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Sermon for 5 February 2017 (Kilndown)


I’m a Luddite for salt and light

Isaiah 58.1-9a[b-12]1 Corinthians 2.1-12[13-16]Matthew 5.13-20

They’ve been taking our jobs, right from under our noses.  Jobs that were rightfully ours and they’ve been doing it for years.  Factory jobs, once done by hard working locals, manufacturing jobs once done by skilled workers and soon they’ll be in our hospitals performing operations and in our care homes making cups of tea.  That’s right: I’m talking about…robots.

I was listening to a segment on Radio 4 earlier this week about how an international study in robotics is working on making robots "culturally sensitive” so that they can deliver care more effectively.  That got me to thinking: what else might robots end up doing in the future?  A 2013 study by Oxford University showed that about 47% of current jobs in the US are at high risk of computerisation.  I took a look at the results of my two jobs: priest and teacher.  Thankfully, the study found that it was not possible for a computer or robot to take the role of a member of the clergy. Few! However, my future as a teacher is not so rosy: secondary school teachers rank 41 out of 702 in the computerisation stakes. Gulp!

Luddite is the word we use for someone who is rather behind the times when it comes to technology but that name used to have a stronger meaning.  It is said that the Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779.  The Luddites were a secret society made up of 19th century textile workers and self-employed weavers who saw the advent of machinery as a threat to their skills, honed over many years in the trade.  They weren’t suspicious of technology per se, but they saw real value in their abilities and thought that these would go to waste.

In one of my favourite Gospel episodes, which we have just heard, Jesus encourages us to be both salt and light in the world.  It immediately brings to mind the old compliment: "She’s the salt of the earth!” meaning that someone is genuine and friendly, but the image would have been much richer to the listener in Jesus’ time because salt was much more precious.  Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt and that’s where we get our word salary from and a solider who didn’t do his work properly was "not worth his salt.”  So, why was salt so precious?  Well, it does two important things: it preserves and it flavours.

In Jesus’ time, when refrigeration wasn’t an option, salt was used to stop food, particularly meat and fish, from going off.  It slows down the processes, which lead to decay.  That’s our calling: to stop the rot setting in around us, to bring a halt to the things that we do which are not worthy of our status as ones made in the image of the God of love.  We are to stop the rot of injustice setting in, we are to release the captives, we are to share our bread with the hungry and we are to clothe the naked, as commanded by Isaiah in our first reading.  We are also commanded to call out the oppressors when we see them and that might mean using some salty language; Isaiah tells us: 

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. 

And Paul tells us that he did not come using lofty language, but plain speech and works of the Spirit.  Salt prevents decay and we are to put a stop to anything, which erodes God’s Kingdom.

Salt also adds flavour, but notice: adds flavourOn its own, salt is pretty disgusting but when it is added to food, it gives the taste a real lift, so for us to be true salt of the earth, we have to be out and about, mixing with all God’s children, bringing flavour to a world which is so often bland.  A New Zealand hymn writer named Shirley Murray wrote a fabulous hymn, the words of which encourage us to be: "spiced with humour, laced with laughter, Flavour of the Jesus life, Tang of risk and new adventure, Taste and zest beyond belief”.  Jesus calls us to restore the flavour of a world, which settles for bland platitudes, with the truth of God’s redeeming love.

Jesus also tells us that we are the light of the world and that we should not hide that light, but should bear it to a world which is so often shrouded in darkness.  There are so many ways we can interpret what it means to be light in the world, but there is one that I want to focus on this morning and that is the simple thought that God blessed you with gifts and talents for his glory and for the building up of his Kingdom; you should not be ashamed of those or hide them, but use them and in doing so, enable others to use their gifts and talents.  That’s not blowing your own trumpet; that’s being whom God made you to be.

The American writer, Marianne Williamson puts it like this:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

You see, being whom God made you to be, allowing your God-given spark to cast out the darkness enables others also to claim their identity, to let their light shine and be whom God made them to be.

So, we are salt, which preserves and flavours and we are light, gifted uniquely to banish the darkness.  But notice: Jesus doesn’t say, "I want you to become,” or "You can be programmed to be salt and light,” instead he says, "You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.”  Salt and light by virtue of being a human being and only we can be these things in the world.  So, I have some sympathy with the Luddites who recognised that whilst machines can do all sorts of amazing things, there is a unique giftedness around human relationship and creativity. And whilst it seems inevitable that robots will take over many more trades, which were once performed by skilled human beings, being a Luddite about that doesn’t seem like a profitable way to expend one’s energy.  But there is one thing that a robot can never do and that is to be salt and light in a world which can so often be bland and dark.  Only we, human beings, created uniquely, loved unconditionally, gifted intentionally, can be agents of God’s goodness in the world and a robot can never take that away from us. So I shall, always and forever, remain a Luddite for salt and light.

Posted: 05-02-2017 at 15:55
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