Salt and light
Highlands Presbyterian church
February 9, 2012
“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 under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 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.”
Cathy read this morning from the book of Isaiah. When Isaiah says, “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,” the prophet is saying “pour salt into their wounds.”
Today, when we say a person is “the salt of the earth,” we generally mean they are unpretentious, uncomplicated, devoted, loyal, earnest, honest, and humble.
That is not how Jesus uses the word. Think about the meaning of salt…meaning derived from its use. Salt is not particularly useful in itself. Its value comes in its application on other things. In ancient times salt was applied to fish and meats to preserve them in the days before refrigeration. In wartime, Romans applied salt to a soldier’s wounds to help avoid infections.
The phrase “salt in the wound” comes from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic. When England was establishing its navy, most sailors were forced into service. While at sea, punishment was often lashes with a cat’o'nine tails. These whippings would almost always break the skin, and salt was rubbed into the wound to prevent infection. Salt in a wound was painful but necessary.
Isaiah speaks of pouring salt into the wounds of injustice. Jesus warns that the salt won’t do its job if it loses its flavor. Isaiah and Jesus shared both concerns.
Listen to Isaiah. He uses fasting as an example of salt that has lost its power. “Why do we fast, but you do not see,” Isaiah asks. “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and then you go out and oppress your workers. 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.
“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? 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?”
When Jesus walked into the Temple and overturned the tables, he was pouring salt into the wounds of Israelite injustices. He was calling attention to the unholy alliance between Temple leaders and the Roman oppressors…an alliance used by Rome to keep the people from pouring salt into those wounds…and Jesus said, “I will do it for my people.”
Let me give you an example “ripped from today’s headlines” as they say on television. It was two years ago this month on Feb. 21, 2012, that a group of five eccentrically dressed young women hurriedly set up microphones and loudspeakers in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and launched into what they would later call a "punk prayer."
They pierced the sacred air of the church with their fists and with their sharp denunciations of both priestly finery and worshippers' cringing servility. As a result, the punk rock group who call themselves “Pussy Riot” has spent as much time in the news as in a Russian penal colony these last few years for pouring salt into the wounds of Russian injustice.
On the Stephen Colbert show this week, two of the young women appeared having been released from a gulag in time for the Olympics. When Colbert asked why Putin had them imprisoned, they explained, “Because we sang a cute song in church.”
The lyrics of that cute song were filled with salt.
Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!
Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!
The Church praises rotten leaders
The march of the cross consists of black limousines
Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin
Would be better if he believed in God!
You see until Pussy Riot performed their cute song in the church that day, most Russians didn’t know that the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was a former KGB agent who, as leader of Russin Christians, palled around with Putin wearing a 40,000 dollar Rolex watch and riding in limousines to ostentatious parties while his flock suffered. Putin uses the church to silence the people. The leader of Russian Christians just as some of the leaders of the Temple in Jesus’ time, preaches to the people about their responsibility to support the government.
Because of these courageous young women, the world now knows the truth. They are what Jesus called the “salt of the earth.” They took to hearty the call of Isaiah to “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.”
Jesus talks about all of his followers being “the salt of the earth” but he also speaks about the need for us to be “the light of the world.” It’s not enough to pour salt on the earth’s wounds. We are also called to cast the light of Christ on them.
Light overcomes the darkness in which injustice thrives. Isaiah talked about some of those injustices that he witnessed 800 years before Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. He talked about oppressed workers, hungry children, the homeless, violence.
Isaiah said it was not empty religious practices but rather the loosing of the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, it’s not simply spraying and fasting but freeing the oppressed, sharing your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; and covering the naked.
It is no coincidence that Jesus…800 years later…would use the same metaphors used by Isaiah. Salt and Light. As critical as was salt to survival in those days, so it was with light. In our contemporary lives, it is impossible to imagine a world without light.
But when it was nightfall in the ancient world, it was darker than we can imagine: in the darkness, Isaiah said, "we grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes.”
Jesus and Isaiah use the term light not simply as the means to allow others to see whatever they wish…but as the means by which we are to create the light required for the world to see its own wounds.
Together Isaiah and Jesus are raising concerns about a wounded culture that is groping in the darkness. The antidote, they say is salt and light. They call on us to heal the wounds. In the light we can all see those wounds.
Turn on the bright lights of Christ and we see them all. Loneliness, illness, addiction, the challenges of being young or old, the wounds of those sent to fight our wars who then have to fight for what they need to repair the damage, the refugees of an economic system designed to leave people in the shadows, those families who can’t diaper or feed their children without the charity of people like you, who sip the coffee you donate at a morning table in the homeless shelter before walking out into a cold winter day.
These are the wounds of life in the richest country in the world and there are those who would like the lights turned off or at least down…which is why Isaiah is there to remind us all that the light shall break forth like the dawn, and when the light shines on the wounds of the world, healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
And the Psalmist says those who “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright are gracious, merciful, and righteous. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.
But there’s still that matter of the salt. Exposing the wounds of a culture does little unless someone heals those wounds. Jesus says those who hear him and follow his words are the salt of the earth. We are called to pour salt into those wounds.
Yeah…that salt hurts and the world doesn’t like the cure but unless we pour salt into those wounds, they will continue to fester, to infect, and do even greater harm. But there should be no salt without light. Light comes before the salt so that the world can see the wounds…but light also comes after the salt so that the world can see the healing and know how the healing came about.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The same light that allowed the world to see its own wounds will also enable others to witness the acts of justice that are performed by the followers of Jesus. AMEN