The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany,
February 9, 2014
The Rev. Elaine H. Breckenridge
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.02.09 EHB
Sugar or salt? Savory or sweet? What is your preference when it comes to enjoying special foods? For me it would be salt. That being the case, of course, I was attracted, even compelled to unpack the metaphor of salt that Jesus uses in this morning’s Gospel passage.
I love salty foods. And I am so sorry that salt has been linked to high blood pressure, heart problems, water retention and gosh knows what else. Because of such health concerns, I do not use as much salt in cooking as I might. My husband will vouch for me. A comment often made at my table is this–pass the salt, please. And I always use some myself. It is hard to imagine a diet without salt.
In fact, it is hard to imagine life with salt. Salt has both cleansing and healing properties. For sore throats, gargling with salt water is more soothing than the many other shelf remedies that are available. Soaking cuts and infections in warm salt water brings almost instant relief.
Salt, of course was a very precious commodity in the ancient world, functioning not only to enhance the flavor in foods but used also as a tool for healing, and in the days before refrigeration, it was an important preservative.
Salt also had religious meaning in Old Testament times and in the time of Jesus. In Judaism , it symbolized the making of a covenant. It was used in blessing rites. There was a custom of sprinkling salt on bread while the blessing was recited before the meal. Because of its preservative qualities, salt was sometimes attributed magical powers. And so it was used as a protection against evil spirits. Newborns babies were rubbed with salt, and new homeowners were given the gifts of bread with salt. In the Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Torah, the merit of salt was simply stated like this: “The world can exist without pepper but not without salt.”
All that said, it is not the image of salt itself that is meant to give zest to our Gospel reading this morning. No, Jesus uses this very commonplace image to describe the life and behavior of his disciples. In the same way the world would miss salt, the implied question of Jesus is this. Would the world miss the disciples of Christ if they were to disappear. Fast forward to our time. If the church was gone tomorrow, would we be missed? Jesus is telling us that our presence as Christians should make a difference. As followers of Christ, like salt, we should be noticeable in the world and moreover, useful.
We might think of ourselves as “the seasoned ones of Christ” enhancing God’s world with both flavor and healing. Well seasoned, but not perfect. There is a hint of judgement in this morning’s Gospel. Like salt that has lost it’s flavor, like a light hidden under a bushel, our personal and corporate discipleship, if not practiced, can become useless.
The key word is practice. As individuals, to be growing in Christ involves making and living out a commitment to a certain lifestyle and a certain discipline. As a corporate body, the same can be said of churches. Churches must also make a conscious commitment to live a certain way in order to follow Christ. Churches stop being salty, when they become more absorbed in maintaining the traditions of their particular institution over and above practicing true Christian discipleship.
So how does one define the nature of Christian discipleship? If I was to ask you to name the most important attribute of a salty or seasoned Christian what would it be? Love. What is the greatest commandment? Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. How well we love our neighbors should tell the world that we are Christians.
And who is my neighbor? Now there is the rub. Remember how Jesus defined neighbor in the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Neighbors include people we might label as other, as strangers, as those different from us, as those who are difficult to love.
Salty Christians then go out of their way to practice love and compassion in world that sometimes rejects such behavior. And yes that is a challenge because Jesus is holding up a new vision of what relationships are supposed to look like in the kingdom. But what does it look like in real life, in the 21st century to be a good neighbor? Can I put a human face on what a salty Christian might look like?
A few years ago a journalist did just that. A writer for The Sun newspaper, named Joe Slevcove share the following story in August of 2007. Here’s what Joe had to say about loving a neighbor:
“When my wife, Beth, and I moved from the suburbs to a warehouse loft in the center of a large city, Beth embraced every aspect of urban life—even the sirens, the parking problems, the car alarms at night. The homeless people made me nervous, but Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights, harassed women on the sidewalk, and intimidated men. They were the reason Beth didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out our window at the row of men sitting in front of the shop.
Then one day she called me at work to tell me she was getting a tattoo. Though surprised, I said OK. Later she called me back and announced, “I did it.” When I got home, Beth excitedly showed me the delicately inscribed words “Love thy neighbor” on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls were covered with drawings of skulls, bloody knives, naked women. Manuel, the proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside.
Beth introduced herself as his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said sure. After a while, she went outside and sat in front of the store to study the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what tattoo she was going to have. “Love thy neighbor,” she muttered. “Why?” he asked. “Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. You scare me—you know, with all the fights that break out over here.” He ushered her back into the shop and announced with complete sincerity, “Manuel, dude, we’re scaring our neighbors! We’ve got to stop fighting.”
Manuel was defensive—until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him; she just wanted to get a tattoo, that said, “Love thy neighbor”. Manuel showed her a picture of a “Love thy neighbor” tattooed on a man’s inner forearm—with bloody knives in the background. “I don’t think I need the art, just the words, ” she said. After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. The he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked shyly. “I didn’t go to school.”The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t go to school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!” From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals. It soon turned out that the music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe. Four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change and saw Manuel talking to the repairman behind the counter. She smiled and nodded but he stepped forward and gave her a warm hug.
“Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about.”
Salty Christians go out of there way to make connections. As Leo Tolstoy, said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Sometimes the only way we can change ourselves is to go out of our way to be-friend those who scare or offend us.
Beth in my story is my image of a salty Christian. And so I come full circle back to the image of salt. What a wonderful metaphor for the Christian life. Here’s another tidbit, did you know that in days of the early church, after adults were baptized, they were presented with a lit candle and told to be the light of the world? Then they were also presented with a pinch of salt. They were given salt at their baptisms so that they would remember their call to live as the seasoned ones in God’s world. But that salt was also a reminder to the rest of the church of its mission to grow in Christ and to always reveal Christ’s love in word and action.
So, yes please, pass the salt. As disciples of Jesus may we become the salt of the earth–indispensable for the preservation and healing of God’s world. Amen.