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Sermon for 5 February 2017 (Goudhurst)


Matthew 5:13-20

This is a cauliflower. And cauliflowers can tell us something very important about the world and about the bible, and about the gospel reading today.

If you pick off the different bits of a cauliflower - they’re called florets - what you will have is lots of little cauliflowers. And if you put lots of cauliflowers in a big pile, you still have something that looks like a cauliflower. At the smallest level, what you see is the same as the biggest level. 

And that isn’t just an interesting observation about one of the worlds less exciting vegetables. There’s some serious science behind it - it’s all to do with a guy called Benoit Mandelbrot and what he discovered about fractals - which are geometric shapes in which the smallest level of detail is the same as the biggest level - and no matter how far you zoom in or out, the pattern remains the same.

It would be interesting to spend more time looking at fractals, but I need to move on and to point out how the bible is a bit like a cauliflower or a fractal. Because, just like a cauliflower still looks like a cauliflower at every level, so the bible tells the same overall story at every level. 

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they are salt and light, he isn’t just making up some new pithy saying that he’d thought might make his point really well. He is diving deep down into the fundamental story of the bible, and drawing out in one sentence, something that is also said at the big level. 

We easily think of the bible as a book about God - a book that is really important because it tells us stuff about God, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And of course that’s true. But the bible is more than that. Much more. 

The bible is the fundamental story which we are called to inhabit. 

Let me try to explain that with an example. Have you ever read a book which so captured your imagination that when you finished you wanted to be in the story? My daughter, who’s 10, loves Harry Potter - and I mean really loves Harry Potter. And when she has finished reading one of the books, more often than not, she wants to continue the story. So she gets her felt tip pen out and draws the scar on her forehead, and she puts on the glasses we found in a charity shop, and she picks up the wand that we made from a stick in the garden, and she is in the story again. Harry Potter isn’t just a story in a book, it has become a story that she now lives in. That she inhabits. 

That’s what the bible is meant to be - but in an ultimate and fundamental way. It isn’t just something we consult, or which we look at for pithy sayings that tell us about God - the bible tells us how things have been, how they are and how they will be, and it invites us to join in. To let our lives be shaped by the story it tells. And we do that by understanding the bible at the very smallest level - ‘you are the salt of the earth’ - and at the biggest level, the story of the whole sweep of the bible.

Let me try to explain by looking at that phrase ‘you are the salt of the earth’ and seeing how, like a cauliflower, it is connected to the bigger story that the bible tells. 

At the time that Jesus is speaking salt is a key commodity - and it always had been. In Israel most salt came from the Dead Sea, a weird inland lake which is so salty that when you swim in it, you float on top of the water.

And at the smallest level, that’s all Jesus meant. He meant we are meant to be like salt. And that would have made sense, and would have been a helpful and pithy way for his listeners to understand what it is to be a disciple. 

We are to be like salt, as a preservative. There were no fridges in Jesus’ day, and salting food was a way to keep it from going rotten. We’re to do that too - to sustain people who find it hard to survive in a harsh world. Embracing those who are on the edge or who are threatened by life’s challenges. It is a deep biblical call laid on all God’s people to give priority to the poor, to refugees, to those who are struggling because of circumstances or family bereavement or unemployment. 

And we’re to be like salt as a purifier. Salt was used then for cleaning clothes and people. And Dead Sea Salt is still sold today (for way too much money) as a special way to scrub your body clean of the mess and dirt of the day. So Jesus means we are to be people who speak the truth and who bring something wholesome and good to our conversations, and more widely. We are to point out where we see things that are impure, or untrue, and we are never to join in gossip, to speak unkindly or to bring people down. And in the brutal world of ‘alternative facts’, Facebook and Twitter trolls, that kind of purity has never been more important.

And we are to be like salt as a catalyst for fuel. The Middle East doesn’t have many trees, and even today in rural places, the main fuel for the fires used to keep warm and to cook over, is animal dung, mixed with salt. The salt apparently acts as a catalyst to the dung, helping it to burn efficiently. So as ‘salty’ people, we’re to be mixed up with the world - not keeping ourselves separate and clean, but living out there in the messy world which so often feels dirty and ungodly. And our task is to act as a catalyst for change, to turn that dirt into something good and useful and godly. Like salt mixed with dung, which produces warmth and light, we’re to find what is good in the world - perhaps in very surprising places - and to convert it for God’s glory.

And we are to be like salt as a flavour enhancer. We’re to be ready to give our lives up for the benefit of others - salt in food of course disappears as it draws out the goodness. Our lives are to be self sacrificial, always ready to give up our time, our love and our money in order to bring out goodness, mercy and justice in others and in the world.

So far so good, right? This is a really great image that Jesus has used to make his point - you are the salt of the world.

Back to the cauliflower. Every little bit of the bible is connected to the bigger story. Everything Jesus says and does is shaped by the whole story of the bible.

So we ask - what does being salt of the earth have to do with the bigger story of the bible, which we are called to inhabit?

Well, look elsewhere in the bible for salt, and almost everywhere that it appears it is used as part of a strange phrase. It says things like, ‘you shall not omit from your offerings, the salt of the covenant with your God’ (Leviticus 2:13) or ‘the holy offerings you present to the Lord; it is a covenant of salt for ever’ (Numbers 18:19) or this ‘Do you not know that the Lord God gave the kingship over Israel to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?’. (2 Chronicles 13:5) 

Salt in the Middle East, in turns out,  had another use, a symbolic one this time - it was how agreements were marked. Instead of shaking hands and signing a contract, Middle Eastern people in Old Testament times would exchange salt - almost certainly because salt is almost indestructible and makes a very good symbol for something lasting. So a covenant of salt is a promise - a deal which will last forever.

And a ‘Covenant’ is a crucial bible word. A covenant is an agreement which has no clauses in it. Unlike a contract, which says ‘I’ll do this for you, if you do this for me’ a covenant says simply I will do this for you. No clauses, no end.  A Christian marriage is a covenant - the husband and wife don’t just sign a contract, but make a promise to be faithful to one another in all circumstances.

And in the great story of God and his people, which we are to inhabit, the covenant is the promise that God makes to his people. I will be with you forever - in every circumstance, however you behave and whatever you do. And it is by this covenant that God will sort out the problems of the world. It is because God has chosen a particular group of people - initially the people of Israel, and now the church - that God is sorting out the disaster of sin and selfishness. The disaster that the story of Adam and Eve and the apple and the snake explains. 

The story of how a perfect world went horribly, terribly wrong.

And God’s answer is a covenant - a promise - which calls the nation of Israel into being, and is then reimagined in Jesus, who will resolve it all, through his life, death and resurrection. 

And in the middle of that life he tells people that they are ‘the salt of the earth’ - they are covenant people - they are part of God’s solution to the disaster of sin and evil.

When you are ‘salty’ - you are part of God’s great story of redemption. You are being the solution to evil and suffering. You are undoing what Adam and Eve did.

Because that’s what it is to be a Christian - to be part of God’s great story. Not just to come to church and to be nice to people, but to be part of God’s mission to save the world and to restore it to the way he wants to be. 

So when you speak truth while others gossip or lie, 

when you look out for someone who is struggling with life, 

when you help turn something painful into something glorious, 

when you act selflessly to bring God’s love to the world

When you do these things, you are part of the covenant of salt, you are being the solution. You are living in God’s story.

You are the salt of the earth.

And it is by the salt of the earth that God is redeeming all things. 

And as I look out at you all, I see so many ‘salty’ people. People who I know are part of God’s story - who are speaking truth, helping those who are struggling, who are acting selflessly for others, who are transforming pain into glory. And it makes my heart sing; this church, you, us - this is God’s answer to the disaster of sin. By all those acts of kindness and mercy and love which you do every day, heaven is coming to earth.

You are the salt of the earth.

Go and be salty.

Posted: 05-02-2017 at 15:59
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