Monday, February 28, 2011

Worry Free Living

Text: Matthew 6:24-34

February 27, 2011 - 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In our text today, Jesus says: "Today's trouble is enough for today." That certainly feels true today. Today we have Middle Eastern countries in various stages of revolution. Today we have the Governor of Wisconsin at war with the public employees union over how to handle a budget shortfall. Today we have the Governor of New Jersey at odds with a teacher's union over a lack of money. That makes us feel good about living in Texas. At least we aren't having those kinds of problems, we think. But then we read the local newspaper and find that our own school district faces a 200-300 million dollar shortfall this year and that figure translates into a layoff of about 3,500 teachers at a salary of $50,000 per year. Our conflicts in the public area center on a lack of money.

Our scripture reading reveals that Jesus wants us to seek God's Kingdom first but the Bible is ambivalent in regard to money. There are Bible verses that support wealth as a sign of God's blessing. Other Bible texts view wealth as a curse. Even the Gospels show ambivalence on the subject of wealth. For instance, once as he went out into the street, a man came running up to Jesus, greeted him with great reverence, and asked, "Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?"

Jesus said, "Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't lie, don't cheat, honor your father and mother."

He said, "Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!"

Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, "There's one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me."

The man's face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.

Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who 'have it all' to enter God's kingdom?" The disciples couldn't believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: "You can't imagine how difficult. I'd say it's easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for the rich to get into God's kingdom." (Mark 10:17-23; The Message)

On another occasion, Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her.

But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly." (Mark 14:3-9; The Message)

Furthermore, in Luke's gospel, we find a list of people including Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources. (Lu 8:3)

I think Jesus main stance is neither for nor against wealth. Rather, Jesus wants us to transcend the concern for riches and trust in God that our needs will be provided for. Jesus says in our text today,

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?(Matthew 6:25) This sentiment is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament in the Epistles, where we read:

  • "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:7)

  • "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.'" (Hebrews 13:5)

The idea of trusting in God's provision was a reality in this culture in which a sabbatical year was held every seventh year. This was apparently a widespread practice in Jewish culture in Jesus' day even though it is not often mentioned in scripture. (The International Commentary, Davies and Allison, p. 647) Also, remember the exodus story where the people of Israel followed Moses into the desert without asking or worrying about where or how they would be able to feed themselves. So in their religious practice and stories, the Israelites trusted in God's provision at their best. Of course, we know they repeatedly failed to live up to God's expectations. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the Israelites failure to trust in God's provision comes from the story of the Golden Calf.

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, "Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what's happened to him?"

So Aaron told them, "Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me." They all did it; they removed the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf, shaping it with an engraving tool. (Exodus 32:1-4, The Message) This shameful episode in Israelite history ended with a plague concluded when God sent a plague on the people because of the calf they and Aaron had made. (Exodus 32:35) We as churches sometimes build a golden calf that takes the place of our devotion to and dependence upon God.

We gather earthly treasures to ward off anxiety. Yet Jesus says God takes care of the necessities for those who seek God first. Specifically, Jesus says, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"(Matthew 6:26)

Birds in flight seem to have a sixth sense about how to stay very close to one another, only a few inches apart, and yet to never touch one another in a way that would cause a collision. There is a certain unity in spirit that the Holy Spirit creates among a healthy congregation that allows us to work closely together without violating one another's personal space. This same mysterious source, let's call it the Holy Spirit, causes the joy that comes from flying in formation with other members of our species. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his book, A New Earth: "Joy does not come from what you do, it flows into what you do and thus into the world from deep within you." (298)

If anyone thinks such images are too abstract, Jesus then gets very practical, saying: "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Matthew 6:27) The answer, of course, is no. Worrying is usually misguided and unnecessary. Yet is may become the overwhelming attitude with which we approach life. Worry becomes a sort of energy center like the eye of a hurricane. It gathers energy from other sources such as the daily news. We are concerned about the state budget deficit. We fret over the revolution in Libya. Wars and rumors of wars become our daily diet through CNN and Fox News. Even our spouses or parents or friends may feed into our worry and give it energy.

In the midst of our self imposed storm, Jesus steps in to calm the storm, saying: "And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:28-30)

We achieve a worry free life by drawing our energy from an unseen Source. Jesus says: "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own." My personal belief is that today's budgetary problems will not be solved quickly or easily. We will through days of turmoil and transition as we learn to do more with less or less with less because less is what we will have. But I am hopeful that after we make it through this transition in our society, several years from now, we will be better off than we are today in some meaningful ways. In the meantime, let's take it one day at a time. Today's trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:33-34)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Potholes on the Road to Spiritual Perfection

Does anyone love perfection? That is the question Jesus wants to know. Of course we cannot achieve perfection but yet we must try. This is a tricky task. There are potholes on the road to spiritual perfection. Some of blow a tire with disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa. Others lose a wheel striving for spiritual perfection through fasting. Jesus challenges us to keep our eyes on the road before so we can avoid driving off into the ditch. Another advantage of keeping our eyes focused out the front windshield is that we tend to notice broken stragglers on the sidewalks. They are the people we are called to stop and help.

First, let's explore a few potholes on the road to spiritual perfection. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight, often coupled with a distorted self image and it occurs in females ten times more than males. Persons with anorexia nervosa continue to feel hunger, but deny themselves all but very small quantities of food. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that swings from starving ones to overindulging in food often followed by vomiting or other methods of purging. Media portrayals of an 'ideal' body shape are widely considered to be a contributing factor to bulimia (Barker, P, 2003, Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing: The Craft of Caring Arnold, Great Britain.). A survey of 15–18 year-old high school girls in Nadroga, Fiji found the self-reported incidence of purging rose from 0% in 1995 (a few weeks after the introduction of television in the province) to 11.3% in 1998. (Becker AE, Burwell RA, Gilman SE, Herzog DB, Hamburg P, June 2002. "Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls". The British Journal of Psychiatry 180: 509–14 quoted on wikipedia at

Constant media bombardment reinforces what we lack. According to advertisements our bodies are not the perfect shape and our relationships are not as satisfying as they should. They say our breath stinks and our clothes are out of style. This constant negative input has a dulling and discouraging effect on our spirits. We are not perfect. That is what they tell us. But we can be perfect if we will only buy their product. That is the lie they sell us. Thus, the desire for physical perfection may take an unhealthy turn.

On the other hand, there are forms of seeking perfection that are more spiritual than material. Thomas Keating tells of how when he joined a monastery at the tender age of 18 he found himself in a sort of spiritual duel with an older member of the community. Every time he had a break of 5 or 10 minutes in his busy schedule Keating would run over to the chapel and sit down to pray and meditate. And every time he got there this other man would already be sitting there in prayer. Their spiritual duel played over into the Lenten season one year. This was a time of year when this religious community practiced a mild form of fasting by refraining from certain foods. In his desire to be more spiritual than this other man Keating very nearly starved himself to death before he was taken ill from exhaustion and forced, much to his chagrin, to eat and rest which made him fall behind the other man in terms of time spent in prayer in the chapel and of course he lost the fasting duel as well. Keating looks back on those days with regret since these two monks in a monastery were competing spiritually the way automobile racers compete in a qualifying run in the Daytona 500. And the punch line of the whole story came when a couple of years later Keating found out the other monk wasn't even trying to compete with Keating. The competition was all in Keating's mind. Our mind is where these destructive games are played out.

If we practiced what Jesus recommends we would avoid such imaginary duels as Keating experienced in the monastery. But the problem arises when we take Jesus words literally and start once again focusing on our own imperfections because it is nigh near impossible to do what Jesus challenges us to do here.

I think moving from brokenness to wholeness is the message here. The phrase "an eye for an eye" harkens back to the ancient symbol of "The Eye of Horus" which survives even today in the Rx symbol of the pharmacy. The eye of Horus consisted of different parts of the pupil of an eye divided into fractions such as 1/2; 1/4; 1/8/ 1/16 and so forth. It served as a mental calculator for the ancient Egyptians who established the religion from which we get our own spiritual roots via the Hebrew Bible that we call the Old Testament.

As we dig deeper into this ancient symbol we are rewarded with an understanding of what Jesus is getting at in his 'eye for eye' reference. According to Wikipedia, the Egyptians loved their Falcon-Headed god, called Horus. ( The symbol represeting Horus's eye was called the Eye of Horus or, in the Egyptian language wedjat meaning "Whole One." This was a powerful symbol for protection that conferred wisdom, health and prosperity. The Eye of Horus also represented continuity in life as it symbolized the renewal of the land from pharaoh to pharaoh. The wedjat had the power to restore harmony to the unstable world and to make right things that were wrong in the world.

According to the myth, the rival god Seth tore out Horus' eye. Thoth, the wise moon god, patiently put Horus's eye back in order and healed it. So the Eye of Horus came to symbolize the status of regained soundness.

Such soundness is what Jesus seeks in his followers. Jesus is not expecting spiritual perfection as much as spiritual maturity. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 ...

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Or, as Jesus says in our text today: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Loving our enemies takes us outside the confines of the sanctuary walls into the wild world at large. This is why Jesus can hang out with tax collectors and sinners. This points us toward the exit sign in the sanctuary. That exit sign is our signal light, proclaiming: "Here is where you need to share your love: Right through these doors and outside in this community."

According to Reggie McNeal in his book Missional Renaissance, the question before this and every church full of Christ followers is this: "How can this church be a blessing to the community?" Your Session is exploring the answer to that question. Pray for us as we continue to seek God's will and Christ's way in finding how we can be a blessing to this community.

Our role as a church is to be a place of healing where broken people can find not spiritual perfection, but spiritual maturity. We are here as wounded healers to welcome anyone who is broken to come get themselves put back together again.

Jesus told a parable about our mission as a church.

"There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

"A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man's condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I'll pay you on my way back.'

"What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?"

"The one who treated him kindly," the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, "Go and do the same." (Luke 10:30-37, The Message)

All humans have a spiritual hunger that refuses to be filled by anything other than a relationship with God. This relationship with God is one that grows if we water the roots with tears and expose our inner selves to the light of Christ's nourishing love. Our spiritual growth is measured not by how perfectly we keep every law but by how we love our neighbor. And Jesus says even that is not enough. Jesus says, "Love your enemies." That is the true measure of the health of our eye and our spiritual wholness and how well we see. In our own strength we cannot do that. But as Paul reminds us, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Let's give the final word today to Jesus, who says to us:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Monday, February 14, 2011

House Rules for Life in God's Economy

Text: Matthew 5:21-37

The ongoing gender wars pit women against men and men against women in a competition for jobs, money and so-called success. What are our responsibilities to one another as male and female? Do the dark forces have it right when they say might makes right? Or are there gentler, subtler ways for men and women to be together in God's good world? In an overly sexualized, competitive world, it is time we reclaim the relationship between the genders suggested by both Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

In the more agrarian culture of just a few short generations ago women were certainly employed as were men. They worked the land together. The husband milked the cows and plowed the earth and hunted in the forest for protein. The women plucked the chickens and fed the family and the farm hands and milked the cows and tended the garden. Children were expected to join in on the chores around the house and the farm. The work was done together as husband and wife and children. Life on the family farm supported the family both economically and emotionally.

Then came WWII and women went to work and men went off to kill and die in foreign lands. International bankers made a killing off the war and the IRS realized it had been missing the boat. Half of the human population was not being taxed and I am referring here to the better half, the women. So women stayed in the workforce after the war and the government was happy with twice the taxable subjects now. Women got to vote and even had the privilege of serving in the military so they could now be sent off to kill and die in foreign lands in the name of the US government.

Whereas the line between male and female duties and responsibilities were clearly drawn a couple of generations ago today we are in a state of flux. The gender wars are played out in unhappy marriage relationships, workplace lawsuits, and everywhere else in society where women and men interact.

The Pauline epistles suggest a better image of how men and women may relate. Rather than being in competition we have the option of returning to the biblical metaphor of treating one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Imagine how that would change the social landscape if women became to men not sexual objects or work place competition or competitors in the field of government hand outs. Imagine how the cultural dialogue would be stabilized and improved if men looked upon and treated women as sisters in Christ and if women treated men as brothers in Christ. Imagine if men and women were one in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the Biblical image for the relationship between the genders.

This kind of honest, supportive equality is what Jesus had in mind in his sermon on the mount as described in our text today from Matthew's gospel. Here Jesus offers a parable of how we are to relate to one another and suggests we figure out how to apply it in our own lives and societies. To paraphrase and embellish our text today, the parable Jesus tells places us in the pew on a Sunday morning when communion is going to be served. Suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, we remember someone who has something against us. Perhaps we said an unkind word that ruined their day. Perhaps we intentionally harmed them in our attempt to climb the corporate ladder. What we have done is not as important as what we will do now. Jesus suggests we get up out of our pew and leave the sanctuary. Go crank our car and drive to that person's residence. Get out of the car and knock on the door. Ask to come inside and sit down and apologize. Make things right in that relationship then get back in our car and drive back to the church and get back in our pew just in time for the Lord's Supper.

Of course, such an interdiction is physically impossible. There is no practical way you could do what Jesus says: "Leave your gift at altar and be reconciled to your brother or sister who has something against you." There is no way you could leave here and drive to your offended party's humble abode, get out, get in, get it straight and get back before the sermon is done. The impossible nature of Jesus' request – get up immediately and straighten out the problem in the next ten minutes – shows us that this is a parable. We are not to literally leave church and go apologize and hurry back to the church before communion is served. Instead, we are to consider how our relationship with our brothers and sisters effect our relationship with God and do what we can to make our relationships with others right and see how that will improve our relationship with God. We have to work out how to do this in our own lives.

I read a story this week about how one man and his daughter did just that. Raymond Moody tells many remarkable stories about shared death experiences in his book Glimpses of Eternity: Sharing a Loved One's Passage from this Life to the Next. Dr. Moody wrote his first book about near death experiences. His latest book is about shared death experiences. He tells stories of a living person who shares a death experience with a dying person. Maybe the still living person has walked halfway up the tunnel of light to heaven with a dying person. Perhaps when their spirit departed their body the still living person witnessed the dying person's end of life review with them or saw their spirit rise from their body like a wift of steam or smoke from a candle when it is snuffed out. The many stories he shares in the book tell remarkably similar stories of what happens when a human dies. The people share similar experiences at their death whether they are Christians or atheists and regardless of color, creed, or cultural background. None of the stories mention anyone going to hell. The stories in the book leave the reader with less fear and anxiety about the subject of death or at least that was my personal experience upon reading the book.

The last story in the book on pages 180-183 is a shared death experience that is also a story of redemption that goes well with our sermon text today. It was a told by a woman whom the author calls June. June says although her dad was never mean to her he was so abusive to other people in town that they thought he was insane. No one could come visit June's house because her dad would insult them and kick them out of the house. He was like an ill treated pit bull who was nice to his family but attacked any outsider who came into the house. He carried his bullying ways out into the town where they lived and embarrassed his family and harassed the townsfolk.

June's mother was never able to keep a friend because of her husband's ill temper. June attributes her mother's premature death, when June was ten, to her father's hatred of humanity. When June was 38 her father was diagnosed with cancer and given a short time to live. She says in an odd way this was a blessing because it revealed to her without a doubt that there is life after death. June watched her father transform right before her very eyes into a gentle and caring man.

June says, "It started two months before he died. I was sitting on the porch and he came out with deep concern on his face. 'June,' he said, 'there is no way I can make it up to all those people I hurt over the year but Brit (June's mother) came to me last night and said she was coming to take me away and make amends before I leave."

He had never believed in ghosts but the way he changed left no doubt in her mind that some kind of transformation had taken place in his life. June and her father sat out on the porch until 2 am talking about the vision he had had and what he could do to make amends for his life. The two decided he should go door with his daughter and apologize to everyone he had offended. Over the next three weeks they went door to door on this solemn mission. Some of the people would look at them with disbelief as June's father explained he was sorry for what he had done to them and wanted to ask their forgiveness before he died. Some of the people said, "Fine" and shut the door and others asked them inside for long conversations. After three weeks June's father had met his goal and was tired and ready to die.

It was then that June shared an experience that changed her life. On the day her father died he was peaceful and calm. He asked for water but other than that they sat completely transfixed by a beautiful music that just seemed to be coming out of the air. It was like no music they had ever heard before.

June's father lay down on the coach and seemed almost to shut off. Then, to her surprise, it seemed as if a spirit body of him sat up. It was beaming with joy. He said, "good-bye," and right in front of him stood her mother and aunt. No words can describe the appearance of three of them as spirits. Her mother's spirit body was looking at her with great joy. And then that was it. The spirit bodies faded away and she was alone with her father's body.

As you can imagine, June has never been the same. There was a connection between her, her mother, her aunt, her father, and God all at once. From that day onward she said she feels as if she's walking on air.

Here is a true story that is an example of how two people lived out the idea of making amends with those we have offended. Here is a true story of what happened at the death of one man and how it was shared by his daughter and her mother and aunt.

Scientist Rupert Sheldrake refers to the Habits of Nature as opposed to the Laws of Nature. He claims the sun rises each morning because that is the sun's habit. It is not an immutable law. I think Jesus would like that kind of subtle shift from "laws" to "habits" in regard to his ethical teachings in the sermon on the mount. For Jesus' teaching there transcends the law and is meant to be applied in our everyday lives in a way that becomes a habit.

When we get beyond the over the top rhetoric we find what Jesus teaching is how to transcend the law and make the way of love a habit in our lives. We transcend the law when we live the law of love which the Apostle Paul describes so well in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 where he says, "Love is patient, love is kind, love is not boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not demand its own way." That so-called "Love Chapter" in 1 Corinthians 13 is often used as the scripture reading at weddings but it was not originally intended for marriage partners. It was intended for widespread use throughout God's economy.

Jesus speaks to us today about how to conduct ourselves in God's market economy. In God's economy, men treat women as sisters in Christ. That means men treat women with respect, support and love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13. On the other hand, women treat men as brothers in Christ. That means women treat men with respect, support and love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13. For in God's economy, the trend is toward greater love and more compassionate justice between the genders. So the discussion moves from gender wars to discovering how to support one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. That's the kind of discussion that happens around the family dinner table in God's house. Loving kindness is the life habit we must form. For such love is the first and only house rule for life in God's economy.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Salt of the Earth

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

I read this text several times before I caught the last sentence. I noticed it before but wrote it off as another example of the Matthean community who wrote this gospel trying to get in another jab at their nemesis, the Jewish religious leaders. But then a friend pointed out to me that the last sentence – which mentions the scribes and Pharisees – is a key to unlocking the meaning of the text. You see, Jesus is encouraging his followers to be the salt of the earth, unlike the scribes and Pharisees who are just plain soup. There is more soup than salt in this world. In fact, without the soup in this example the salt would have no purpose. So we need the soup, the big majority of the people of the people in the world. But we need to be the salt to the soup. For without salt soup can be just plain dull. I don't like bland soup. I like spicy soup. A pinch of salt makes the soup.

Salt has a distinguished history in the life of the Jewish community. The Jewish Talmud says: "The world can exist without pepper but not without salt." (Jerusalem Talmud, Hor. 48c)Because of its preservative qualities, salt was attributed magical powers, affording protection against evil spirits and invoking hope for permanence and blessing: Newborns babies were rubbed with salt, and new homeowners were given the gift of bread with salt. Salt is also used in koshering meat, as it draws out the blood which is forbidden for consumption according to Jewish law. (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: So when Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth" he is drawing on an ancient, sumptuous metaphor in his culture.

Bible and comparative religion scholar Theodor Gaster writes that the salting of newborn babies was common practice among Jews (TB Shabbat 129b), early Christians and Greeks in the early centuries of the Common Era: In later centuries, this practice appears among other peoples as well: "The Arabs protect their children by placing salt in their hands on the eve of the seventh day after birth; the following morning the midwife or some other woman strews it about the house, crying, 'Salt in every envious eye.' …In standard Catholic ritual, salt is applied to the lips in baptism to exorcise the Devil, and in medieval Sweden it was then put under the infant's tongue. The Germans did the same thing immediately after the child had been delivered and salt was also placed near the child to ward off demons. In the Balkans and among the Todas of Southern India, newborn children are immediately salted; while Laotian and Thai women wash with salt after childbirth to immunize themselves from demonic assault. In the northern counties of England, it is customary to tuck a small bag of salt into a baby's clothing on its first outing." The practice of salting babies is still current in the Orient. (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine:

The term itself, "Salt of the earth," is a Matthean construct. "Earth" means "world" to Matthew, who refers to "the world" nine times and never in a negative sense. The world does not belong to Satan. It is the creation of God. In medieval times, salt being incorruptible, was believed to avert demons and protect against black magic. As an ancient writer put it, witches and warlocks "like their master, the Devil, abhor salt as the emblem of immorality." Salt was also considered useful in warding off the assault of a thieve. If one found his road blocked by highwaymen, he should hurriedly grasp a handful of salt or earth, whisper an incantation over it, and fling it in the direction of his attackers, rendering them powerless to harm him. (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: So salt had a power over evil doers and evil beings and was used to ward off evil.

And the symbol of salt as used by Jesus may have had an even earthier meaning. In our text today (vs. 5:13), the salt may have referred to the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus. Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were light in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural "dung." But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics. [5:13] (Larry Brody,

Thus, Bruce Manila says a good interpretation of this verse might be:

You are the catalyst to get things cooking ...(Quoted by David Ewart at

Which bring us back to soup and the need for salt in the eating thereof. If the inhabitants of Meyeraland and Westbury are the soup then St. John's Presbyterian Church is the salt. Being salt of the earth implies being a blessing to the world. Of course we already ARE salt - we already ARE a blessing to the world through our leadership in various justice ministries such as BIM, Anchor House, Sandwich Makers, Small Steps Nurturing Center, Partners in Educational Advocacy, and so forth. We already ARE light in the classrooms, hallways, skyscrapers, hospitals, store fronts, and neighborhoods in which we live and work.

Light is the other symbol Jesus uses to describe his followers in the text. Again, Mania comments:

It is (a peasant's) one-room house that is envisioned in the parable here, since all who enter can see the light stand. The normal way to put out and oil lamp was to put it under a bushel basket so as not to fill the house with smoke and fumes before retiring.

Thus a good interpretation of these verses might be:

Set an example as a congregation. Not to get fame and glory for St. John's Presbyterian Church, but so that others will see God's goodness.(Quoted by David Ewart at

With these symbols - "Salt" and "Light" - Matthew's Jesus strikes a death blow to merely personal and private religion. This sermon by Jesus was heard not just by disciples but by "crowds." (7:28-29) The church is not an esoteric community of initiates. We are not hiding who we are as a church but we are a city set on a hill whose authentic life cannot be concealed. We are not a church hidden away out in the countryside or deep inside some neighborhood. We are a church set right out here in the open on West Bellfort street. Yet our real value as salt and light comes not so much from what we do within the confines of this campus but what we do and how we do it in our homes, office buildings, and classrooms.

And one more word about these symbols is in order here. We do not generate salt or light - we ARE salt and light. Here is God's word to St. John's Presbyterian Church today: "Be what y'all are: Salt and light." You are "salt and light" really means "y'all" are salt and light. Jesus may not have used the word y'all but according to Matthew he did use the plural of you. So "y'all" are salt and light or "you's guys" are salt and light. However you want to say it - it needs to be said - Jesus spoke this word to the community. Think about it. Single grains of salt do not make any difference in the world. A single grain of salt will not change how your soup tastes. A single grain of salt has no effect on anything. But a pinch of salt may do wonders. In a similar fashion, a single Christian has a limited effect on the soup of the world but a group of Christians may be just the salt that is needed to ward off the evil doers and to make the whole community taste right.

We don't need to try harder to be what we already are - Salt and Light. We just need to shift our perception of who we are. Folks, WE DO HAVE A PURPOSE HERE ON THIS EARTH AND IN THIS COMMUNITY. For example, many people in Haiti have clean water to drink because WE ARE BEING THE SALT OF THE EARTH. Some people in this part of the city have food to eat because WE ARE BEING THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. We are needed in God's good world. We belong here. We have a mission to the world - to be who we are - to be salt and light to the world.

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on February 6, 2011. (OT5A)