Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 6, 2011
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 does it mean for the Christian to be “salt of the earth”? What was Jesus really talking about when he addressed his followers with this common image? Salt is, after all, a basic element. It is necessary for life, but too much of it can be harmful.
A prized commodity throughout the ages, Roman soldiers were given an allowance to buy salt (hence our word “salary”). Salt has long been important for preserving and seasoning food, for amending soil, to purify drinking water (2 Kings 2:19-23), and as a measure of loyalty (Ezra 4:14) and hospitality (“to eat salt” with someone). In some ancient cultures, newborns were rubbed with salt to ward off evil. There is even evidence in the Bible of salt being used as a holy and lasting covenant (see Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5).
Over the years, “salt of the earth” has come to refer to a person who is rock solid, dependable, and loyal. A person worth his or her salt is capable, efficient, and stable. We can all conjure the faces and memories of people for whom this term is applicable, perhaps a grandparent, pillar of the church, or long-time neighbor or friend. These are the good, everyday, non-pretentious people whose way of living and being fill you with warm fuzzies, good memories, and hope.
Lest I move into the realms of maudlin memory, let us attend to the question of what it means for the Christian to be “salt of the earth.” Just how do we make a meaningful link between Jesus’ directive and people’s 21st century daily experience? Maybe we begin by acknowledging the importance of salt both in everyday living and in historical context. Yes, salt is salt, but not all salt is the same and neither are all Christians.
Google “gourmet salt” and you will find more than 800,000 entries devoted to hundreds of different types and grades of salt from around the world. You will find flake salts, sea salts, coarse salts, smoked salts, grey salts, grinder salts to name just a few; the variety is impressive. In spite of the vast array of gourmet salts, they all share one trait–their basic saltiness. So, too, with Christians, we don’t all look the same, we may worship differently, our spiritual gifts are diverse, but we are salt for this world. We are called by Christ to season and flavor the earth with hope, love, and the gospel.
In his commentary Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter says “This [the earth] is where disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6). It is where the community embodies God’s empire in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution as it lives its alternative existence (5:7-12)” (138).
Sounds pretty simple, right? Jesus says otherwise. Even salt can lose its distinctive taste. Carter notes a more apt and literal translation of the word “taste” is “if salt becomes foolish” and goes on to clarify that the “verb and its cognate noun (fool) refer to behavior that is contrary to God’s will” (138). When our faith communities stop living out our distinctive calling, we lose our flavor and the world has no use for us. Given the membership losses in most mainline traditions, I’d say we might want to consider whether we’re losing our flavor by trying to blend in with the world rather than dispense our unique Christian seasoning. Perhaps our shakers and grinders where we congregate are simply clogged and in need of repair and cleaning.
A good example of such renewal is offered in the Old Testament reading this week from Isaiah (58:1-12). Here the people’s fasts have become ineffective and an interesting dialogue takes place with God. In short, to continue the salt and shaker metaphor, God could not care less about the beauty and finery of the container; God is concerned with the saltiness inside and how it is being sprinkled across a hurting world, admonishing the people with strong words:
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 poorinto/your house;/when you see the naked, to cover them,/and not to hide yourself from you/own kin? Isaiah 58:6-7
The bottom line is this, dear friends; whether one is Esprit du Sel, Cyprus Black Lava Salt, Kala Namak, or just plain table salt, we Christians are the salt of the earth, and we need to act like salt of the earth. If we have any hope of being relevant in a clamorous, hurried, and harried culture we must spread our distinctive, risky, counter-cultural seasoning with relish and passion worthy of the One we serve. Blessings on your proclamation!
Why not gather some gourmet salts and place them in plain dishes on a table in the narthex or nave as space permits? Provide a little background on each one, along with some history of salt. Encourage parishioners to taste and touch. Visit the Saltworks website for inspiration.
Ever heard the Rolling Stones song “Salt of the Earth” from the 1968 album Beggar’s Banquet? If not, give it a listen. Other artists have covered it, including Judy Collins, Guns N’ Roses, Joan Baez, Bettye LaVette, and Johnny Adams (my favorite!). If you use video in your context you might wish to consider incorporating this gritty YouTube version.
Time with Children
Don’t want to forego light altogether this week? Consider collecting a variety of light bulbs–fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, CFL, and LED–along with an oil lamp and a candle, and talk about what Jesus meant when he says we are the light of the world. There are many types of light, just as there are many different Christians with a variety of gifts. The important thing is to light the lamp, flip the switch, and connect to the power source (Jesus) and share the light. You might wish to end by having the entire congregation join in a rousing sing-a-long of “This Little Light of Mine.” Check out this wonderful performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir.