In what seems to be our typical fashion, we have taken too much of a good thing and made it too much. We have taken salt–a natural flavoring and preservative and component of our bodies–and put tons of it in our food, especially our processed food, so that millions of us now have to avoid salt. It raises our blood pressure, causes us to retain fluid, opens up our taste buds so spices are enhanced but also whets our appetites for more salty foods. Too much of a good thing.
Salt has been a part of human life for as long as we’ve been around. Not only is it a component of our bodies, as I said, but some even say it allowed for human civilization. It was a seasoning and a preservative. It was a commodity–our word “salary” comes from the root word for “salt.” It was used in rituals, “used to seal covenants, sprinkled on sacrifices, and understood as a metaphor for wisdom.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 2/9/14) In the Orthodox Church today, newborns are rubbed with salt along with the blessing, “May you be preserved for eternal life.” (Nancy Rockwell, Bite in the Apple, 2/9/14)
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples, the ones upon whom he had just delivered the blessings, or beatitudes–the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the merciful, those reviled and persecuted for righteousness’ sake– you are the salt of the earth. When we say that about someone– she’s the salt of the earth, or he’s the salt of the earth– we mean that person is deeply good, dependable, nothing fancy or showy about them, but someone you want to have around and can count on. “You are the salt of the earth.”
Peterson puts it this way–
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it [Jesus said]: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. [You are the light of the world.] God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand–shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God…” [Eugene Peterson, The Message]
You are salt and light, Jesus says to his disciples. That’s who you are, but when you aren’t who you really are–when you try to be someone or something else–you lose your purpose for being here. Are we–21st century disciples–are we still salt and light? Do we bring out the God-flavors and God-colors in the world? And in a world that suffers from salt overkill and 24-7 artificial light, what does it mean to be salt and light in a good way, in a life-giving way?
Preaching professor Tom Long puts the problem for the church this way–
The church, for all of its vision, is overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked; the challenge is indeed formidable for a small group trying with mixed results to live out an alternative life, set down in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands them…The hardest part is not in being Christ for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears to be a losing cause. (Cited in Huey, op cit.)
You are the salt of the earth…the light of the world. This is who we are and what we are called to do. But this is not about institutional survival. This identity and this call is much larger than that.
In Jesus’ time, “each village had a common [clay] oven,” explains Biblical scholar John Pilch. The common fuel for the oven was something more plentiful than wood: camel or donkey
dung. One of the duties each young girl had to learn was to collect the dung, mix salt in it, and mold it into patties to be left in the sun to dry. [This is still a common fuel source in the Middle East and many 3rd world countries.] A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven and upon it the salted dung patty. Salt has catalytic properties which cause the dung to burn. Eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability and becomes useless. Or as Jesus says, ‘It is good for nothing but to be thrown outside where it can still provide sure footing in a muddy road [or, trampled underfoot]. (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Year A, p. 31)
“You are the salt of the earth.” In Hebrew and Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the same word is used for “earth” and “clay oven.” “You are the salt of the clay oven.” You are what causes the fire to burn, that allows the food to be cooked, to feed the people, to make life possible. You are the catalyst for ignition. Do we think of ourselves this way? Do we even want to? What fires have you or we set lately? What might that even look like?–demanding more resources for the neediest among us and giving sacrificially of our own resources? Inviting a methadone clinic or a halfway house for ex-prisoners to use our building or our property? I’m just brainstorming here, thinking of “incendiary” options–I’m sure we could come up with a few others. But my guess is, most of us would rather not get burned that way. We all appreciate a good stepping stone during mud season, so maybe there’s value in being used that way. “You are the salt of the earth.” Who knew that Jesus could be such a trouble-maker?
You’re here to be light, he also said, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. But most of the time, we do, don’t we? Keep God a secret? Once again in yesterday’s paper, we were reminded that Vermont is the #1 least religious state in the union. Sshh…be very quiet…we don’t want to bother anyone…don’t want to challenge anyone else’s business of the idols they worship, whether they call them idols or not, but whatever they devote their time, talent, money, and energies to, wherever they look for confirmation of their worth. Even if it’s killing them, even it leaves them in despair and debt, we don’t want to intrude or shine a light on an alternative way to be. We don’t want to appear “too religious.”
“We’re going public with this,” Jesus says in Peterson’s version. “Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop–or a hillside–on a light stand–shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God….”
We do keep open house, by and large, which has risks of its own. Items disappear from our walls and our cupboards. But there is no such thing as risk-free Christianity. How might we go even more public? Some have urged us to broadcast our worship services on CAT-TV, to “go public” that way. We’ve got t-shirts, bumper stickers. So many members of this church family are “generous with your lives.” But let us continue to think about ways that each of us might bring out the God-colors, be windows of God’s light, in the world–epiphany moments in ourselves–prompting others to open up to and with God.
These are dynamic, ever-changing metaphors, not static, etched in stone commands. We are salt and light. How we are to live out that identity is an ever-changing, fluid challenge. But it is clear that simply going through the motions of the old ways–of fasting for the sake of quarrelling and humbling ourselves for the sake of being noticed, as Isaiah accused Israel–going through the “religious” motions is worse than useless. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” Isaiah says.
Is not this the fast that I choose [God asks]: 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? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…
We’re not just talking about making the world a little tastier or a little prettier, although living with all our senses is part of being “fully alive,” which, as Irenaeus said, “is the glory of God.” But just as salt and light are essential for life, so is our witness to the good news of God’s reign essential to life on earth. Day after day, the news is relentless about the devastating effects of not living in God’s Way. Look at what living without it results in–without a reverence and faithful stewardship of the earth and its creatures, the earth is poisoned, depleted, warmed, and destroyed; without a sense of connection and oneness with all our neighbors, all our brothers and sisters, wars and violence ravage the planet; without a sense of justice and righteousness, the systems and structures within we live continue to keep people oppressed, held captive in poverty, despair, hopelessness, ignorance; without compassion and a willingness to suffer and sacrifice, human beings are discarded and used as objects, suffering needlessly and in isolation; without a sense of the Reality of Love that is at the heart of the universe and our very lives, people feel worthless, seek meaning and escape in substances, habits, and enterprises that are ultimately unsatisfactory and destructive.
You are salt and light. That is who we are. All around us are God-flavors and God-colors waiting to be brought out, revealed, enjoyed, shared. And all around us, the fires of justice and healing and hope are waiting to be ignited. “One enkindled soul can set hundreds on fire,” a wise man once pointed out (William Danforth). Let the fire begin with us.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark