Sunday, February 05, 2017

"You ARE the Salt of the Earth"

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 58.1-9; Matthew 5.13-20
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“You are the salt of the earth”

This has always been a little puzzling to me. For as long as I can remember, this phrase has conjured up images of deserts – areas that tend to be higher in salinity, due to higher rates of evaporation which leaves behind salt residues in the soil. Areas that are more inhospitable to life, particularly having detrimental effects on plant growth and crop yield, which itself can lead to soil erosion. Or the image of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back as Sodom and Gomorrah are being destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. What came to my mind was an image that I knew was the complete opposite of the point Jesus is trying to make about God’s people as being nurturing and life-giving.

And as I’ve gotten older, this image of being the salt of the earth is even more puzzling. As I have gotten to the age when doctors begin advocating the need for a low sodium diet, to reduce my intake of salt in order to minimize the possibility of heart disease. Again, an emphasis on the negative effects of salt as opposed to some sort of positive impact that Jesus is implying.

Given these negatives about salt, how is being the salt of the earth a good thing?

Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes (our Gospel lesson for last week), which defines what it means to be blessed. In today’s Gospel lesson, he then continues with two specific images – salt and light – to further illustrate the meaning of faithful discipleship. The one about light, I get. It’s pretty easy to understand “you are the light of the world.” We use the image of light to describe God. We use the image of Jesus as being the light shining in the darkness of the world. Of being the light of good that shines on the darkness of evil, overcoming that darkness. This image of light is particularly significant as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. At the Easter Vigil, we enter the darkened church, led by the light of the Paschal candle, intoning “The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.” So in being told we are the light of the world, we readily understand it to mean that as Christians we are called to reflect the light of Christ in the world. We are called to carry the light of the Gospel into the darkness of a broken and hurting world. We let the light of Christ shine through our good works, to God’s glory, not ours.

We get that. But salt? What does that mean? We never talk about God as being like salt. We never talk about Jesus in terms of salt. So how can we be likened to salt?

Probably one of the oldest uses of salt is as a preservative. Used to cure and dry foods, particularly meats, for long-term storage. While maybe changing the taste a little or changing the texture, salt preserved or maintained the edibility, the goodness, of the food. Are we called to be some sort of preservative? Some sort of agent for preserving or maintaining what God intended for his creation? For maintaining what God declared at the creation of the world, when “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1.31).

This characteristic of salt as preservative was so important that it was even incorporated into ancient Jewish worship. Into the very heart of Jewish cultic practices – that of sacrifice. In Jewish worship, salt was included in all sacrifices as a sign of the covenant with God. Why? Because salt was the ultimate preservative. And offering salt was a way of conveying a commitment to preserving the covenant between God and his people. A sacrifice – of a goat or sheep or bull or turtledove or whatever – was a symbol of atonement for whatever actions the people had committed that, intentionally or unintentionally, went against the sacred covenant God established with his people. The sacrifice indicated the desire to make amends and to reestablish the covenant. And the salt was a means of “sealing the deal” – of indicating that this intention was a serious one. To repair the breach and to preserve the sacredness of the covenant.

Atonement for sin – for that which separates the people from God – did not end with the act of sacrifice. It was an ongoing way of life. In how the people lived out the covenant. As shown repeatedly throughout scripture, God’s particular care and concern is for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized of society. We see this once again in our Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah – “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Is 58.6-7). God is reminding the people that what is important to him are acts of justice and mercy. And when God tells us not to hide ourselves from our own kin, he’s not just talking about our blood relatives. He’s talking about all our sisters and brothers in the human family. So this image of being salt, of being a preservative, is about maintaining those relationships with our brothers and sisters, about loving our neighbors as ourselves, about caring for their needs so that they too may live into the fullness of who God has created them to be.

Of course, in our own time, we do not rely so much on salt as our primary preservative. What we tend to think of is the use of salt in cooking. As a means of spicing up our dishes. I grew up in a household where salt was always on the table. And my father would put salt on everything. And lots of it. He liked the taste of salt. Mom would get so frustrated that he would salt things without even tasting them first. As I got older and began to enjoy cooking and learning more of the culinary arts, I came to find out that salt really does more than just add a salty flavor to food. The real purpose of adding salt is that, in appropriate amounts, it enhances the flavor of food. It brings out the natural goodness of the food. Even recipes for sweet dishes contain small amounts of salt, because it enhances the flavor. It helps highlight the natural flavors. You don’t taste the saltiness. Rather, you get a fuller flavor because of the judicious use of salt.

Isn’t that what we are called to do as the salt of the earth? To highlight the “flavor” of God’s love and mercy in the world through our proclamation of the Gospel in our own words and actions. And particularly in our acts of mercy, in our working for justice, we serve to enhance the “flavor,” the expression, of God’s desires for his creation.

Of course, as in cooking, we need to be careful in how we apply the salt. Too much and it overpowers the natural goodness of God, overshadowing it with our own egos. But in just the right amount, with proper humility, it becomes about God and bringing forth his kingdom. As Fr. Ken Kesselus, a retired Episcopal priest comments, “It might be instructive to note something Jesus did not say. He did not tell his disciples to become the ‘pepper of the earth.’ Pepper calls attention to itself, as opposed to salt that, when properly used, only highlights what it flavors. Jesus does not expect us to call attention to ourselves in our salting efforts. Rather, we are to make others more acceptable, more meaningful, more loving.”

And as I thought about the image of being salt in our lives and our ministries, I came to realize another critical aspect of salt. How vital it is in the functioning of the body. Salt helps carry out electrical impulses that control many of our bodies’ functions. Salt triggers the thirst mechanism so that we are prompted to stay hydrated. Salt helps keep needed minerals in the bloodstream. Salt helps in stabilizing irregular heartbeats. Salt helps regulate blood pressure. Salt is vital for balancing the sugar levels in the blood. Salt is vital for the generation of the energy need of the cells. Salt is vital to the communication of nerve cells. Salt is vital to the process of digestion and absorption of nutrients. And much, much more.

Being the salt of the earth, we are vital to the furthering of God’s kingdom in the world. God needs us to make it happen. We are the ones who serve as God’s heart, as God’s hands and feet in the world. Even, as Guy Erwin, Bishop of the Lutheran Southwest California Synod once noted in a sermon – we are even God’s wallet and God’s vote in the polling place. We are vital to the functioning of the Body of Christ and to God’s functioning in the world, just as salt is vital to the functioning of the body.

This is why in Isaiah God reminds his people that outward religious observances, symbolized by fasting, are no substitute for “the fast that [God] choose[s]” – acts of justice such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, freeing the imprisoned, and clothing the naked. Rather, the Lord’s fast, the true worship of God, is not what happens in this room, but is what we make happen out in the world. It is service that is characterized by genuine self-denial and humility that brings justice, liberation, and acts of mercy. When the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, and the naked are clothed, God’s kingdom is made manifest in tangible ways. The fulfillment of God’s kingdom is furthered. And we are vital to making that happen.

We often talk about the need to truly live the Gospel, but today’s Gospel reading puts this in no uncertain terms. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Because it is our role to preserve the ways of God in the world. To work to maintain the goodness of God’s creation that was declared from the beginning. To declare our commitment to the covenant between God and his people. To enhance God’s kingdom through our words and actions. I am so pleased that St. Gregory’s is a place that firmly believes this and lives it out in our common life and ministry. In this, you truly are the salt of the earth.

You will notice that on the end of each pew, there are piles of salt packets. I invite you take one (or several) with you, as a reminder that you are indeed the salt of the earth. And to contemplate just what this means for your life and ministry in this place and in the world.

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