense of purpose. When the sense of purpose changes or evolves, something new emerges. When salt loses it’s saltiness, it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. At least that’s what Jesus said about these things.

May God continue to bless us and allow us to be salt. May we never lose saltiness, but remain committed to the God’s mission in this place. Amen.


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