Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2014
If you were to come to my house for coffee – and if you wanted milk in your coffee – or, heaven forbid, sugar – you’d be out of luck. Half and half, I have – milk, only when my kids come to visit. Sugar -well, there might be half of a teaspoon crusted around the edges of Haviland china sugar bowl from my parents’ – way, way back on the bottom shelf of the credenza …..maybe. We’d have to look carefully and then perhaps, if we used a sharp, pointed object, we might be able to dislodge a few crystals.
If, on the other hand, you were to come to my house for a meal and came early enough to watch me prepare it, you’d see the plethora of salt I have…. Sea salt in a grinder on the counter, a box of Morton’s in the pantry…..two different shakers on the counter top and, at last count, in the same credenza that holds the empty sugar bowl, there are five antique cut-glass salt shakers and a small silver salt boat – most of them full.
The Gospel lesson we just heard is part of what is commonly known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” The band of twelve disciples had just recently been assembled – Jesus had called them out of their boats and from behind their desks, inviting them simply to follow. And they did – traveling around the region of Galilee – watching Jesus heal the sick, listening to him teach in places of worship, often crushed by huge crowds of people who, like they, wondered who this man was and what on earth he was all about. Finally they escaped the masses and Jesus and the twelve disciples were alone for a little while. That’s when he starts talking about salt – and light – and commandments.
This morning, I’m sticking with salt.
You, Jesus said, are the salt of the earth. What is that all about?
For me, salt (and here I’m talking about sodium chloride) makes the difference between enjoying food and simply eating. If you’re a fan of the Food Network, you know that without the correct seasoning – without enough salt, a dish will get you on the chopping block. But there’s so much more to the compound that comes from a shared ionic bond between sodium and chlorine! Here’s a sprinkling of its special status:
Salt is needed for life – it is an essential mineral for human, animal and even plant life.
Salt is a great preservative and has been used since at least 5060 BC for that purpose. It kills bacteria and other microorganisms that destroy flesh – it preserves flesh that is to be eaten (think men on the sea for months at a time eating salted cod) and it has been used on flesh that is to be preserved for a long time (think mummies).
Salt has been used as currency – slaves were bought with it (that’s where the phrase “not worth his salt” comes from); wars have been fought over it; and salt has, incredulously, been taxed.
Because of the necessity of salt, its value translated into cultural and religious practices. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, tell us that salt was a requirement in temple worship. When the people of God went to bring offerings – grain offerings and animals for burnt offerings – salt was to be included. It was also added to the incense that masked the smell of said offerings. Salt was a big deal in the religious activities of the Hebrew people.
Salt was also used symbolically around covenant relationships between people. It was a sacred sign of friendship and fidelity – when people made promises to one another, they sealed them with salt. Even newborn babies were part of the salt craze – they were rubbed with salt shortly after birth as a sign that they would be raised to be people with integrity, people known to be truthful.
So, this comment of Jesus, this assertion, “You are the salt of the earth,” meant something to his friends. It was an image, a metaphor that carried considerable weight.
They knew salt was essential to life.
They knew salt had great economic and political value.
They knew salt was an important preservative.
They knew salt was part of the acceptable sacrifice in their religious traditions.
They knew salt was an important symbol – representing friendship, fidelity, integrity and truth.
When Jesus identified those first disciples as “the salt of the earth,” he was telling them several important things about who they were. I invite you to see if any of these things resonate with your own experience of being a follower of Jesus.
First, they knew that salt is essential to life.
So early on in Jesus’ ministry, it’s impossible to know if even Jesus, himself, knew what was ahead – but in hindsight, it was that early group of twelve that continued on to bring the message of new and everlasting life. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, they became his body – his continuing presence in the world. They were his hands that healed, his feet that accompanied; they were his heart that loved so deeply.
Second, they knew that salt had great economic and political value.
The witness and teaching of Jesus – carried on by his disciples – was the antidote to political and economic oppression they experienced daily. Jesus’ teachings sent things into a spin – all the things that had traditionally separated people were abolished – social status, sex and gender roles, nationality, hierarchy of all kinds were turned upside down. The poor were to be fed; the lowly were to be raised up; the prisoners were to be set free!
Third, they knew that salt was an important preservative.
It was going to be up to the disciples and the other followers of Jesus to preserve his teaching. They would do this by remembering both what he said and what he did – and then they were going to make sure to spread the word. They traveled far and wide to share the Good News of God’s love for the world – most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.
Fourth, they knew salt was part of the acceptable sacrifice in their religious traditions.
They swallowed their pride, they risked their reputations and some of them gave up their lives so that all people – their enemies as well as their friends – would hear about and come to believe in Jesus as the Christ – the one sent from God and anointed by God – to bring light and life to the world. They left home and family, they left jobs and comfort – believing that the sacrifices they made were worth it.
Finally, they knew salt was an important symbol – representing friendship, fidelity, integrity and truth.
Listen to the description of the new community of Jesus’ followers from the book of Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need…they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Yes, the early church was a sign and symbol of what God desires for the whole human race. No one went without because the community understood and lived into the truth that all people – young, old, gay, rich, poor, addicted, diseased, educated or not – all people deserve to be treated with – and the chance to live with – dignity.
One more thing…all of those salt shakers in my credenza, the box of Morton’s in my pantry, even the grinder full of fancy sea salt that sits on my counter – none of it is worth anything where it is right now. It is not promoting life; it has no political value; it is not preserving anything, nor is it really symbolic of much. In my world, salt needs to be sprinkled about – it is only valuable when it enhances something else – when it brings out the flavor of something “other.”
You, my friends, are the salt of the earth – entrusted with the mission of enhancing the glory and the goodness of God. So, offer what is essential to life; proclaim freedom and work for justice; preserve the truth; make holy sacrifices; live in love. Amen.