Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt Of The Earth

We have left the Season of Epiphany behind, and the Season of Lent is as yet a little way off. For now, we find ourselves in Ordinary Time: every-day, common-or-garden, run-of-the-mill, life-goes-on time. Most-of-the-time Time.

Jesus has begun his public ministry. He has left Nazareth and relocated to Capernaum, at the bottom of the hill, on the shore of the lake. He has called his first disciples to follow him, to learn from him and to join-in with what he is doing. His method is to do something – to teach or to heal - and then to process with his disciples what it is that they have just experienced. But as his reputation as a teacher and healer grows, it gets harder to get away from the crowds. So here we find him half-way up a hill, talking with his disciples, with a following crowd of extras listening in.

Capernaum is a fishing community, and Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen. The entire local economy was built on fish. The lake was full of good fish, and it was positioned right on a major trade route. Fishing communities stretched right around the shoreline and the fish they caught was shipped out throughout the known world.

Among the fishing families of Capernaum were business-partners Jonah and Zebedee. Their respective sons, Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John, worked the boats with them, heading out on the water at night, repairing the nets by day. In addition, Jonah and Zebedee employ other men. But this is a family business: their wives and daughters and daughters-in-law would also be involved. The men caught the fish; the women salted them. The fish needed to be dried in the sun, and coated in salt. Over several days, the salt drew out water from the fish, so that bacteria couldn’t grow, couldn’t ruin the product. Salted fish had a long life, up to three or four years if need be. They could be traded and carried long distances. Fish from this lake were considered a delicacy at the finest tables in Rome - an interesting moral question, given that the Romans were the occupying oppressors...

Fish swam in the lake, minding their own business, until they were ripped from their watery world by a fisherman’s net; and then further transformed by the fisher-wife’s salt. Salt was as much a part of these families’ lives as were boats.

So when Jesus addresses fishing folk whom he has recently ripped from their everyday lives to become fishers of men, and adds the further information ‘You are the salt of the earth,’ what would they have understood?

I would suggest this: that the work Jesus has set out on, in which he has called them to take part, is one that will not only change people’s lives forever (the net), but will prepare them to be sent out in every direction in order to nourish others, friend and enemy alike (the salt).

There is no point catching people up in the Kingdom of Heaven unless we also preserve them and send them out. If we merely scoop people up, bring people in, the Minster will become a shed full of rotting fish. The salt of our lives (You are the salt of the earth) needs to be rubbed in to them, to coat them, and to do so over an extended time. That is what it means to make disciples: to give people such access to our lives, every day, that they see the difference following Jesus makes; that their lives are slowly but radically transformed, just as ours have been transformed.

Jesus points out that salt that has lost its saltiness is useless. Indeed, it is worse than that: it jeopardises the entire catch. You can go to all the effort of salting the fish, without the salt having any preservative effect. How might we lose our saltiness? On several occasions Jesus points out a spiritual truth: that whoever tries to hold on to life will lose it, but whoever gives up their life for the sake of the gospel will receive it back, and more. In other words, the way to keep salty is to keep salting fish. Or, the way to see lives transformed is to commit your life to transforming the lives of others.

Who are you spending significant amounts of time with? And, is your conversation seasoned with salt, with the things you are learning from Jesus?

Jesus gives his disciples another everyday illustration. A city on a hill, as visible by night as by day. There is irony here. These fishermen, who have embraced Jesus, live in a city at the bottom of the hill, on the lake shore. Jesus has moved there from Nazareth, a city on a hill, up the hill, where those among whom he had lived most of his life had recently rejected him. Matthew has already told us that Jesus moved to Capernaum in order to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy of light dawning on those living in darkness. And so Jesus moves in, describing something closer to home.

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘You are the light of the world,’ and conveys what that means by calling to mind a lamp in a house – like salt, a thing of daily use, in this case before the sun rises and after it sets. The sun still exists, of course, but in those times when it is hidden from our view, a lamp gives light to everyone in the house – if it is positioned where all can see its light.

Some years ago I visited Nazareth and Capernaum, and was given a lamp of the kind Jesus describes. The lamp has three components: [1] a fragile pottery vessel with a spout, through which [2] a cord wick is drawn, which must be filled and refilled with [3] olive oil. Archaeological excavations have unearthed countless examples. Jesus’ example calls to mind scriptural images: God as a potter, and men and women as the work of his hands; and olive oil, as a fuel-source, symbolising God’s empowering Spirit in our midst.

As we gather together week by week at the Eucharist, our lamp is cleaned, the wick trimmed or renewed, the oil replenished, and our hearts are set on fire, to God’s glory. But he does not intend to hide us under the basket of this building: no, once lit, we are carried out into the dark places, to bring light. We shine before others, giving light to those in darkness, when we are taken in God’s hands and placed where he chooses. What will take place here this morning will be continued in and through us, across Sunderland and the surrounding region, in the days ahead. Where will you be prominently set? Whose lives will you bring light to?

Again and again in the Gospels we see Jesus take hold of the ordinary things of ordinary life in Ordinary Time, bless them, break them open and give them to us to give to others. In this Ordinary Time, may we discover afresh what it looks like to journey through life with Jesus, and may our ordinary lives take on extraordinary significance.

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