This year I went cycling with two friends, Cam Welsh and David Lewis. We did our own cycling route up and down both sides of the Intercoastal waterway in the area known as West Palm Beach. We had our share of great restaurant meals but we seldom used extra salt to season our food. For those who will watch the Super Bowl game this afternoon, you may not realize the amount of food which will be consumed is huge-there will be over 10 million pounds of potato chips alone consumed. Just imagine the salt consumed in that ‘snack’ alone, along with over a billion chicken wings and over 10 million pieces of pizza.
In our travels, quite by coincidence we came across a group cycling in the same area under the banner, "Wandering Wheels." Here is part of the group and we have cycled with them before. In fact, 2 years ago, on the day we cycled 100 kilometres, a man of our group named Paul, lay down after having a shower to have a brief nap. Paul had been feeling a bit under the weather before things began, but he never expected that on laying down for a rest his joints would ache so much that he could not even move without struggling. His wife Anne went to the leader, we call ‘coach’ and described the situation. Coach, Bob Davenport, took up a salt shaker, poured out a spoonfull and invited Paul to down it with a glass of water. He did and within an hour he was moving quite normally once again. Salt is essential to our existence and when we expel it with other minerals from our body to excess, we cannot function properly. It appears that fellow cyclist, Paul’s blood had become low in sodium. Salt is important to us!
But if you’re like me you have seen quite enough of another kind of salt, this winter. The salt I’m talking about here is rock salt. This is the salt that is used to clear our roads of snow and ice. This is the same stuff that destroys our blacktop and leaves holes the size of footballs that damage our cars’ tires and suspension.
Snow. Ice. Cold. Here it is only the beginning of February and we’ve already had more cold snaps than all last winter put together. We southern Ontario residents are not used to this. We’re getting a bit tired of clearing paths at home, at church, at school, at work. Snow clearing and salt spreading has been larger than we would like. We put down salt to prevent falls on the ice. We watch it melt and it just seems like we turn around and then it snows again.
We’ve seen enough of this weather that requires us to bring out the salt trucks.
Our reading for today follows the Beatitudes where Jesus was saying, "No matter how insignificant you think you are, or how poorly the world has treated you, you are important to God and you can make a difference in the world." For the rest of the "Sermon on the Mount" Jesus teaches how to live to make that difference. He begins by saying, "You’re the salt of the earth. But if you’ve lost your saltiness, what good are you?"
Salt is a rich image. It was used in the Hebrew scriptures as an image of the law and covenant. In Leviticus 2:13 we read, " put salt on every grain offering because salt represents the covenant between you and God." The salt would also preserve the grain so that it could actually be used by the temple priests. Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. Then as now it was used to enhance flavour and stimulate thirst.
A while ago, I came across an explanation of the use of salt in Jesus’ time. In that time animal manure was used for fertilizing the soil but also as a source of fuel in outdoor ovens. Salt was used as a "leveling agent" in paddies made from animal manure. Young family members would form paddies with this animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were lit in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. Then, when the fuel was burnt out, the family would throw out that spent fuel onto the road for a secondary use, to harden the wet, muddy surface.
So, we’re to be the salt. We’re the ones that help the fuel burn longer. We’re the ones called to help the fuel burn brighter. We are called to be the salt of the earth. One source I read this week said, "Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural ‘dung.’ But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics."
You, and you and you are the salt of the earth. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they could become the salt of the earth if they did such and such. He said, "You’re it. You’re the salt of the earth. If you’ve lost your saltiness you’re not much good for anything. You might as well be thrown out with the trash." Look around you, look at the people sitting beside you. You are the salt of the earth. Heaven forbid if you’ve lost your saltiness.
Salt adds flavour. You don’t need much to make a difference. In our society where too many of us use too much salt to the detriment of our health, it is a bit difficult to understand how important and valued and valuable salt was to the ancient world. A Roman author of the time wrote, "there is nothing as necessary as salt and son (an heir)." Wars were fought over it, soldiers were paid with it, cities were built around it. It was essential and expensive. A little went a long way and it was appreciated. Jesus calls us to flavour the world with that peacemaking, justice seeking, compassion sharing that was in the Beatitudes. Your kind word, your generous act, your ability to forgive, your willingness to stand with the oppressed—all that flavours the world. You are the salt of the world.
Salt is also a preservative. The disciples of Jesus, the church has always been the preserver of morality. Lots of people these days like to dump on religion for the immoral acts that have been committed in its name, but religion has always reminded the people of what is true and good and right. What is it that we need to preserve as disciples of Jesus in Canada in 2017? We are responsible for preserving what is good and right and true. Worker’s rights, universal health care, peacekeeping, all these things were developed by people of Christian faith. Why is it that we today who claim to be Christians are not front and centre in the fight to preserve them? We who have read the Sermon on the Mount know that greed is not the ultimate value and profit is not the sole purpose of life. When was the last time you heard a conversation that went like this, "As a Christian I have a moral obligation to care for the poor, so I think we should be increasing our taxes and putting more resources into affordable housing." Now we are responsible for preserving the earth itself. Our Bible tells us that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, not ours to plunder and destroy. You are the salt of the earth.
Today we are coming together to celebrate what was good about our time together last year and to plan what we shall do together this year. We salt of the earth people-what shall we do in 2017?
Karoline Lewis is a professor of Biblical preaching at the Luther seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She says, "If you want to know what it’s looked like lately to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Google the Women’s March of January 21, 2017. Regardless of your opinions, observations, or objections, this was a testament to and an embodiment of what you do when you truly believe that you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You just do it. You don’t debate it. You don’t second-guess it. You don’t wonder about it. You just go and be it. That’s Jesus’ point. Jesus doesn’t say think about it. He doesn’t say you will be, you may be, or try to be. No, you just are. You are salt and light. Period."
When reformer Martin Luther preached on this passage four hundred years ago, he said salt preserves but salt also bites. He told priests that when the people in the congregation sin, you are to rub the salt into the wounds of their sins. That is not real friendly, is it? You are to rub the salt into the wounds of their sins. In one of his critiques against the church of his time he said, "Bishops and successful clergy are the smartest of people, for they preach in a calculated manner in order to keep themselves out of trouble by refusing to salt the sins of their people and press for genuine repentance." We are the salt of the earth. If we are not willing to name our personal and corporate sinfulness and make the painful changes necessary to turn things around, well then, we’re not worth our salt. God is going to toss us into the oblivion of a heritage building and find someone else to flavour, preserve and heal the world. But for now, you are the salt of the earth.
When you go out of your way to help someone through a journey with cancer, you salt the earth. When you welcome newcomers into the building or into your neighbourhood, regardless of their origin, and seek justice for them, you salt the earth. When you speak up against discrimination of others different than yourself, you salt the earth. Part of Black History Month is reconciling our past actions and attitudes toward mistreating black’s. Recovering such history and making it right can be a painful journey-watching a movie such as "12 years a slave," the recent "Hidden Figures" or reading a novel like "The book of Negroes" is not comforting.
Jesus also said, "you are the light of the world." It is not enough for us to keep our own light burning, we need to light up the world. Archbishop William Temple said, "The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members." A light is not noticed, it is not even necessary unless it is shining in the darkness.
Even a small bit of salt can flavour the whole stew and the light that shines through us cannot be put out. Amen.