Grace Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2020, Epiphany 5A
One of the things that has changed about my life in the months since my surgery back in May is that I frequently react to the taste of food differently than before. Don’t get me wrong; if something I really enjoy ends up going from my fork or spoon to my mouth – a really good piece of fried chicken, say, or some lima beans cooked juuuust right – then I’m still going to react with a great deal of pleasure. (On the other hand, if, say, some kind of spinach and kale soufflé ends up in my mouth I’m going to react … differently.)
Now, however, there’s often if not always a parallel reaction. While I’m mostly recovering from that surgery, my internal systems are still a bit extra-sensitive about foods at times, whether the particular kind of food or how much is coming at once. It takes less than it used to to set off a severe upset reaction in my digestive system, the kind of thing that can be dealt with only by going home (if I’m not already there) and waiting it out. It happens less often than it used to, but it does happen.
This ongoing struggle of discernment, I kid you not, got mixed up with today’s scripture from Matthew in my mind this week, one in which I had the opportunity to try some foods I don’t normally get to try. With Jesus’s words in verse 13 rattling around in my brain and a lot of different tastes rolling around on my tongue, I became almost hyper-aware about the presence of salt in my food.
This isn’t to say that everything tasted salty; on the contrary, both the presence and absence of salt became things I noticed to an extra degree. Early in the week it became painfully obvious that a casserole I had tried to make while Julia was away last weekend was simply inedible without committing what to me seems like a horrific culinary crime: picking up a shaker and adding salt to it <shudder>. That’s just not something I do if I can possibly avoid it. On the other hand later in the week I got to enjoy a wonderful roasted chicken dish, but the accompaniments to the chicken almost make my mouth pucker with saltiness – again, not a reaction I normally have. If you’re like me, salt is one of those things you just don’t notice or think about much until it becomes, by excess or lack, impossible not to notice.
Salt hasn’t always been that way – easily forgotten or overlooked. Indeed, salt has an extensive history of being valued and sought out (so much so that it has been used as currency at times); it has been treasured and even fought over. The pursuit of salt drove the development of trade routes in the ancient world, and cities developed due to proximity to the precious mineral. All of this over a rock that we eat.
Part of this storied history is bound up in the fact that salt was for many peoples over many centuries far more than the white processed stuff we keep in a shaker on the table. Even more than a flavorer of food, salt was a preserver of food – food was impossible to keep or store without the use of salt. Salt was, in some cases, regarded as a means of treating the soil, as Jesus seems to suggest in Luke’s version of this teaching in 14:34-35. (This one seems odd, as for us moderns salt is mostly toxic to our carefully manicured lawns, but maybe that’s less of a problem in a more arid region.)
In short, for Jesus to bring up salt, and to do so this early – in what might be thought of as part two of the Teacher’s first public lecture – is to tap into a familiar and highly valued substance with which pretty much everybody among the disciples and in the crowd was most likely to be familiar, and to do so directly: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Given how many different uses salt had in that world, it’s possible that listeners attached a variety of different meanings to Jesus’s statement. Whatever those meanings might have been, though, they likely had in common the idea that salt somehow improved the thing to which it was added. Food that was salted tasted better, and quite possibly was even edible because of the preservative properties of salt. Salt was a good thing to be, and Jesus is making a direct statement – not a command or an exhortation, just a statement; “You are the salt of the earth.” Not “you will be” or “go be,” “you are.” Declarative statement, simple as that.
But then Jesus continues, “but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Um, maybe I’m just naïve, but can salt really lose its saltiness? I’ve never experienced un-salty salt.
A few possibilities come up here. In the ancient world, the purity of salt couldn’t be guaranteed the way we can expect the salt we get at the supermarket to be, well, salt. A salt tinged with impurities might well be able to lose its flavor, as well as its preservative ability. The only thing to do with it is to toss it out.
The biblical scholar and author of the Cotton Patch Gospel versions of scripture Clarence Jordan took a different spin on the text, offering in his Cotton Patch version of Matthew this rendering: “You all are the world’s salt. But now if you just sit there and don’t salt, how will the world ever get salted?” There’s something to that. No matter how salty your salt is, it can’t “be salt” until it comes out of its container and is put to use. The salt truly is useless as long as it isn’t used.
It’s also noting that the Greek word involved here doesn’t normally refer to salt losing its saltiness – that meaning is far down the list of the word’s meanings. The Greek word moranthe (μορανθε) has as its principal meaning “to be foolish” or “to make foolish.” Now this feels like something, maybe the thing Clarence Jordan was tapping into. Foolishness isn’t a good witness. It is a witness, just not a good one (remember, Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth,” but he didn’t necessarily say we were good salt).
Let’s put this bluntly; over the centuries the witness of the church, ancient and modern, local or grand and worldwide, has been tinged with more than its share of foolishness, or worse. The church has engaged in crusades and inquisitions and witch hunts; it has thrown its weight behind merciless tyrants and corrupt dictators, sometimes even enabling the ascent of such tyrants and dictators; it has practiced ruthless intimidation and harassment against its own, and radical exclusion of the world around us – all of whom God claims as God’s own; it has interpreted scripture foolishly and wielded the gospel of peace as a weapon of hatred. At such times one is almost tempted to say that the church has been something much more harmful and corrosive than “salt of the earth,” maybe something more like arsenic – at minimum the worthless salt that gets tossed out.
We, the church, are bearing witness – sometimes awful, sometimes wonderful, and often somewhere in between. One of the most disappointing witnesses the church sometimes gives is the witness of its absence. When we fail to reach out to minister to “the least of these,” when we fail to call out injustice and wrongdoing in the world (or worse, endorse it for our own gain), when we get all withdrawn inside our own four walls and fail to be in the world even though not of it, we are bearing witness. Again, it’s not necessarily a good witness, but a witness nonetheless. Being stuck in the shaker is a bad way to be salt.
There is something else about salt, too. As noted before, it serves a lot of different purposes. Sometimes it’s obvious – it looks like the behavior described in Isaiah 58, or to some degree in Psalm 112, the kind of witness to which the prophets repeatedly call God’s people, the call Jesus takes up as his own. Much as salt flavors food, this kind of witness flavors the world. But there are also other uses of salt, much as there are many kinds of service to which we are called. As we said before, salt preserves food. What kind of witness in the world might be thought of as “preserving”? In climes further north, there’s this stuff called “snow” that falls from the sky and accumulates on the ground, and makes it really hard and even dangerous to walk or drive around (I know this is a foreign concept to y’all Floridians, but trust me on this one). A particular kind of salt helps melt and dissolve away the snow and ice and make sidewalks and roads passable again. What kind of Christian service might this suggest? When people used to have ice cream churns to make homemade ice cream, a kind of rock salt was a necessary ingredient in that process. Where is the Christian witness that looks like this?
If we truly to be the “salt of the earth,” much less the light of the world, a city set on a hill, a lamp set up on a stand for all to see, that means we have to get out of the shaker and shine out to the world, to be seen and known by the witness we bear. That may take on many different forms, much as salt may serve many different purposes in the world. We won’t all be salt the same way. But we really are all salt. The only question is, what kind of salt are we? And are we in danger of being tossed out?
For being salt, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #667, When Morning Gilds the Skies; #755, Alleluia! Laud and Blessing; #694, Great God of Every Blessing; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again