Sunday, February 9, 2014

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 58:3-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]
Matthew 5:13-20

Ye are the salt of the earth…

Did you know that only about 6% of the salt produced around the world is used for food? More salt is used to condition water (12%) and de-ice highways (8%). Another 6% is used in agriculture and a whopping 68% is used in manufacturing and industrial processes. Did you know that they use salt to make PVC, plastic and paper? It is also used to make aluminum, soap, rubber and pottery. It is used in to drill, to tan hides and to dye fabric. It is also used as a preservative.

There are many different types of salt. It used to be easy to buy salt at the grocery store, since there was usually just a few choices. Now you have to decide what type of salt you want. You can buy regular table salt, but there are other possibilities. Kosher salt is used for all types of cooking and contains no additives, so it has a better flavor. Sea salt comes in coarse to be used in cooking or flaky for use at the table. Fleur de Sel is a specialty salt, and is considered the caviar of salt. It is used at the table for a wonderfully melt in your mouth experience of saltiness. Pickling salt is used for preservation. Rock salt is used in making ice cream and can be handy on these icy winter days.

Salt is no longer just white; you can buy salts that are red, pink or black. It comes in coarse and fine. It can be cheap or you can spend a fortune on it. Each type of salt has a specific purpose, some are added during cooking and others are designed to enhance the flavor at the table. Salt does add a salty flavor, but it is also used to enhance the other flavors of food. Salt controls yeast growth in bread so that it will rise properly. A little salt on a margarita makes the tequila pop and it suppresses the bitter flavors.

I’m sure we could talk for hours about the qualities and purposes of salt. We know that too much salt is not good for our health; it leads to heart disease and stroke. I don’t use much salt in my house, a practice that would quickly get me kicked off most of the cooking shows. The judges are constantly complaining about the lack of salt. I don’t avoid salt completely, but I use it sparingly, because we get so much salt in so much of our foods these days. I found it interesting that animal products have a naturally higher salt content than plant products. We can’t live without salt altogether, it is a necessary part of our diet. We just have to learn how to balance our need for salt and how we get it.

Salt has always had a spiritual or religious dimension, too. Salt is often found on an altar or is used in ritual. Salt is used to ward off demons or to honor gods. According to some, salt is one of the four blessings from heaven, which included fire, water, iron and salt. Salt is the center of some ideas about hospitality. In ancient religions, the value of salt made the offering a covenant between people. If someone at the salt at your table, they became your responsibility while you were in their home. You had to protect them from any harm.

You didn’t know salt was so important, did you? It is hard to put such a high value on a commodity that we can purchase so cheaply and that we use so unsparingly. After all, how could something we just throw on the roads to melt ice be so valuable that the use of it at the dinner table offers a promise of protection and good will? In some places salt was so valuable that it was minted into coins and used to pay soldiers. As a matter of fact, that’s how we get the phrase, “He is worth his salt” and the term “salary.” It is interesting that salt comes from both land and sea, some harvested by evaporation and others through mining.

I came across all these facts about salt because I typed in the question, “Does salt really lose its saltiness?” This is a question that often comes up during bible studies focusing on today’s Gospel text. After all, I’ve never known salt to lose its flavor. According to my research, this is true. Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they would have eaten in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.

There are dozens of websites trying to explain what Jesus meant when He told the disciples that they are the salt of the earth. They knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it would be useless. It was not only useless, but also hazardous. They could not keep this salt in the house because the impurities might be harmful, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was dangerous, and good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets.

We do not understand these words as they might have because we don’t usually throw our salt into the street, and when we do it serves an important purpose. Those who have had to walk on ice covered sidewalks are thankful that the salt can make it a little easier and safer. The same is not true of the salt to which Jesus refers.

Jesus is warning the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do that work. See, we are tempted to wait too long. We want to be ready. We want to have all the information. We need to be smarter. We need to know the scriptures better. We need to overcome our sins. We think we need to be perfect to go out into the world to share the Gospel message, but Jesus warns the disciples that if they wait too long they will no longer be of value. While they are trying to make things right in their own lives, they succumb to cares and worries of the world. Or they fall for the temptations that abound. Or they conform to the ways of the world around them. These are the impurities that make us, as salt, worthless.

In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, God is addressing the cries of His people, who think they are doing everything right and deserve to be blessed. Unfortunately, they did not see that their worship was false. Their worship was not God-pleasing, but was manipulative and man centered. They fasted, but they exploited their workers. They humbled themselves, but their fasting ended in hypocritical religious activity. God says, “Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul?”

See, they thought that it was enough to go through the religious motions and then go on to do what they wanted in their daily lives. They thought it was alright to cheat or hurt their neighbors if they repented with the right rituals. It is no wonder that God did not hear their prayers. He calls us to be merciful, to be just, to be compassionate and generous. He calls us to sacrifice from the heart, not the flesh. God cannot be manipulated, and too many people then and now think that if they just appear to be faithful, then God will bless them. God sees behind our masks; His grace is not a reward for good works. He looks to the heart.

Jesus says, “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Too many people are confused by the word righteousness. The world thinks it means being good, doing good things. Like those in Isaiah’s day, they think being righteous is doing all the right religious practices. “I fasted, so I deserve to be blessed.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the same. “I keep the Law, so I deserve to be blessed.” Today people work so hard to be right with God, and never realize that the things they are doing will never make them right with Him. We can’t work our way into righteousness: that’s called self-righteousness.

The righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is manifest in the person who is in a relationship with Jesus. That’s what it means to be righteous: in a right relationship with God. The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. The Gospel lesson tells us what it would mean to be a Christian once Jesus fulfilled the Law. The question is, “What is our focus?” Unfortunately, when our focus is on being good or righteous, we tend to do things that will manipulate man and God. God desires the kind of fasting that will glorify Him.

I worked in management at a large retail company a long time ago. We had to go to the distribution center as part of our training program. A distribution center is a place where merchandise is received, sorted, divided and released very quickly. Merchandise arrives constantly on trucks, which come from the port or from local manufacturers. There are always trucks in the bays with employees unloading merchandise. Meanwhile, in another set of bays, there are trucks constantly arriving to take the merchandise out to the stores. As the items arrive, they are sorted and immediately loaded onto new trucks. Most of the merchandise does not stay in the warehouse more than a few days. For a food service distribution centre, it is even more important for quick turnover. The food cannot sit in a warehouse for days because it will get stale or moldy and then be worthless to the company. Merchandise is worthless in a warehouse. It must be distributed.

A bible study leader once asked, “Are you a banker or a distribution centre?” In other words, when you receive gifts from your heavenly Father, do you hold on to them or do you send them right back out? An item is not nearly as valuable sitting in a warehouse as it is being sold in a store. A loaf of bread will perish if it is not offered for sale quickly enough. So it is with our gifts. Withheld from the world, our gifts our useless. Everything we have and everything we are should be shared generously. That’s how we, as salt, flavor the world.

Paul writes, “Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.” It doesn’t make sense to our natural man to live the Christian life. We want to follow rules and earn our reward. We want to get what we deserve. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings because we are righteous. So we do what we do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. However, we can never earn our place; we can’t manipulate God into giving us what we want. Righteousness is not a matter of works; it is a matter of heart.

Paul is not referring to the spiritual man as being non-religious as many tend to understand it today. Paul is talking about those who are focused on God, who live lives that glorify Him. The man who lives by faith will live according to God’s Word, doing what God calls us to do, living the life of discipleship. The spiritual man is the one who lives the Christ-centered life, who has the mind of Christ.

The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain, but have confidence in the promises of God. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light. We aren’t worthless salt good only to be trampled underfoot, but we are the salt that will enhance and flavor the world.

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