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Monday, October 10, 2016

Stay Salty (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49-50; Luke 14:34-35)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

            Several of our youth are into sports – ultimate Frisbee, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, parkour, and cross country.  This past Thursday Igor Tennant and John Baker competed in a middle school cross country meet.  The Bakers and Candy and I are very grateful that youth leaders from our church came out to see the event.  Kelly and Jared Heinly came and so did Enam and Carlin Jordan.
            On this course, the runners started on the football field, headed into the woods, ran a loop, and then came of the woods for a final 100 yard sprint across the football field to the finish line.  We gathered around field, watched them begin and disappear into the woods, and then 10-15 minutes emerged for the final sprint to the finish.  The first 5 or 6 came through – the top runners, and we cheered them to the finish.
            Then came the next group.  These are fast kids but not quite at the top.  A couple of theme came out of the woods, one from Culbreth Middle School, one from Smith Middle School.  As they sped up field, the Culbreth runner tried to get to a line where he’d have a straight shot to the finish.  In doing this, he shoulder checked the runner from Smith and sent him sprawling.  The body check would make a hockey coach smile.  I thought it might have been intentional until I saw what came next. 
            He took three steps and abruptly stopped.  He whirled around to check on the Smith runner and helped him to his feet.  The Smith runner quickly shrugged off the fall.  And a second later the two of them were furiously racing toward the finish. 
            How do you feel about what happened?  As I watched it, a voice inside me shouted, “No, don’t help him up.  This is competition and you’re losing time.”  It is good that in high school I played football, where knocking people down is sanctioned.  But, as a 46-year-old pastor who believes that while competition is valuable in sports but cooperation is more helpful in life, I have great admiration for what this kid did. 
Imagine the cross country meet as a metaphor for life. Two attitudes are in play.  One attitude is I must win at the expense of others.  If knocking someone down and even hurting them helps me, I’ll knock them down and hurt them.  Winning is the top value.  This attitude defines winning in terms of accumulation, accolades, accomplishment.  How many awards do I have?  How much do I own?  My winning stands on comparison.  In order for me to win, you must lose.  That’s the attitude of the runner who knocks the other over and never looks back.
            A second attitude is I must do my best while helping others do their best so that together we can create beautiful things.   And all can share in this beauty.  In this attitude, I will give up things – possessions, time, money; I will give of myself in order to help others flourish.  This is what I saw in the cross country meet.  The boy stopped, sacrificing his own time, in order to help his competition.  Then together, they created something magnificent: a photo finish as they raced hard down the final 100 yards.  It’s the highlight of any race, and it happened when a kid made a choice, the kind of choice a disciple makes.
            Following Jesus is awareness of and openness to the Holy Spirit.  And it is a series of daily choices; daily choosing to walk the path Jesus sets before us.  I mention the Holy Spirit before getting into us making choices based on who we are in Christ because we have to keep in mind that we are not generators of good.  God is the giver of good things and our daily contact with God is the ever present Holy Spirit.  Choosing the right actions and words is impossible without the Spirit’s help.  We have to keep our mind on God and listen to the Spirit constantly.  When we do, we are empowered to live in Christ.  The choices we make, like the choice to help a fallen runner, reveal that we are in Christ.
            One of the images of a disciple in the New Testament is salt.  Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.”  The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote 30-60 years after the resurrection.  Each one had sources: people they talked to who had been with Jesus; traditions that had become established in the early church; their own memories and experiences; and the Holy Spirit.  Each wrote his gospel with a particular audience in mind and with a specific narrative slant.  They weren’t just telling the story of Jesus.  They were telling it in a way intended to shape the church as the nascent body of Christ matured moving from the first into the second century. 
            Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all remembered Jesus’ statement about disciples being salt.  You are the salt of the earth.  They each remembered it differently. 
            In Matthew, Jesus is in the opening of his great Sermon on the Mount.  He has given the beatitudes.  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled;” and so on.  And then Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” 
            Candy will be making something – she’s wonderful cook – and she calls me in the kitchen, shoves a spoon in my mouth, and asks, “Does it need more salt?”  I am the kind of eater that really doesn’t know the answer.  I just shovel food in.  Igor has a much more refined palette.  I answer her with a shrug of the shoulders.  He answers with great confidence.  Yes, more salt!
            Matthew takes Jesus’ use of salt to mean taste.  Does salt make the soup taste better?  Does a disciple make the world better?  With God speaking through our lives, how do we exert a beneficial influence in the world around us? 
            How do we add the flavor of heaven to situations of our lives? It could be a simple matter of doing something with honesty when everyone in the crowd cheats or takes shortcuts and calls you childish for not joining them.  You’re not behaving with integrity because you want to broadcast your own righteousness.  You just do the right thing because you are a Christ follower.  You don’t call attention to yourself.  But your choice indicates that something is going on inside you.  That “something” is God at work in you.  Whether the choice is integrity when others cheat, generosity when others hoard, the choice to turn the other cheek metaphorically or literally, or the choice to not do something like view a raunchy movie or laugh at a crude joke, the choice will season that entire situation with the flavor of heaven. 
            People around you might not appreciate such divine seasoning.  They may want to bask in being ungodly.  Jesus did not say, “You are the salt of the earth and will become rich and popular when you do the right thing.”  Being the salt might be hard sometimes but the flavor we add, the flavor of heaven, is sorely needed even by people who think they don’t want it.  Put plainly, people who don’t know Christ and those who do need to see how a Christ-follower thinks and acts in daily situations of life.  Know the Gospels.  Stay in tune with the Holy Spirit.  And sprinkle the flavoring of heaven all around.  Stay salty.
            Mark also includes Jesus’ teaching about salt in his gospel, but frames it differently.  Jesus says in Mark 9, “Everyone will be salted with fire.  … Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  Salted with fire sounds odd.  Jesus is shamelessly mixing metaphors.  He has in mind preservation and perseverance.
            Salt is a preservative and Jesus wants the faith he’s planting in his disciples to last.  He wants them, as leaders in the church that will be born after his ascension, to preserve the community of his followers.  He has just finished saying “If your foot causes you to stumble [meaning sin] cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be cast into hell” (9:46).  Mark’s Jesus does not say “Be the salt or stay salty,” he says, “Everyone is salted.”  Everyone goes through temptation and persecution.  Do we come out of it stronger in our faith or do we abandon faith?
            I recommend adding the Voice of the Martyrs email updates to your own prayer life.  Voice of the Martyrs tracks Christianity around the world and especially in places where other religions are dominant, like Hinduism or Islam.  VOM sends accounts of the ways Christians suffer – job loss, imprisonment, physical attack, and even death.  VOM urges the church worldwide to persevere in prayer so that the church in areas of persecution may be preserved. 
A regular discipline of praying for persecuted Christians can do two things.  First it connects us to believers around the world and gives us a voice on their behalf as we go to our God for them.  Second, as we enter the stories of real, present day persecution, we are heartened to strengthen our witness when it feels like it is hard to be a Christian in our own lives.  Jesus says in Mark 9, “Have salt within yourselves.”  We’ve been salted.  We receive in order to build up the church’s witness in the world.
Stay salty and spread the flavor of Heaven.
Be salted and persevere when following Jesus is a hard thing to do.
What does Luke remember of Jesus when he remembers the teaching about salt as a metaphor for discipleship?
In Luke 14, Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is fit for neither the soil, nor the manure pile.”  Luke initially sounds like Matthew, talking about lost taste.  But then he says ineffective salt is unfit for the manure pile.  What does that mean?
Religion Professor Anthony Bradley sites studies of agricultural uses of salt.[i]  This is not flavoring, nor is it a preservative.  The salt is needed for the fertilizer to stimulate growth.  The context in which Luke cites Jesus is a teaching about hard discipleship.  Jesus has just said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:26-27).  Jesus doesn’t want us to literally hate our families or our own lives.  He uses extreme language to make the point that being true to Him has to be a top priority above else. In a world that will either ignore us, mock us, or harm us, remaining faithful is the mark of a real disciple. 
Moreover, by making the decision to follow Jesus no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, we encourage other disciples and our perseverance stimulates growth in them.  In America, we won’t deal with physical harm because of our faith.  We mentioned this when we discuss Mark’s uses of Jesus’ salt image as a marker of perseverance.  There we join with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, areas where faith may literally lead to risking one’s life or willingly losing one’s life.  In America, we are more likely to see Christian witness marginalized.  When that happens, we stand as disciples and speak out as disciples. 
We raise our voice so that the truth about Jesus – the truth that Jesus is Lord and Salvation can be had in Him – is told.  In this effort – the work of verbal witness and commitment in spite of marginalization – in this, we encourage the faith of others.  We become stimulants in the soil of fellow believers’ lives. 
I had a friend in the National Guard who was salt in my own life in the manners Jesus mentions in Luke 14.  Enlisted infantrymen in the National Guard use down time to tall crude joke and raunchy misogynistic stories, most of which aren’t true.  Or, in the down time, soldiers debate politics, argue about movies, and talk about religion.  Preston Willifred and I discovered each other, two committed Christians in the guard.  He never laughed at the dirty jokes.  If I did, he called me on it, harshly, in front of everybody.  Preston was younger than me, but his faith had a boldness that mine lacked in those days.  I admired the strength of his testimony, I tried to duplicate it in my own life.  He was the salt, I was the soil, and a more mature faith was the crop.  Many people in this church family have acted in this for me and for each other. 
Stay salty.  Add the flavor of Heaven to the world around you.
Be salted.  Persevere and preserve the faith of those who are persecuted.
We are salt.  We can stimulate growth in each other and other disciples we meet.
I talked with the young man after the cross country race, just to compliment him on his admirable act of helping a fallen opponent.  His mother told me a story.  In previous race, his legs tangled with another runner and he was the one to fall.  No one stopped to help him.  His legs were cut up pretty badly in the gravel and he was upset, but he finished the meet.  Afterward, talking to his parents, he was mad.  But they encouraged him.  Together, he and his parents decided if it happened in another race and if he had the opportunity, he would help his opponents.  He would do what no one did for him.
Here at church, we are like that conversation he had with his parents.  We are the community that encourages each other to go out into the world and be salt.  The opportunities are going to come.  We will be discouraged in life of following Jesus and we will meet other people who are discouraged.  Here, as we worship together, pray together, and encounter the word together, we build one another up.  Then when we go out we are ready for opportunities we know will come.  We are ready to add the flavor of Heaven, to preserve the faith of those under fire, and to stimulate growth in Christ in those who are discouraged. 
You’ve heard the silly beer ad which says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
In Christ, we are brothers and sisters.  “Stay salty.”

[i] A. Bradley (October, 2016), Christianity Today, p.72-76.

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