Sermon 08-18-13: “Back to School, Part 2: Salt, Light & Law”

August 22, 2013


“You are the salt of the earth, ” Jesus said. By this he meant that we Christians—we the church—ought to make people’s lives better, to make our communities better, to make our world better. As I say in this sermon, that begins with us—with an inward transformation by the Holy Spirit—just as the elements of sodium and chlorine react with one another to form salt. This sermon also challenges us to be witnesses for Christ, what Jesus means when he says that we’re also the “light of the world.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:13-20

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I grew up in a popcorn-eating family. Seriously, we had popcorn several nights a week—nearly every time we sat down to watch TV in the evening. For most of my childhood, we had an electric popcorn popper, which popped the corn in oil. When the popcorn was finished, you inverted the lid, added salt, and—voila!—delicious popcorn. Then some time around 1981 or so, we made the switch to a hot-air popper. Remember these? It was like a blow dryer for popcorn. It didn’t require oil to heat up the kernels. It used hot air. Supposedly, we made the switch for “health reasons”—because this was the early ‘80s, after all, and we didn’t want to undo all the calories we’d burned from our Jane Fonda Workout, so we all ate hot air-popped popcorn, which, without all the oil, is fat-free.

Except here’s the problem—and if you’ve used a hot air popper you know exactly what I’m talking about: Not only is hot air-popped corn fat free, it’s also taste free. Imagine eating a bowl of packing peanuts, except it probably doesn’t taste that good. So you get the salt-shaker. [mimic shaking salt on; then more and more] The problem is, you can’t salt it enough! Because all the salt falls off the popcorn and goes straight to the bottom of the bowl. Without oil, the salt had nothing to stick to! So you finish eating your packing peanuts and see this mound of salt at the bottom of the bowl.

The hot-air popper manufacturers knew this was a problem because they put this optional tray at the top in which you could put, like, half a stick of butter. And as the hot-air chamber heated up, the butter would melt and drip down onto the kernels. Then, at least, the salt would stick to the kernels and it would taste a little better than packing peanuts. Of course, after you substitute all the butter for popcorn oil, you might wonder why you bothered switching to a hot-air popper in the first place!

The moral of the story is that popcorn is worthless without salt. Salt is indispensable for the enjoyment of popcorn. In fact, it’s indispensable for all food. We put at least a little bit of it in nearly everything. We put salt on the roads when it snows to lower the freezing point of water and turn ice into slush. We mix it in with the ice solution when we’re making homemade ice cream.

Salt is an indispensable part of our lives. It makes our lives better. It makes our world better. So what does it mean when Jesus says to us disciples, “You are the salt of the earth”? He means that we disciples—we the church—should be equally indispensable to the communities that we serve. He means that we ought to make people’s lives better. He means that we ought to make our world better.

Our church does this all the time, of course. We have a community food pantry on Wednesdays and Fridays, which enables the poor in our community to feed their families with nutritious food. We run a preschool for children, which provides a quality education at affordable prices. We help sponsor a missionary family in Kenya, the Griffiths—which we’re doing right now by collecting change in these blue cups. We rebuild or repair storm-damaged houses and churches. We work to improve local schools. We send money to UMCOR, which does disaster relief work in our world as good or better than anyone. In fact, through our church’s apportionment giving, we educate children, we eradicate malaria, we fight poverty, we stand up to social injustice.

This is just who we are, and what we do as United Methodists.

Did you see this wonderful movie last spring about Jackie Robinson called 42? After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as their starting first baseman, Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, received a call from his counterpart with the Phillies, Herb Pennock. Pennock told him that when the Dodgers come to Philadelphia, the Phillies won’t take the field if Jackie Robinson dresses out for the game. “We’re just not ready for that sort of thing in Philadelphia,” he tells Rickey. And Rickey—who was not only a deeply Christian man but also a Methodist—says, “Do you think God likes baseball, Herb?” And the Phillies general manager says, “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means one day you’re going to meet God, and when he enquires why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson were a couple of Methodists who were being the “salt of the earth.” That’s just what we do!

My wife, Lisa, is a chemistry teacher, and she reminded me of something interesting about salt. It’s sodium-chloride. Sodium by itself is an extremely reactive metal—it’s highly explosive. You could blow things up with it. The other element in the compound, chlorine, is, by itself, a poisonous gas. So salt, this stuff that is good and necessary for the world, is made up of things that—by themselves, prior to a chemical reaction—are explosive, dangerous, poisonous, even deadly.

Isn’t that a fitting metaphor for what’s often inside of us human beings?

I have a friend, John, who is a successful pastor, theologian, and published author—he’s non-denominational, not Methodist. And the truth is, while he likes me O.K., he’s not too sure about us Methodists in general. Years ago, he pastored a church in a small town in Texas, not far from Dallas. And in this small town, as in nearly every town, there is a First United Methodist church. John had friends in that church. And one day John was complaining to me—the Methodist pastor—about some things he’d heard were happening in this particular Methodist church. First, he said, one group in the church was gossiping about this person, and then another group was gossiping about that person, and this other group was doing this bad thing, and the pastor was doing this other bad thing. So John asked me—the Methodist pastor—“Could I believe how horribly all these church people were behaving?” And I shook my head and said, “Unfortunately, John, I can totally believe it. Listen, the dirty little secret about Methodist churches is that they are filled with sinners.” They are! Aren’t they!

Isn’t our church filled with sinners? I’m not saying that it’s good that we’re sinners. It’s just that if our church is filled with sinners, that means that I’ll fit right in!

But hold on a second… If we’re sinners, Jesus says some words here that ought to terrify us: he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” These scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people around. Most people in Jesus’ day would look at these very religious people and say that they were by far the most righteous people around, yet Jesus says even they’re not good enough to pass muster with God. And somehow our own righteousness must exceed their righteousness if we are going to get into the kingdom of heaven. Are we in trouble?

We would be, except for the fact that God knows we can’t fulfill the Law of God. We can try as hard as we’d like, and we’d end up no better than the scribes and Pharisees. But you know who can fulfill God’s Law? God. And that’s exactly what God did, when God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, came to us as a human being, Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled God’s Law on our behalf. Jesus lived the perfect life of obedience to God on our behalf. Jesus lived out every word of the Sermon on the Mount on our behalf. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus, though he was perfectly meek, lost his inheritance on the cross, so that we could have an inheritance with God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Jesus, though he was perfectly “pure in heart,” was forsaken by God on the cross, so that we wouldn’t be forsaken. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, though he was perfectly merciful, received only punishment on the cross, so that we could find forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

Brothers and sisters, it is true that our righteousness has to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in order for us to enter the kingdom. But it’s also true that on the cross, our Lord Jesus Christ traded his righteousness for our unrighteousness, and as a result, two powerful and important things happened: We received his righteousness as a gift, even though we didn’t deserve it. And he received our unrighteousness, and suffered the penalty that our unrighteousness deserved—which was death and separation from God—even though he didn’t deserve it.

As a result, we don’t have to prove our worth to God. God has proven it for us. And God has proven that we are of infinite worth to God. Why do I say this? Because God paid an infinite price to save us: God’s very life on the cross. So we have nothing left to prove.

Twenty years ago, I worked in sales with a large telecommunications company. One year, the branch manager decided he would motivate us salespeople by posting a big chart on the wall that listed each person’s name and the amount of their annual sales quota they had retired. As one friend told me, they may as well post your W-2 on the wall, because everyone can guess how much money you’re making. It just so happened that for most of the year, I was down near the bottom of the heap, and it made me feel miserable about myself. I called it my “wall of shame.” Everybody could see how badly I was doing. But the next year, I blew out my quota. I was at or near the top in sales all year. Only… the branch manager didn’t post the chart that year. Other people couldn’t see how well I was doing, and I didn’t like that!

My point is, I’m still mostly that same person today. Always looking over my shoulder, comparing myself to others. Seeing how I stack up. Seeing whether I measure up. Deeply insecure. If I don’t measure up to some external standard, then I don’t feel like I’m a person of worth. I worry that other people won’t love me as much. I worry that God won’t love me as much. So I’m always trying to prove my worth. My ego is always getting in the way. So I’m very sympathetic with these scribes and Pharisees. I’m a lot like them! They were in the business of religion, and, like me, they were trying to measure up and prove their worth, too.

Jesus is telling me: “Let it go. You don’t have anything to prove to me. You couldn’t do anything to make me love you more than I do now. After all, when you were still a sinner lost in your sins without me, I loved you enough to die on a cross for you. Do you think I love you any less now? I want to set you free from the idea that you have to do anything to make me love you. It’s all grace. You don’t have to earn it.” Amen?

As if dying on a cross to save us weren’t enough, that’s not all God did for us.

Years ago, there was a popular Christian bumper sticker or license plate or T-shirt that read, “Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven.” And I understand the appeal of this: It’s true that even though we’re Christians, we still sin; we’re not perfect. And because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, God has forgiven us. By all means! The problem is with that word “just.” We are not just forgiven—because remember: Jesus says that we’re the “salt of the earth.” That means that we’re no longer the sodium and the chlorine of the earth. Instead, God has transformed these dangerous, poisonous, deadly elements inside us—as if by a supernatural chemical reaction—into something that is incredibly good for our world.

I’m thinking of my friend Fran, an elderly shut-in from my church in Alpharetta. I would go and visit Fran—you know, to minister to her. And it never failed that no matter how bad my day was going, how stressed out I was, or what kind of mood I was in prior to going to see Fran, I would leave her apartment feeling so much better about myself, about my life. It never failed. She made you feel loved. She lifted your spirits. She was encouraging and optimistic. She was the kind of person you wanted to be around. Even though she was the one who was sick and frail and stuck at home! That’s what a “salty” person is like!

I want to become a “saltier” person. I’m not as “salty” as I want to be, not counting the salty language I too often use. But I have experienced enough of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s transforming power, God’s ability to make our lives better, God’s ability to make us truly happy, to want other people to experience it as well.

And that brings us to another metaphor that Jesus uses to describe us. We are the “light of the world,” which enables people in the dark to see where they’re going. In other words, we’re supposed to help other people find their way to a life-changing and life-saving relationship with God. In other words, we’re supposed to do that thing that all of us United Methodists said we would do when we joined the church. What did we commit to do when we joined the church? We said that we would serve the church through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and our what? Our witness. We’re supposed to be witnesses.

[Invitation to be the “light of the world” in someone’s life.]

14 Responses to “Sermon 08-18-13: “Back to School, Part 2: Salt, Light & Law””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a good sermon, but I have to wonder about the idea that God loves us just the same no matter how well or poorly we perform as Christians. Is there a verse somewhere that says that? If so, I would really like to see it. For my part, I notice that God appears to base how he acts towards us on how we respond to what he has given us–parables of the talents, for example. I know many people/preachers say that God’s “rewards” are not indicative of God’s love towards us–what ARE they indicative of? John 14:23 suggests that obedience to his teachings shows our love for God and that gives rise to love from God towards us. I certainly am of the opinion that once we switch over to God’s side of the ledger by responding to his sacrifice for us through faith, we won’t ever be “separated” from God’s love (unlike many who, with verses supporting, argue we can “fall from grace”). But I don’t think this means God’s love never “varies” in intensity based on how we respond to his love. Cf. Revelation 2:4-5. Help me out here!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, first, parents can love their children “the same” (or at least strive to), while treating them very differently based on their behavior. You don’t love your wayward child less than your obedient child, even though you discipline or punish your wayward child. You don’t love the obedient child more because you reward them. Your love is impartial—or would be, if you were capable of loving perfectly (as God is). In fact, obedient children (I’m thinking of the older brother in Luke 15) often sense that parents love their troubled children more. I’m not making that argument, but that’s true to what we know about family dynamics.

      Second, God is love. Everything God does is purely loving, including God’s discipline and judgment by the way. The same measure of love that rewards obedience punishes disobedience. It’s all motivated by the same love.

      Third, and this is where church tradition stands strongly against what you’re saying: If I understand what you’re saying, how are you not advocating that there is a meritorious work that we perform that “earns” God’s grace? Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, among others, would be turning over in their graves! Who are we humans that we can impress God such that God would love some of us more than others? The most righteous person in the world falls far short of God’s holiness. Nothing we do “impresses” God. If God does anything for us, he does it solely by God’s grace. Nothing we do begins to bridge the gaping chasm that separates us from God; it’s only grace. It’s all grace from beginning to end.

      We don’t need to infer that God’s love varies based on his rewards or punishments. If God’s being our “Father” is at all analogous to human parents, then he’s at least as impartial as human parents. If you want proof-texts, the classic one would be that “God is no respecter of persons” from Acts 10:34, or Deuteronomy 10:17, or Romans 2:11 (which quotes Deuteronomy).

      But the major problem with your assessment is the question of justification by faith alone and grace alone, cornerstones of Protestant and classic Christian thought.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I don’t think “God is no respecter of persons” gives the result that you indicate–I think the point is rather that God looks to people’s MERITS, as opposed to whether they are Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, etc. I think the Acts passage makes that clear–“accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:35 (NIV). See also Rev. 2:23 (to a church): “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to his deeds.” (NIV).

        With respect to “loving prodigals,” I certainly agree that we don’t stop loving our children every time they do something amiss. Love is “longsuffering.” Also, God never stops loving his children, so not stopping loving your child would seem comparable to that. However, ultimately when a child rebels and won’t stop, won’t repent, I believe this does put a damper on the relationship. “Repent therefore! Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Rev. 2:16 (NIV). Note that the prodigal son did ultimately repent and return.

        You mention that “God is love. Everything God does is purely loving.” I totally agree with that. But what that means is, everything God does is a manifestation of what love is. Love turns to hatred once it is ultimately rejected, for example. That is why most people will end up in hell. So evidently love is “conditional” in that sense. Why do we think that it is not “conditional” in general, then? Why is not a difference in rewards and punishments also indicative of God’s “love,” since “God is love,” and that is how he acts?

        What about “works theology”? First, if I don’t go with the “Reformers,” that is not a big item to me. I go with solo scriptura, as Luther said. If I don’t find some verses which support any particular piece of current theology, and I find verses which suggest otherwise, I am going to go with what the verses seem to tell me.

        Finally, there is a big difference between works to earn salvation and works as part of your walk with God. I agree that salvation is by grace through faith, as Paul says. (Note, however, that James says faith without works is dead, and that you show your faith by your works.) Once saved, however, we are compelled to be obedient to God’s commands as part of our walk as Christians. “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” John 14:15 (NIV). “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” John 14:21 (NIV). This is the type of scripture passage I am relying upon.

        One further note: It is easy enough to talk about “unconditional love” when we live with loving people. But what about a wife whose husband beats her and the kids, comes home drunk, won’t keep a job, etc. Are we going to tell her that she should just love him equally as much as a wife who have a “loving” husband? I’m not.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I think you’re cutting God down to human size. I disagree that my children could do anything to make me love them less. To say the least, God is at least as loving as us human beings.

        Listen to the Keith Green song I posted today! Remember who God is!

      • brentwhite Says:

        By the way, I mentioned the Reformers not to say, “What they say goes,” but to suggest that when you’re coloring so far outside the lines, you might ask yourself why the lines are there in the first place. I’m unaware of any theologian or Bible scholar who shares your interpretation of these verses. Before you, I’ve never heard someone say that God’s love turns to hatred or that God loves his children to varying degrees. Why haven’t I heard that?

        It’s a question of humility: what do I know, what insight do I have, that 20 centuries of smart and faithful Christian thinkers before me, didn’t?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, I don’t know that I have professed to be humble! However, your 20 centuries is certainly an overstatement. Whom were the “Reformers” reforming? Also, there is a substantial segment of current Christendom that says you can fall from grace–clearly they do not believe in “unconditional love.” I am neither a Catholic nor a Church of Christ adherent, but I trust you see my point.

        Aside from that, I don’t think you have succeeded in referencing any scriptures that oppose my “conditional” position, even though I have cited several in favor of my view. (“No respecter” actually is more a support for “conditional,” in context).

        Also, I think “conditional” just makes sense on general scriptural principles. How many times does scripture say, “If you obey me, blessings; if you don’t, curses.” Hundreds? How does that position of scripture square with “unconditional” versus “conditional”?

        Further, I go back to my example of the beaten wife. Are you telling me she is to love the louse unconditionally if he never “repents,” but just gets worse and worse? I don’t think you can base the analysis of God’s love solely on how a parent feels towards his children. And, have any of your children “spat in your face”? Aren’t you basing your “unconditional” on limited evidence? And did not God say in the law that if a son is a reprobate, he is to be stoned, with his parents throwing the first rocks?

        Finally, C.S. Lewis is one person I would cite as consistent with my view when he said, “Hatred [or anger, I can’t remember which] is what love bleeds when it is cut.”

  2. brentwhite Says:

    How about Romans 5:8? “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “While we were still sinners” describes the time before we were reconciled with God—when we hadn’t even been adopted as God’s children. Yet he still loved us. John 3:16 ain’t bad, either. The “world” God loves, as all Bible scholars would say, is the sinful world that God also judges.

    I think where we disagree is that you think that if God punishes or if God is angry, then that means that God isn’t at the same time loving to the same degree he is when he rewards or blesses. I don’t see how that logically follows. Lewis’s point is that they all derive from the same love.

    I don’t understand your point about the abusive husband. If a husband is abusing is wife, what is the most loving thing for both parties? That the husband be punished (so that he may repent or at least not sin further) and the wife be separated from him. It’s the same love that motivates both actions.

    • brentwhite Says:

      As for who were the Reformers reforming… The Catholic Church was wrong, but not on the issue of God’s love

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I agree that God “dispenses” his love to EVERYBODY, even when they are “sinners” and opposed to God. The question is, do they get to KEEP that love? “When you go to a house, offer it your peace. If they won’t accept you, let your peace return to you.” (Slightly paraphrased.) Obviously those who do NOT ACCEPT that love don’t get to keep it. And see: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” So obviously God can and does “hate” people. So, what do we make of that? Obviously, if he dishes out love to everybody but ends up hating the majority, who reject his love, then love cannot be “unconditional.” And, since love “changes” to hatred in such instances (right?), does that not say something about what “love is,” since “God is love”?

      With respect to the wife, certainly it is a good idea for the wife to get out of there, but I hardly think she should do so out of “love” for her husband, as opposed to for self-preservation. My point is, how should she FEEL about her husband while she is there with him and he is dispensing this abuse? Loving? I think there comes a point when “longsuffering” love reaches its “end point.” As is true with the “longsuffering” God who created the objects of wrath for that purpose (according to Romans 9).

      So, the question would be, is there any similar “variation” in God’s love for his children based on their faithfulness and “love back” to him by keeping his commandments? This is what I don’t find any verses saying that there is no variation, and I have cited several which suggest that there IS variation. I do agree that not every time that God gets angry does this prove he does not love–he wants to get us back in line out of love, per Hebrews 12. But punishment only ends up in restoration for those who are “educated” thereby (i.e., repent and start doing better as a consequence). Think of those who died because they were abusing the Lord’s Supper. Was God pleased with them? No. He sought to correct their behavior, but they persisted anyway, and died accordingly. Again, these are the types of scriptures I am relying upon. And I don’t see any telling me otherwise.

  3. Mary Daly Says:

    the most honest writing i’ve read of yours. i liked it.

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, as another passage suggesting a “change of visage” depending on how we respond to God, consider Proverbs 1:20-33. Wisdom cries out for us to listen, “But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you….Then they will call to me but I will not answer….” Or Psalm 2. “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are they that put their trust in him.” Psalm 2:12. Or, New Testament, Jesus, the parables of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30 (“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” v.30), and minas (or pounds), Luke 19:11-27 (“But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me,” v.27). Or, the parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46 (“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” v.46). Or God’s prophet confronting Eli in 1 Samuel 2:27-36 (“‘I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained,'” v.30). These are more passages that I rely upon for the “conditional” nature of God’s love.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, I love you, but I can’t engage this argument. You’re not going to convince me that God is anything less than fully loving by quoting scripture at me. Suffice it to say, there are many good commentaries on these passages that reach different conclusions from yours. Whatever else we say about God—or how God’s love manifests itself in particular instances—everything God does springs from this same love.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I accept the conclusion of this debate. Let me just close, from my perspective, by saying that I am not arguing contrary to “everything God does springs from this same love.” I am arguing that “this same love” is conditional, and hence its various manifestations are different depending on what that love is responding to (always appropriately), based on the passages I have cited. This includes that “in the end,” once the extended love has been conclusively rejected, that love turns to hatred. This is like a thermometer, with “high” and “low” temperatures, but all as being “points on the scale” of the greater or lesser presence or absence of “heat.” I just think that “love scale” applies across the board, from Christ “at the top” down through Christendom in the “top half” of the scale (warmer temperatures) to the lost reaching down to the Devil at the bottom (cooler temperatures). Anyway, that’s how I see the matter.

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