The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
February 5, 2017
‘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. (Matthew 5.13)
What do you think of when you think of salt? I generally always think of those old blue boxes with the girl with the umbrella on them—the Morton salt box—“When it rains, it pours,” the marketing slogan said, in a reference, I suppose, to how the salt was non-caking—how it would pour even in humid climates. That was a useful thing in the South where I grew up; my grandmother would put rice grains in her salt shaker to try to keep the salt from caking. Maybe she hadn’t found Morton’s, or maybe even its anti-caking properties couldn’t stand up to the high humidity of South Georgia. The issues of clumping notwithstanding, salt is something of a commodity in my mind, right along with sugar and flour, fairly inexpensive at the local market. I’ve had a box of sea salt now in my cabinet for at least ten years; it’s survived at least four moves and is still a quarter full. I’m not hanging onto it because I think it’s particularly valuable. I’ve just been sparing on the salt usage—and I don’t want to waste it, so I haven’t thrown it out. It’s just as good now as it was then. And Morton’s advertising notwithstanding, it’s not clumped a bit as far as I can tell. I haven’t thought a bit about it as a valuable thing to hold onto.
That’s not how the ancient world would have viewed salt, though, is it? Salt would have been extraordinarily valuable. I use salt occasionally to bring out the flavor of a vegetable that I’m cooking, or even some meat, but before refrigeration, not that long ago, salt would have been a mainstay of preserving food. Think of salted, dried fish; bacon and ham; and even corned beef. The salt serves to dry out the food and prevent the growth of bacteria that would spoil it. Today we can put fresh foods into the refrigerator or the freezer, but even a hundred years ago salt still would have been an important method of food preservation, as it was in Jesus’s day.
This value that salt has for preservation made it important to local economies, then. Salt could be traded—first mined from underground deposits or collected from evaporative techniques—and then transported along trade routes to cities to be sold in markets. The production of salt—and even more its trading—became important economic activities in the ancient world. If you’ve ever been to Salzburg in Austria, the birthplace of Mozart, you’ll have seen the medieval fort and castle built on a ridge high above the town—Hohensalzburg—evidence of the importance of the salt trade to this region—and to the fortunes of the Archbishops of Salzburg.
So one thing that Jesus is saying about the salt—and about us—is that it’s valuable. We are valuable. “You are the salt of the earth.” You are valuable to God—we are valuable to God. Not like those little packets of salt that come in your take out meal—or like the salt canister in your cupboard—but like something rare that has to be mined from the earth, or distilled from the sea—that has to be carried over long distances. You are rare, you are valuable. You are the salt of the earth.
That value is intrinsic. That value has to do with being made in God’s image. With being redeemed by Jesus Christ in his birth, his death, and his resurrection. That value has to do with being sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We belong to God in Christ—and we find our worth, and our value, there, at the foot of the cross. We are God’s.
But that intrinsic value can be eroded, our gospel reading seems to say.
“But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Jesus asks. Now, we know that salt is a mineral—actually a compound—sodium chloride. But the salt you might dig up from a mine or take from the ocean has other things in it, too—other things than the sodium and chloride that give it flavor, that affect its taste. If salt is stored somewhere wet, the salt itself, the sodium chloride, can leech away, leaving the other minerals behind, substances that don’t have the flavor-enhancing characteristics of the salt, that don’t have the preservative properties—that don’t have the value of the salt. The goodness of the salt—the bits you want—have washed away.
Last Sunday we heard the beatitudes—the part of the sermon on the mount, Jesus’s own preaching, that reminds us “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 the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…” Those teachings of Jesus that give us a view of the kingdom of God, the values of the very heart of God. Mother Kathryn told us that the beatitudes themselves are embodied in Jesus—that he is a living beatitude. That vision found in Christ gives us a hope for what the world can look like when we live according to the reign of God. When we love God and one another as God has loved us.
We are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored? If we aren’t living into this vision of the kingdom of God, not just in the future, but here and now, how can we be the people that God has made us to be? We can’t just sit around on the shelf like the Morton’s salt canister! We have to actively DO the thing that God has made us to do—to BE the people God has made us to be. God calls us to action—to doing—to being. Let’s not lose our saltiness, Jesus seems to be saying.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter the Rev’d Mpho Tutu van Furth have written a book entitled Made for Goodness. The Tutus’ premise is that God has made us for goodness—to live in the realm of the possibility of the kingdom of God—to live as though that kingdom has come—to love like Jesus in the world around us. Anything that is NOT goodness is not us—is not what God has made us to be. Anything that is NOT goodness is not salt—it’s just the detritus that collects when the salt washes away.
So what does that look like, to BE salt? To let your light shine, as the gospel says? “You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in Heaven.” And I want to be clear—being salt, letting your light shine—those aren’t ways to earn grace, to earn salvation—they’re just being who it is God has made us to be. Anything else is, well, putting our light under a bushel basket, Jesus tells us!
So how do we shine? How do we keep our saltiness? How do we live differently, live as Christians, as the body of Christ, in this world?
Maybe out of our abundance we give something to others. Sure, it makes sense for self-preservation to hold onto everything we have, to build up walls for our protection, to close ourselves off when we’re afraid—but in Jesus we already have everything we need. We are salt. We are light. What if we share some of that with the world? A little light, a little salt, goes a long way.
Today we’ll go down to the green and share the word of God, share the Eucharist, share a sandwich with the community that gathers there each Sunday afternoon. You’re invited. Come make a sandwich. Come share in the fellowship, in the thanksgiving that is Christ’s body and blood, with the body of Christ. Come share some salt and light.
Maybe out of the great love we’ve been given we share some to turn the other cheek, as Jesus says, even in the face of great wickedness. I’m reminded of how stunning it was when last year, when parishioners at Bethel AME Church in Charleston were slaughtered by a white supremacist, that their relatives and brothers and sisters in Christ called out to spare the murderer the death penalty. They called out for forgiveness. They asked God’s mercy on the killer. Even in the face of that great evil they were able to live by the love of Christ that they knew so well. They were salt and light.
Rosa Parks, who was born 104 years ago yesterday, was salt and light. As Mtr Kathryn referenced Dr King last week, Ms Parks exercised creative maladjustment when she refused to obey an unjust law. She gave catalyst and courage to the Montgomery bus boycotts—she threw her salt into the game and enlivened the discourse on race and human rights in our nation and the world. And that was no accident, right? It took work and planning—and a whole lot of people working together—and a whole lot of the Holy Spirit moving—but Ms Parks was willing to be the salt in that mix—to be the salt, to shine her light for God.
There’s a whole lot of light, a whole lot of saltiness in the body of Christ. It doesn’t take only the extraordinary acts of heroism like those of the Charleston martyrs, or of Rosa Parks, though they can be examples for us, and the salt they’ve shared has enlivened the world. But it also takes ordinary acts of Christian courage. A word here, a sandwich there. Little bits of salt that help the dough rise. Little places of light that come together to share the blazing glory that is the light of Christ.
My friends, we are made for goodness. Be salt in this world. Be light in the darkness. Be the love of God that you share with everyone you meet.