Resolve: Pour on the Salt
First United Presbyterian Church
“Resolve: Pour on the Salt”
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 21, 2018
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I had a neighbor in Michigan who would put an alarming amount of salt on everything she ate. From pizza to pancakes, I’m not kidding. She’d pour on the salt.
Now, salt has been somewhat maligned lately, with the medical establishment warning us that excess sodium can lead to all kinds of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, even stomach cancer and osteoporosis. But salt has numerous beneficial uses. It adds flavor to our food, of course, but only a small percentage of manufactured salt goes into our food. We use salt in more than 14,000 different ways from the making of products as varied as plastic, paper, and polyester to the de-icing of our public highways.
Religion, or, if you prefer, faith or spirituality, has its uses as well. Self-care is high on the list of popular New Year’s resolutions, and for many people, engaging in spiritual practices is part of that self-care plan. People find that religion can be used to bring us peace and comfort. It can help us through difficult emotional challenges or life transitions. It can be used to give our lives meaning and purpose. And so, religion can be used as part of a holistic plan for self-care.
Now, you will likely hear me preach a sermon on the importance of self-care at some point. This, however, is not that sermon.
Because today, we’re looking at how we use our faith to serve ourselves. And the texts we read today are not too favorable of that approach. In Isaiah’s prophesy, God condemns the Israelites for looking to their own interests on their fast day and oppressing all their workers. This chapter in Isaiah begins a new section of prophesy that addresses the social injustices and hypocrisy of the Israelites. They are reminded that what God wants is not a flashy show of faith, not a self-righteous and self-serving adherence to the technicalities of the law, but rather, to work for justice and care for the oppressed and those in need. In other words, their faith should serve others, not themselves. It should glorify God, and not themselves.
Likewise, in the Gospel of Matthew, in the chapter following what we read today, we find Jesus criticizing the hypocrites who practice their piety before others in order to be seen and praised by them. Later on, Jesus directly associates these hypocrites with the scribes and Pharisees. He pronounces woe on these people and instructs his followers to do as they teach but not as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.
Why, then, would Jesus say that our “righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees,” if he’s so critical of them?
First, we need to look at what Jesus is saying in the larger context. This bit of scripture is the second major section in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The sermon begins with the Beatitudes, those blessings on the meek, those who mourn, the hungry, the merciful, peacemakers and persecuted – all these people who make us feel bad about ourselves for being assertive and comfortable. Frankly, I start breaking out in hives at about this point in the sermon. I’m not sure Jesus is talking to us. And if he’s not talking to us, he’s probably talking about us. And if he’s talking about us, it’s probably not good.
Whoever he’s talking to, he then goes on, as we heard today, to tell them that they are the “salt of the earth.” They should shine their light before others so people can see their good deeds and praise God. And their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees.
And now I’m sure he’s not talking to us. I like to use salt, but I’m not sure I want to be salt. Where’s the peace and comfort in that? And shining my light so that God can be praised? How does that help me when times are tough? And there’s exactly no chance my righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees. I mean, those guys were serious about righteousness, they were obsessive. And I don’t really get how that would bring my life purpose and meaning anyway.
And after this, Jesus goes on to teach the people exactly what he means by “your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.”
“You have heard it said, 'You shall not murder'; But I say that anger and insults will lead you straight to hell.”
“You’ve heard it said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” But I say turn the other cheek, give more than is asked for.”
“You’ve heard it said, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Ohhhf. Now I’m really sure Jesus isn’t talking to me. At least, I hope he’s not. Who could actually live this way? Surely he’s exaggerating. He doesn’t really mean we should do this stuff, right?
The sermon on the mount closes with Jesus emphasizing that we have to do the will of God, not just talk about it. He tells this parable about people who hear this crazy teaching and actually follow it. They are like a man who built his house upon a rock, and no force of nature could destroy it. But those who hear it and don’t do it are like a man who built his house upon the sand, and guess what happens when the wind and waves come along? That’s right – you’re going to wish you had hurricane insurance.
So what are we supposed to do? This is crazy teaching! It seems excessive!
In fact, it is excessive. That’s exactly the point. Jesus is prescribing an interpretation of the law that is extreme in its contradiction of both the secular and religious social values of his community. It sounds like madness. But the people who heard him were astounded because he “taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
There is authority in this madness. There is something that rings true. Perhaps they heard in this teaching echoes of Isaiah’s prophesy.
In the portion of Isaiah we read today, God is addressing those who have returned from exile. They are facing the monumental task of rebuilding a physical city in ruins but also rebuilding a community rent apart by the trauma of exile and assimilation to another culture and its contradictory values. Isaiah promises that following God’s law of love and justice will transform the community and enable them to rebuild together.
The Jewish community living under Roman occupation may have shared the same hopes of reclaiming their sacred communal identity, of repairing the breach between God and humanity and restoring the streets of their holy city to bring glory to God. They longed to be that “city on a hill.” They longed for a faith filled with meaning and purpose. They longed for a righteousness that was authentic instead of self-serving.
And there are plenty of people longing for those same things today. Unfortunately, most of them are not in the church. They look at the church and see our hypocrisy. They see in us a self-serving faith. Not because that is what we are practicing, necessarily. But it what we are advertising most of the time.
We invite people to join our church because it will serve them in some way. We’ll be there when they are going through a tough time. They’ll feel comforted and peaceful after worship or study or prayer. Being a part of this community will give their life meaning and purpose.
We never invite someone to come to church so they can serve God and others. We don’t encourage them to come and radically change their lives. We don’t ask them to join us in subverting the values of our contemporary culture.
Because who would say, “yes” to that?
In a moment, I’m going to invite four people to join me up here who are about to say “yes” to all of that.
These folks are not better, or holier than any of the rest of us. They are not more special or more beloved.
But their righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees – yes, I just said that - because they recognize, and are about to publicly acknowledge, that their faith is a vehicle for serving God and others, and not a self-serving practice or self-care mechanism. They are willing to be salt and light through serving the church as elders and deacons.
They are saying “yes” to working for a world where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the homeless are sheltered. They are saying “yes” to a world where the meek, the mournful, the hungry, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed and the angry and insulting, vengeful and hateful are not. They are saying “yes” to repairing the breach between God and humanity and restoring the streets of Loveland to bring glory to God. They are saying “yes” to a faith filled with meaning and purpose and a righteousness that is authentic instead of self-serving.
They may not have known they were saying “yes” to all of this. But now they do.
They will take the same vows I took when I was ordained as a pastor and installed here as your pastor. This is serious business.
But this is not their business alone. In our baptism, we have all been equipped and called to share in their ministry. We have all been called the salt of the earth and equipped to shine our light to the glory of God.
And so I would invite all of us today, not just those being ordained and installed as church officers, to resolve to not use our faith to serve ourselves, and to not advertise that faith to others. Let us resolve to be our faith, to be the people God knows we can be, to work toward the reign of God here and now.
And when the people of Loveland see that kind of faith coming out of this place, they might just decide to pour on salt. Amen.