s038g99 Sunday 5 Somerton Park 7/2/99
A sermon for Ash Wednesday can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2125/011ag99.htm
"You are the salt of the earth" Mat 5.13
The image of salt is not universally seen as good in scripture. I suppose the classic example of where salt is pictured in a negative sense is Lot's wife. We are told in Genesis 19: "Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt." (vs14-26).
Jesus himself does not consider salt universally good - he compares good salt and useless salt - salt that has lost it's taste. So even Jesus' attitude to salt is ambivalent. Clearly we are bidden to do something in this world. If our faith is bland and uninteresting, we may well be described as salt that has lost it's taste.
And so Christianity, in an attempt not to be bland, tries to confront the world. The world often sees the Church forever complaining about this injustice or that, opposing immorality and the passing of the "good old days" - when "men were men and women were women and we knew the difference!". And of course there is no lack of things in the world that we might complain about. Everything from environmental vandalism to some young people's (sometimes we are deluded into thinking it's universal) lack of respect for the elderly and institutions of society. The Church has often, in it's championing the cause of the poor (a good thing to do), has often come across that it would run the country better than the politicians and public service (a rather tenuous suggestion). And I think it has become something of a paradigm for many other occupations to follow what they see as the Church's example. So I have frequently cause to wonder if some journalists in the print media think that they could run the State better than the politicians and the public service, also. Most recently I could well have come to the conclusion that some think that they could devise a more equitable and fair system for choosing who should study medicine at tertiary level :-)
In fact I have sometimes thought that the world out there is rather more tolerant of people than people who come to Church. Church people have made religious differences acceptable, when Jesus sought to cross them. The words from the first lesson make it clear that religion has oft served to admire of the strength of the powerful: "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." (Isa 58:4).
So, as an example of this, in something which was sent to me last year, in Australia, certain sections of the Anglican Church are again seeking exemptions for the Church from being tolerant. I am told there is opposition to the Australian Democrat sponsored federal legislation proposing to grant "equal rights in employment, accommodation and services for (those who express their sexuality differently from "normal") while threatening to remove the rights of all Christians" ... (presumably) to discriminate against such people?? (in a critique by Andrew Guile APA letter 25/11/98). Isaiah does not discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous in the "homeless poor" we should bring into our own homes (vs 7).
I think that the example of Lot's wife is interesting and I find myself pondering why she looked back. What did she find in the behaviour of the inhabitants of Sodom that was attractive? It was not their immorality - Lot's wife could hardly have been impressed when Lot offered their own daughters for the satisfaction of their neighbour's appetites in preference to the strangers, her husband had just met and befriended that same day. The sin of the inhabitants of Sodom was actually plain and simple bullying of other people - of the sort that, sadly, still infects everywhere from school yards to politics to the institution of marriage. Lot and his family were running away - they were fleeing the bullying. Perhaps Lot's wife would have preferred to stand and fight. Perhaps she wanted to retaliate - to oppose bullying with force. I suspect she in some ways admired the bullies - that they got their way and were strong. Each of these - to fight back or to ally with - is to desire power - power over others - when the word of God for them was to flee.
And power over others comes in many forms, and one of the strongest is perceived moral and religious power. We can delude ourselves into thinking that the Church is weak and carries no "clout", but the reality is that those who do not see themselves as part of the Church know only too well of the official, if unspoken, "displeasure" towards them.
Power can sometimes be used positively - the dreams of Isaiah (2.4) and Micah (4.3): "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Micah 4:3) shows this. It requires an exertion of power to achieve the disarming of weapons of war. Power exerted over people is always inappropriate, power over objects is only wisdom.
I am grateful for a conversation I had recently about God's fickleness. The particular passage which prompted the discussion was Genesis 12.17: "But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife." The person quite rightly pointed out that Pharaoh did nothing to deserve this treatment - it was Abram's fault and lack of faith in God which should have been roundly condemned and punished. I mean he had passed off his wife as his sister in an open invitation for her to be taken by Pharaoh as his own wife, precisely to inveigle himself into Pharaoh's favour. Why on earth should Pharaoh suffer - he acted in ignorance!
As I look at it, I guess I personally can only understand this as God always being concerned to oppose people who are powerful. God is much less interested in the morality or even lack of faith - God opposes the powerful to show the weak and lacking in faith that they need not fear. And of course for me it doesn't matter who is the powerful person. What I have said before makes it plain that I perceive Christians to be seduced into trying to be powerful over others. Such will be opposed by God, as God has ever opposed the exercise of power over other people.
Salt's real use is to bring out the flavour in other things. Too much salt means that the flavour meant to be enjoyed is completely lost, and the food is thrown out in disgust. No one likes too much salt.
So too in the Christian life - we do not reign over others that their unique individuality is lost. We exist as true salt to bring out and enhance the particular flavours of each person. Indeed salt is useless unless it does this. It is worth little or nothing of itself - no one in their right mind would eat a bowl of salt for lunch.
So of course Jesus didn't come to abolish but to fulfil - the law, the prophets - and you and me. We all have been put on this earth, and we have a right to be here, just as we are - not as objects destined, by hook or by crook, to be cloned into an orthodox likeness of anyone.
We are the salt of the earth, and our task too is to bring out the unique flavour and personality of other people. We seek to allow others to be fulfilled - to fully become the person God has made them - and that might well not necessarily be "Christian" - a card carrying, baptised and communicant member of the Church.
If a person is a musician our task is to encourage them to become a better musician - not to get them to do something completely different, like insisting that they become skilled at oratory, for instance. If another is a nurse, our task is to do what we can to enable them to exercise their ministry of nursing and become proficient at that, not to insist that they become a singer instead. Our task as the Church is to acknowledge these particular talents and to see them as part of the ministry the one has for others, done for the glory of God and being rewarded in due time.
If a person follows a faith other than Christianity, our task is to do what we can to enable them to follow their faith sincerely. It will no doubt lead them to God just as surely as our Christian faith will lead us to God. We may well find aspects of their faith that we might find difficult - but there are aspects of Christianity which I find equally difficult.
If we are indeed salt to the earth we ought to be welcomed when so often we seem to be avoided.
There is an old joke about bishops being like manure - spread about they do lots of good but gathered together (at a conference or some such) they just smell. I suppose the same can be said for clergy. But it is true for salt too. A little sprinkled about in lots of places is good - a whole lot in one place is useless.
Today Jesus tells us that we are salt to the world. May we be content with this task - to be sprinkled about - rendering us powerless and yet in reality - becoming our most effective - a blessing to all whom we meet - rich and poor alike.
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