Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Being Worth Your Salt

Once upon a time in Pointe-Claire, there was a restaurant with a funny name: it was called Domboga. It served fine food, and diners would tell all of their family, friends, co-workers, and everyone else they knew about the amazing experience they had at Domboga. But like most things that are good, it didn’t last forever.
One day the sou-chef noticed that the pastry chef was adding some extra ingredients, one of which was a powder from a jar labeled “Na.” And, partly because the sou-chef was curious, and partly because the sou-chef was jealous of the pastry chef, the sou-chef went to the internet and Googled “Na.” – only to discover that… EEK! “Na” was a poison!

So the sou-chef went to the Manager of the restaurant to tell him that the pastry chef was adding a poison, Na, to the food. But the Manager had heard no complaints about the desserts, and, in fact, there were diners who came to Domboga exactly because of the desserts made by the pastry chef. However, the sou-chef was so convinced that the pastry chef was adding poison to the desserts that he started talking about the pastry chef behind his back…first to the rest of the staff: “The pastry chef was adding a poison to the desserts. He must be stopped!”

When the pastry chef was approached with the idea that he was adding a poison to his food, he simply showed his co-workers that it was not a poison by eating his own desserts. Many of the staff thought that Na actually made the food taste better! They took a vote in the kitchen, and the majority of the staff agreed that the pastry chef was doing his job well.

Nevertheless, the sou-chef and the other staff who rallied behind him were still convinced that the pastry chef was adding poison to his food. No matter how much the pastry chef explained himself to them, they would not back down. And so they then let it slip to some of the diners that the pastry chef was adding poison to the desserts. What a scandal! At first, there were just fewer orders for dessert, then it looked like fewer people were coming to the Domboga. But that was just temporary. Like many things in life, the sou-chef’s strategy backfired. All at once people just wanted to come to see what all the fuss was about. And the pastry chef became something of a celebrity.

That is, until in desperation, the sou-chef contacted the government. When whiff of a “public health concern” reached an ambitious junior bureaucrat in the Department of Health, he sent inspectors, initiated audits, and made life so unbearable for the poor folks at Domboga that the place had to be shut down.

Later, it came to light that the pastry chef was, indeed, adding the deadly poison Na to his desserts. But this particular pastry chef was so skilled, that he was able to add Na to his food in such a way that it ended up not being poisonous at all. In fact, he combined the poison Na with another poison with just the right mixture. You see, he hadn’t really been adding Na to the food at all! In fact, all this time, he had simply been adding…salt.

You see, salt is composed of two deadly poisons: Chlorine whose symbol is “Cl” and Natrium, whose symbol is “Na”. Another name for natrium is sodium, so we sometimes call salt “sodium chloride”. Now there are few more volatile (oh! Big word! “volatile” means “explosive”) …there are few elements on the planet that are more volatile than Sodium. And when Chlorine and Sodium come together – Oh boy! Fireworks! But then, after the fireworks are over, the Sodium and Chlorine start to work together, and together even these two explosive, poisonous elements can enhance the finest foods, and as we shall see, have all kinds of other benefits as well.

This morning, I’d like to remind you that Jesus said that you are the salt of the earth. It is an idea that we heard discussed two weeks ago, but Al gave me permission to build on that theme just a bit…. What do you think that Jesus meant when he said that we are the salt of the earth? I hope we can discover some of what he must have meant this morning.

But like every important spiritual truth, being the salt of the earth is hard to nail down. We can’t make an equation out of it – and that’s a good thing. Whenever the heart is involved instead of just the head, it is a little more difficult to pretend that we understand, but when we do understand, we’ll never lose it.

In an important sense, just like the poisonous explosives Chlorine and Sodium come together to make salt, we, as individuals, are dangerous when we are left alone, and salt of the earth when we work together. In fact, when Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth,” he used the plural pronoun. Comme “Vous ĂȘtes le sel de la terre.” That means that he wasn’t just talking to one person when he said it. He was talking to a bunch of people. But more than that, I’d like us to imagine this morning that he wasn’t just talking to a bunch of individual people, but that he was also talking to a bunch of people together. For while I suspect that we can, in fact, be the salt of the earth on our own, I fully expect that we can be even more effective as the salt of the earth when we operate together: as Paul writes in Romans: “none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.”

There may be characters in the church that really rub you the wrong way, that drive you crazy. But it is only when Sodium and Chlorine give up exploding together that they can become salt, and it is very possible that it only when we meet those people and stop being explosive that we can truly be the salt of the earth. It is a bit of a shame that our modern world and our modern churches allow us to hide among people exactly like ourselves, as Debbie suggested a few weeks ago. We’ve learned that if we don’t like our circumstances, we can always change – folks change jobs, change churches, and more. We have gotten used to the luxuries of personal space. We have our own everything, and we have lost the gift of being able to share. As a result, we might never experience the freedom that comes from giving up the poison deep inside each one of us; we might never be challenged by God to do bigger things having been faithful with smaller things.

Rather than just providing another comfort zone in our churches, God may very well be calling us to work out our salvation at church together: to find that equilibrium between ourselves and those we are tempted to fight with the most. Perhaps then, and only then, will be really fulfill our calling to be the salt in His world. You know, I think that this might also be one of the reasons that God gave some of you brothers and sisters. As iron sharpens iron, it says in Proverbs, so one man sharpens another.

But there is another sense in which we simply can’t be salt of the earth on our own, either. Do you know that back when Jesus was walking on the earth, salt was worth more than diamonds? Soldiers used to get paid partly in salt! It is true. In fact, the English word “salary”, which means the money you make from a job, actually comes from the Latin word that means “salt”. Isn’t that strange? What would you think if you asked your Dad for your allowance, and he gave you this [a full salt-shaker]? I bet most of you wouldn’t be very impressed. Well, to understand what it means to be the salt of the earth, we need to understand how important and valuable salt was in the time of Jesus.

Do you think that the soldiers just carried salt around with them? As Al asked two weeks ago, do you think that they brought it home and put it on the shelf and looked at it? Of course not! Salt has no value to anyone, let alone Roman soldiers, if it is left on the shelf. You know, the point of salt is not to just to be salt. Salt is pretty much useless if it just sits around with other salt and tells salt stories or plays salt games. Salt is useful if it gets used up. As Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it.” Salt without saltiness is useless. And saltiness is the behavior of salt and not just the character of the salt.

So why did Roman soldiers not complain when they were paid in salt? Well, let me explain. Back in those days, you didn’t just go down the street to your friendly neighborhood Provigo and pick up a meal neatly wrapped in plastic. And when you did get food, you couldn’t just go home and put it in your fridge. Not at all! As you can well imagine, food was just as important when Jesus lived as it is now – but back then they hadn’t all kinds of ways to make food convenient.

Back then, if you wanted to eat, you might kill a goat. But you probably couldn’t eat the entire goat right then and there. So you’d eat some of the goat, and the rest of the goat would have flies buzzing around it in no time. And folks learned really quickly that you don’t want to eat meat once the flies have laid eggs in it, and those eggs hatch into little maggots, which usually happens less than a day later. Gross, huh? I know! It is so cool. Did you know that CSI teams (that’s crime scene investigation, for anyone out of that loop) use the development of bugs on a corpse to pinpoint the time of death? *shudder*

But back to the goat… Goats were expensive! You didn’t want to have to kill a goat and only get one meal out of it. So that’s where salt comes in. You see, if you take salt and work it into meat, people found that meat lasts four of five times as long as it would otherwise. So it should be easy to see why salt would be so valuable: if you wanted to eat goat meat four days in a row, you could either have four goats and no salt, or you could have one goat and a quarter-pound of salt. With that chunk of salt, you could keep the meat from that one goat good for all four days. So obviously, a quarter-pound of salt was worth three goats. Or something like that… In any case, this was the reason that salt was considered so valuable: it was a preservative.

You see, left on its own, the world can be pretty rotten. That’s the word we use when meat goes bad, isn’t it? It goes rotten. Then it smells bad, and you really, really, don’t want to eat it, or even get near it. Because if you do, you get sick. But it is the same with the world. Left on its own, the world can go rotten, too.

In your grandpa’s lifetime, the world has seen a number of countries taken over by people who wanted to pretend that there was no God. And more of the people of those countries were killed by their own governments in the last hundred years than people have been killed by their own governments in all the rest of history put together. Left on its own, the world can go rotten really fast. And it is our calling to keep the world from going rotten as much as we can.

Even in our own day, we see people in public looking for a fight. Whatever the issue, more people seem to want to cast their opponents as evil, both ignoring the good points that their opponents make and the good that is in their opponents. Well, folks, this is the Chlorine and the Sodium still evident in our lives. That’s what we need to give up. As salt, it is our calling to see the good in everything and in everyone; to remember that God loves even those who disagree with us. In fact, it is our calling even to love our enemies, to love even those who really do have it wrong, or really are trying to hurt us.

But you know, while countries need God a whole lot, we need God on a personal level even more. As Steve shared two weeks ago, without God, rottenness sneaks its way into our relationships, too. Misunderstandings happen so often, and left out in the sun, a misunderstanding can cause irritation, then bitterness, and then a grudge. If we are hanging on to the Sodium or the Chlorine of our pride, or our ambition, it makes the rottenness happen even faster. But the salt of the earth goes to work and acts as a preservative. In really practical terms, the salt of the earth doesn’t keep record of wrongs (that is, no grudges), is always willing to apologize, and is often willing to let the other person have their way.

We sometimes say that the Christian life is all about a relationship with Christ, and we would be correct. But very recently in history, Christians have mistakenly come to the conclusion that a relationship with Christ comprises reading the Bible and praying. This is a new idea folks – you don’t find it in scripture. Now I don’t want to suggest that those things are not valuable, but they do not constitute a relationship with Christ. Well, if they don’t, what does, you might ask? Jesus himself answers this question for us. He says that when we interact with the least of His brothers, we are interacting with Him! Whatever relationships we have, or do not have, as the case may be, with the marginalized, and the sick, and the injured, and the needy, and the hungry, that, that! is the relationship that we have with Jesus himself. He doesn’t give us very much wiggle room here: he makes a point of not giving us the opportunity to consider the relationships that we have with the wealthy, or the beautiful, or the strong. He makes it clear that the relationship that counts is the one that we have with the poor, and the ugly, and the weak – the very least of his brothers.

And it is precisely these attitudes: wanting to care for the downtrodden, being willing to love our enemies, seeing the good in people who may be messed up but really, really need to know God’s love. These are the things that make us as different from the world as salt is from rotting meat.

You know, Paul might have been thinking along these lines when he wrote: “Do not conform any longer to the thinking patterns of this world.” The world just loves those who are closest; those who agree; those who conform. We, on the other hand, are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How do we do this? A few verses later, Paul gives us some practical instruction: “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves…. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is the kind of love that John had in mind when he wrote: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” John wasn’t thinking of the love that we have toward our best friends and close family. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.” So once again, the love we have for one another that really counts is the love that we show to those who disagree with us, bother us, or even drive us completely crazy. Which is why Jesus tells us that we need to “love our enemies.”

When we behave that way, we aren’t just acting like a preservative, we’re also acting like good medicine. But that’s another thing that salt can do, isn’t it? I used to use salt whenever I had a really bad sore throat, too. You know, when your throat gets really sore, it often means that you are about to be really sick. But if you take hot salt water and you gargle it, the salt will often fight the infection and keep you from a terrible fever.

Have you ever heard the expression “like rubbing salt in a wound”? If salt gets on a cut it hurts, doesn’t it! But you know, the salt isn’t really causing the pain. In fact, the salt is acting like an antiseptic to ensure that your cut doesn’t become infected! The pain is there to let us know that there is an infection to be fought! It reminds us that there is weakness and vulnerability…

I can still remember watching my Dad when I was a little boy. My Dad would often spend Saturday in the yard or on the roof, or around the house fixing things. And once or twice I can remember Dad having a cut on his thumb that got infected. Have you ever had an infected cut? When your skin is healthy and you get cut, the skin will come together, and the body will heal itself. One wall of skin will accept the other wall of skin, and the two will become one. But if your skin isn’t healthy, if it gets dirty, bacteria can start to grow. Then, instead of scabbing up and getting better, the infection will keep the two walls of skin from accepting each other, and the infected cut will turn red and swell, and hurt a whole lot.

Well, because of seeing my Dad and his infections, I know exactly the best thing to do for an infected cut – and it uses salt! That’s right. You put a quarter inch of salt into an empty coffee mug. Then you put water in the kettle, and bring it to a boil. Then you fill the coffee mug with boiling water, and you stir up the salt until as much of it dissolves in the boiling water as you can get. And then you try dipping your infected thumb into the water after it cools down just a bit! At first, it will be too hot to keep your thumb in the water; but by the time that you are able to hold your finger in the hot salt water as long as you can, the salt has already gone to work and attacked the infection. I never saw my Dad ever need to use the “salt treatment” more than twice before his infected thumb was altogether healed.

Does the “salt treatment” hurt? Of course it does. But after it is done, you are healed. If you stick with the infection, the hurt goes on and on, until the only thing that the doctor can do is to cut your finger off! It is true! So that, too, is a characteristic of the salt of the earth. We need to be willing to put up with short-term pain for long-term gain. That’s hard isn’t it? It is especially hard when that short-term pain lasts and lasts. But if we are children of God, we know that our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

The Bible says that we are the body of Christ. Are there tensions here this morning? Are there conflicts? Are there hurts? My message this morning is not intended to expose such things; that isn’t necessary. But the message is to help heal such things, and that is very necessary indeed.

So that’s what it is all about this morning. If you have a perfect life, I should have given you permission to take a nap. But if there is any conflict at home, or at work, or in your neighborhood, you are called this morning to be a preservative and a medicine. You are the salt of the earth if you are willing to fight against those things that cripple relationships – if you are willing to set aside the grudges, and see the good in all people, and forgive as God in Christ forgave you.
On the other hand, if you like looking down on others, or if you like keeping track of other people’s failings, or talking about folks behind their backs, then Jesus says something really quite scary: Matthew Chapter 5, verse 13: “if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless, and will be thrown away.”

Imagine that: first, Jesus was talking about something that was considered very, very precious at the time – it was soldiers’ salary. But now he says that even something as valuable as salt can rapidly lose all of its value. How can this happen? Simply by losing those characteristics that made it salty in the first place. If you take action that causes relationships to go rotten, you’re still being like Sodium or Chlorine. On the other hand, if you behave in a way to preserve relationships, then you are the salt of the earth.

Are you worth your salt this morning?