"Salt of the earth"-Sermon for Epiphany 5, Matthew 5:13-20
I love salt. Before I was of the age where one thought much about things like blood pressure, I salted before I even tasted the food set before me. I am better about that now! And, I have come by my love of salt honestly. My mom has been known to travel with salt in her purse and often brings her own shaker from the kitchen to the dining room table…even if a salt and pepper shaker are already on the dining room table…so she does not have to share. I have even seen her salt…salted butter. To give her credit, over the past few years she has curbed her salt habit…and if I look as good as she does at 75…I will have felt like I won the lottery!
Now, I know salt, or really too much of it, has a detrimental impact on human health…so take what I say next with a “grain of salt”…but I read recently in a pasta making cookbook that the water you boil your pasta in should not just have some salt in it…but that it should taste like sea water. And, my wife…also an avowed salt lover…likes to quote the great chef, Samin Nosrat, author of the cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” who says that one should not season while cooking with salt in pinches…but in handfuls. I googled salt uses as I was preparing for this sermon and learned that salt is not just ubiquitous in cooking and on countless dining room tables, but that salt is used in making leather, pottery, soap, detergents, rubber, clothes, paper, cleaning products, glass, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Salt is in more than half of the chemical products produced in our world, not to mention the countless tons of salt in the oceans that cover most of the earth. Salt is literally everywhere and we consume it every day.
And, Jesus often used everyday sorts of things to reveal profound spiritual truths…including salt…as in today’s gospel lesson. For, as you recall, Jesus says to both his first disciples and all those countless numbers of disciples in each generation who would follow, including each of us, “You are the salt of the earth.” So what profound spiritual truths might Jesus be revealing in these often-quoted words. Well to begin with, like salt, we humans are both ordinary and everywhere, and like salt we have many and varied uses that, at their best, work, with God’s help, to transform our world and communities more and more into the love-suffused, life-giving, dare I say delectable, kingdom of God right here on earth as it is in heaven. And, as we consider salt’s uses, perhaps we can glean something of what Jesus was getting at…what Jesus desires from our own good efforts and unique giftedness. That is…why perhaps Jesus calls us the salt of the earth.
Now, I recently read an article by Andrew Wilson, for which I am indebted to for much of what follows, and he notes the primary uses for salt in the ancient world in which Jesus lived were fivefold…and they are: flavoring, preserving, sacrificing, destroying and fertilizing. So, let’s begin with taste…with flavoring. Now, salt’s primary intention in cooking is not actually to replace or drown out the flavors of the food that you are using it on or with. If all you taste is salt in whatever you are eating…you have…even for me…over salted. Instead, salt is intended in cooking to be a flavor enhancer…to highlight, bring out, advance, make more delectable that to which it is added…to the main ingredients. Thus, what Jesus is perhaps suggesting is that we are intended to bring out and enhance the very best in each other…to help make Jonathan more wonderfully Jonathan or Sarah more magnificently Sarah…and the like. And, we do so by adding to their lives a pinch or a handful…whatever is needed in the moment…of things like words of gratitude for all they bring to our lives…or offering a hand of help or word of advice to support them in accomplishing their own good goals…or to remind them of their own unique giftedness and how important their unique contribution is to some shared pursuit. Our goal then is not to replace them…to cover them up…but lift them up so that they stand up and stand out as the glorious human created in God’s own image that they uniquely are. We should always be looking to how we enhance…how we support and make even more wonderful the others who make up our lives. It should always be about us and not me.
And, salt is a preserver. This was, of course, a very important use of salt in the pre-refrigeration world that Jesus lived in. Salted and cured provisions provided sustenance, that which is needed to live, when fresh meat and produce was not available while traveling or when the harvest was not producing. Or said a bit differently, salt combats decay. So perhaps Jesus intends us to combat decay as well. We are to preserve, support, uplift and, at times, rebuild what is good and Godly in our world that is decaying at the hands of neglect or abuse. What are the important social structures that are being diminished, like time for rest and social safety nets and access to equitable healthcare and affordable housing…that need our advocacy and organization. What deeply held values are decaying at the hands of self-interest, like equal protection and voice for the all the rainbow-colored people of God, racial justice, and being good neighbors to those both like and very different than ourselves…what are values we need stand up for, fight for, restore, and preserve…for the very life of the world.
And, salt in the ancient world was used in sacrifice. For the meat and grain used in ritual sacrifice in the Israel of Jesus’ time, was also used as food. Thus, its preservation and taste were important. And, Jesus himself, the one who we emulate and follow, reminds us that the greatest love we can offer one to another is a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for those we love. And, of course, Jesus’ own greatest act of love was to sacrifice his life on the cross for the sin of the world…for our forgiveness and our redemption. So, perhaps Jesus intends us to be willing, if not to literally give up our lives, be generous in what we are willing to share from our own time and resources…both with his good work in the world, through the church and beyond, and with those who really need us. Peter Leithart writes, “The world is an altar. Humanity and the world are to become a single great offering to God. As we offer ourselves in obedient, suffering self-sacrifice, we become the seasoning on a cosmic sacrifice that makes it well-pleasing to God.” I have always believed when we generously give of ourselves, sacrifice something to serve the needs of others, we are most like Jesus.
And, perhaps surprisingly, salt was used to destroy. Salt can, indeed, preserve…but too much salt and too much time withers something away to nothingness. Jesus said that everyone would be salted with fire. For, salt was a metaphor for judgement in Jesus’ day. And, friends, though there is much in this world that needs to be restored and preserved, there is also much that needs to be torn down and destroyed. And, we may be able to name those systems of injustice that, indeed, need to be torn down, and we should, again, advocate and organize around such good and Godly dismantling work. But, I think Jesus is also asking us to look inward…for change out there…out in the world…always begins in here…in our own hearts and minds. So where do we need to prune…or even clear cut…what needs to be burned out in our own lives. What habits, dispositions, judgmental tendency that live within ourselves…do we need to get honest about and seek to change, even destroy, through intentional practice, accountability, and discipline…to become more and more like Jesus ourselves.
And, lastly, salt was even used as a fertilizer in Jesus’ day and is still used in the production of fertilizers in our own. Salt in the correct quantities helps soil hold on to moisture, kills weeds, and releases plants nutrients. So, perhaps Jesus wants us to, metaphorically speaking, fertilize the earth…that is help make the earth literally more productive and healthier…just as we have been discussing in Adult ed for the better part of the past 6 months. The choices we make around what we purchase and consume, what we recycle and reuse, our energy consumption…all such things matter…they are good and Godly responses to the earth’s stewardship with which we were charged at the beginning of all things. And, further, just as there are systems in our world and things in our lives that need to be destroyed…there are also those that we need to water and fertilize. Just as we need to get honest about what needs to change in our lives…we also need to know and name our gifts and strengths…and lead with them…improve them…fertilize them…exercise them…make them stronger that we may become more and more a blessing to those with whom we share our lives.
Friends, Jesus says we are the salt of the earth, and, friends, the world…the earth desperately needs us to be salty…in just the right amounts. We may not all individually fully live into each of the fivefold uses I named, but I believe together we can. Together, we can bring flavor to each other’s lives. We can help to preserve what is good and lovely in our world. We can lean into our abundance and generously sacrifice something of ourselves for the good of those who need us. We can work to destroy those places around us and in us where the principalities and powers of darkness have taken hold. And, we can fertilize and sow our giftedness into those places that are struggling…such that new life can emerge and sprout up in and all around us.
Together, we are the salt of the earth. And, the earth and all that it contains…doesn’t just need a pinch of us…it needs our time, our attention, our many and varied gifts…all our love…in handfuls. Amen.