This week of course is the beginning of the winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. I’ve enjoyed the reporting from the games, about the inspiring backstories of various athletes, the analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the new rating system for figure skating, and particularly, as I was four years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that sport which only seems to be on TV during the Olympics: curling. On Wednesday morning, I heard a story about one of the many problems that Sochi has faced preparing for the games, one that they seem to have overcome with the help of a company from my hometown in Michigan, SMI Snow Makers. NPR interviewed SMI’s project manager Ian Honey. Honey has one objective: make sure that there is enough snow for all the outdoor events in Sochi. It’s not a particularly easy task, because temperatures in the winter in Sochi can be in the 50’s, and the snowfall varies year to year. Last year, as it turns out, there was ample snow in Sochi, and so Honey’s team stockpiled some 16 million cubic feet of it in ten huge piles high up in the mountains, covered with giant isothermal blankets to keep it from melting over the summer. Honey’s team also built two man-made lakes to hold water so that they can make more snow this year. They’ve installed about 450 Super Pole Cat snow machines on the mountain. In the past few weeks, they’ve spread the snow from last season out on the slopes as a base, and then pumped 970 cubic meters of water through their snow machines, making enough snow to cover 920 footballs with a foot of snow. As jaw-dropping as that figure is, I was really bowled over by what Honey said next. Honey moved to Sochi four years ago to get this project underway. Four years of work to ensure adequate snow coverage for the next two weeks, after which, he’ll come back home. He says, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.”
I thought about Honey’s story throughout the day on Wednesday as I shoveled and re-shoveled and then shoveled again my driveway and sidewalks. The main story of the Olympics, the reason most of us tune in, is of course the athletes, who train and work and sacrifice for years in order to compete for a few seconds in the spotlight in front of the entire world. But the reality, of course, is that the Olympic Games represent the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of people, many many thousands more than the athletes, thousands of folks who toil in obscurity to build the stadiums and the housing and the hotels and all the infrastructure necessary or the games. There are thousands who work anonymously to make sure that there is enough food and that the lights and water work (anonymous until there are problems, of course). There are thousands who work to make sure that the rest of the world can view the events from the comfort of their own living room. And I wonder about these thousands and thousands of people, who don’t go home with medals, who aren’t on the broadcasts, who won’t receive endorsement contracts for their performance, I wonder how they understand their work and their contribution. Are most of them like Ian Honey, looking back on four years halfway around the world from home and able to say, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.” Or do many of them struggle to see and take pride in their small part in the overall success of the Olympics?
I think this is a struggle many of us have, about our jobs, about our contribution to society, about the meaning of our lives. The problems of the world seem so overwhelming, and we are after all such small players in the grand scheme of things. Most of us sincerely want to make a difference, want to make the world a better place for people in need, what to leave our planet in good shape for those who come after us, but it can be hard to see how our well-meaning efforts, our small contributions, and our own personally responsible recycling efforts are making any real difference. There are a number of possible responses to this. One which is particularly widespread in the age of social media like Facebook and Twitter is to become a sort of public exhorter on issues that you care about. If you’re online at all, you’ve seen what I mean, those people who weigh in at every turn about how terrible and awful this, that, and the other thing are. I often don’t disagree with them, at least not completely, but I get tired of the constant haranguing. Another response is to sink into a sort of despair of ever having a positive impact and maybe even just give up. The difference we can make is so minimal, why even bother?
I think then, the good news of our gospel lesson this morning is that Jesus offers a different and life-giving way to look at our lives. Starting last week and for the next few weeks, our gospel readings come from Matthew, from a passage known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just started his public ministry, and he’s been traveling around Galilee, calling people to repent, calling people to turn their lives around, to change direction. He’s invited some of his friends, Peter and Andrew and James and John, to leave their jobs as fishermen and to follow him in his ministry. They have traveled throughout Galilee, teaching and talking about the kingdom of heaven and curing people who are sick. Great crowds have started following him around, and when he sees them, he takes his disciples up on a mountain and sits them down and starts to talk to them. I imagine that the disciples are pretty drunk on the heady excitement of the crowds and being away from their dull lives as fishermen, but I’m guessing at the back of their minds they’re beginning to wonder what all of this is about. Plus, there are the letters from their wives, wondering when they’re coming home, and if they’re not coming back, when they’re going to send some money so their children will have something to eat. Teaching and healing is great, but it’s not paying the bills. When Jesus sits them down, I wonder if they don’t think, “Finally! He’s going to tell us what the plan is, what the rest of our lives are going to look like.” They’re right, that is what Jesus is going to do, but what Jesus says is not what they expect to hear. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” And on and on. Jesus tells them that when the kingdom of heaven comes those who are downtrodden will be lifted up, those who are on the margins will be brought into the center, those who are sick will be made whole, those who are hungry will be fed with good things, those who are broken-hearted will be comforted. That’s not bad news, the disciples think, in fact, it’s pretty good news. Who hasn’t felt downtrodden or been an outsider, who hasn’t been sick and in need of healing, who hasn’t felt empty and been hungry for something that really satisfies, whose heart hasn’t been broken time and time again?
Then, just as the disciples are wondering if there’s some kind of catch, like maybe the kingdom of heaven is where we end up when we die, but that this life is still going to be full of misery, Jesus tells the disciples what their role in the kingdom is. Jesus says, “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.” Now, ever since I was a kid I was confused about this saying of Jesus, which also appears in somewhat different form in Luke and Mark. What confused me is that I had never heard of salt going bad, of salt losing its taste. Over the years I’ve read dozens of commentaries on this passage, biblical scholars who practically turn themselves inside out trying to explain what Jesus means, trying to find some way to explain how salt might lose its taste. Salt was important in the ancient world, probably even more important than it is today. Salt of course is used as a flavor enhancer, and was an important preservative in the days before refrigeration. It was used in Jewish religious rituals as a purifying agent during sacrifices; in the Roman empire, it sometimes served as currency (the word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word for salt). “Sharing the salt” is a sort of Hebrew way of talking about sharing a meal and table fellowship.
It’s probably impossible to determine if Jesus was referring to one particular quality of salt, such as preserving, or flavoring, or purifying. But one thing is clear: it is the very quality of saltiness that gives salt its identity and purpose; if it loses that quality, it is no longer salt. So when Jesus says to his disciples way back then, and by extension when he says to us today, “You are the salt of the earth,” I think what he may be saying is, “The very quality of who you are, who each of you are, your own collection of talents and skills and abilities, your quirks and your rough edges, your own unique outlook on the world, the unique flavor of your thoughts and contributions, are all essential to this world. They are your gift to the world. They make this world what it is; they make life better for everyone, they are an essential part of the kingdom of God. The only way you can become un-essential to the world, the only way you can become useless to the kingdom, is if you choose not to be who God has created you to be, if you choose not to share your talents and skills and abilities. You, each of you, are the light of the world, each of you are a gift. Don’t hide yourself under a basket, don’t lurk in the shadows. Be who you are, be who God has created you to be.”
That, I think, is the good news today and everyday. We may not end up on TV, we may not get gold medals, we may not even feel like something special, but we are, all of us, the salt of the earth. We are the salt of the earth when we send encouraging notes to friends, when we pick up the phone to call someone to ask how they’re doing after their operation, when we buy a few extra boxes of macaroni and cheese for the food shelf to help make sure no one goes hungry. We are the salt of the earth when we organize support groups for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, when we knit mittens for kids who need them in this frigid weather, when we shovel our neighbor’s walk. We are the salt of the earth when we take communion to folks who can’t get to church, when we provide transportation for people so they can get out to events, when we faithfully say our prayers for those on our prayer list, when we use our skill and time and talents to make our worship welcoming and uplifting. We are the salt of the earth when we visit people in the hospital and in the nursing home, when we help out in Sunday School to make sure our young people get a sense of being grounded in God early in life, when we use our professional training in engineering or management or finance to help build up our church and other non-profits, when we give freely of our time and resources to make this world a better place for others. May we remember that God has made us the salt of the earth, and may we be a light to the world. Amen.