Year A, Epiphany 5
In the 20th century, salt got a bad rap in the nutrition world. It became connected with high blood pressure and heart disease. Today, if you are eating hospital food, good luck finding salt. Despite the fact that there have been numerous studies showing that salt isn’t really as bad as everyone says, we still have negative associations with it. So it’s kind of weird when the first thing we hear in the Gospel story is, “You are the salt of the earth…” Salt isn’t particularly inspiring, at least not today. However, in the time of Jesus, salt didn’t have a bad rap. In fact, salt was good for a lot of things. The obvious one is what we still use salt for—-seasoning. It was also a preservative for food, which was important since they didn’t have refrigerators. Additionally, it was sometimes mixed with manure to create fertilizer.
And it was also used as a catalyst for fuel. Typically when cooking, they used outdoor earthen ovens. Wood was not easy to come by and they didn’t have easy access to other kinds of fuel. A cheap way to create fuel was to use animal dung. They would make it into patties and then add salt. For the outdoor oven, they would have a slab of salt under the dung patty and that would essentially be the catalyst for the fire. At some point, the salt would lose its catalytic ability and become useless. It would simply be thrown out, which is why Jesus said that when salt loses its taste, it isn’t good for anything.
Thus when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was not simply saying that we give flavor or that we preserve, he was calling us the catalyst that start a fire. We, as followers of Christ are the ones who not only provide heat and light, but create the heat and light, enable the fire to burn. Now, you may be thinking, well he probably wasn’t thinking of Episcopalians. We aren’t exactly known for our heat and energy. Or, you might be thinking, well he’s definitely not talking about me. I’m tired and over committed. I don’t have the time or the energy for fire, especially not on Sundays.
He is talking about all of us. This text is part of the Sermon on Mount. He has just finished telling people, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He is speaking to a crowd, most likely a crowd full of beleaguered people, people who are hungry, people who are tired, people who feel like they are anything but catalysts for fire. He was speaking to a crowd then and he is speaking to us all now…saying the same thing. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
Notice that he doesn’t say, “You will be the salt of the earth if you try hard enough or if you do x, y, and z.” No, he is saying, “You are the salt of the earth right now.” And it’s not because you have something no one else has or that you simply have a fiery disposition. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world because that is what and who God created you to be. We are born into this world to be fire. I can’t speak for any of you, but I must confess that I have a hard time really believing this. Because most of the time, I don’t feel fiery. I don’t feel like a catalyst. I don’t even feel particularly salty. I feel kind of tired and stressed, a little overwhelmed and weary. And given the amount of energy drinks at the store, and the ever expanding reach of Starbucks, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling weary and overwhelmed. Am I?
Have you ever just eaten plain salt? Meaning, you aren’t adding it to something, you are eating salt. I hope not, because that’s kind of gross. Salt alone is no good. Salt is only good when it accompanies something. Animal dung isn’t very useful, unless you add some salt, and all of a sudden, it heats an oven. These metaphors Jesus is using cannot be taken singularly. They only work well accompanying something else. So it is with us as Christians. Sure, there are people who can do amazing things all by themselves. At least, I assume there are, but I’ve never met one. Most people find energy, power, and fulfillment in their work with other people, or with the support of other people. So if you think you are too tired, too busy, too old, too sick, too young to be the salt of the earth, to be the catalyst that sparks the flame, you might be right. You can’t do it alone. That’s why we have Jesus to be that support. That is why we have the community of Christians, to inspire and motivate one another.
I witnessed this several times this week. On Wednesday, we delivered 1594 cans of soup to the HELP food pantry. Now, I admit, the Lutherans had more and I was a little irritated about that, but then the Lutherans helped us unload all our cans because they had more people. We all worked together and I was reminded of the importance of Christians working together. Don’t get me wrong, we will win next year, but I am still grateful to them for motivating us and supporting us. Then this Friday we hosted a dialogue of race in our parish hall. The Unity Commission of Hampton Roads organized it and there were a few people from our church there. But there were also 50 other people there who were committed to finding ways for people of all tribes, all colors to work together. As many of you know, I have an African American son. There are times I am overwhelmed by what I don’t know and understand. But on Friday, I was reminded that I am not alone. And as I looked around that room, I could see there were people there who would help, who wanted to help. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so weary. I felt energized and hopeful.
Unfortunately we are currently in a culture that doesn’t encourage people who are different or who disagree to be together or even pray together. That is a travesty, because more than ever, we need one another to inspire us, or sometimes just hold one another upright and accountable. You are the salt of the earth. You were born to be fire. Together, as a community here at St. John’s and in the wider Christian community, we must find a way to work together and if we can we will set a fire this world has never seen. Once we have done that, there is no way that anyone is going to hide that fire under a bushel basket. No, we will be that city on the hill, a city that no one will dare hide.