Salt and light. Precious and bright. Necessary and powerful.

Matthew 5:13-20

Last Monday, the U.S. government[1] issued new guidelines for how much salt we Americans should consume on any given day. The new recommendations are far more restrictive than they have been in the past, because of our country’s battle with obesity and heart disease, cutting us back to less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day.

In essence, the government is saying, quite bluntly: Stop eating so much salt! It is killing us!

And then we come to church this morning and we hear Jesus tell us that we are the salt of the earth!

So what exactly are we supposed to do?

Cut back on our salt?

Or be the salt?

This morning’s Gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount – the second of five Sundays in which we hear this beautiful sermon (it’s not just the first 12 verses of chapter 5). Last week we heard those shocking beatitudes that showered blessings on those who all their lives had been told by society that they weren’t worth spit.

Today, Jesus continues to shock the people, telling them that not only are they not to consider themselves downtrodden, but that they are powerful … that they are necessary … that without them, God’s creation cannot be very good.

Today, Jesus proclaims, to the people then and to us now: You are the salt of the earth.

Now, in light of those warnings from the government, this may come across as an odd statement. But to the people listening to Jesus 2,000 years ago, it made perfect sense.

You see, in Jesus’ day, salt was not only necessary, it was priceless. Salt was hard to get. It was a controlled substance. It was a commodity so precious that it was used to pay Roman legionnaires (and hence we get the word “salary”) and to buy slaves (and here we learn the origin of the expression “not worth his salt”).  Salt was so important in the ancient world that kingdoms rose and fell because of it (and if you remember your history, you know that was true right up to 1930, for it was through the great Salt March that Mahatma Gandhi began to break the back of British Raj in India). (from “The History of Salt.”)

Salt wasn’t just a condiment you added to your food to enhance flavors.

Salt was worth more than gold.

So when Jesus says to the people, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was saying to them – to us – that we are priceless.

Which is why Jesus adds that little caveat: “But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

I know a lot of people wonder about this salt-losing-its-taste part. It’s been a topic of discussion for preachers all over the country this week, with many asking, “How can salt lose its taste?” If you want to see the discussions, just look on Facebook. Most of us know that in this day and age, in this country, at least, salt doesn’t go bad. You can put a box of Morton’s salt on your shelf – you remember Morton’s right? It’s the brand in the blue container with the little girl in a raincoat and hat and rain boots, holding an umbrella over her head? – you can put that box on your shelf, forget about it, come back 22 years later, and it will still be salty. I know; I’ve done this! Our salt doesn’t go bad, because it is sodium chloride – NaCl, for those of you who took chemistry.

But in the days when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked the earth, the salt people used wasn’t sodium chloride. It was a rougher salt, a rawer salt, made from evaporated sea-water or water from the Dead Sea, or produced from rock, which, when exposed to the air could lose its saltiness.[3] And if you expose that kind of salt to even the tiniest bit of moisture, the salt turns rancid. It tastes like mildewed peanuts, actually – I know, because I lived in Sudan, where salt is still a precious commodity, and sometimes loses its flavor and sometimes becomes rancid.

How many of you use sea salt? That’s good – the federal government thanks you for that. How many of you who use sea salt like this (Mediterranean sea salt) know that it can go bad, that it has an expiration date on it? No? You didn’t know that? Check the label – it says “Best by 2013”).

So you see, salt indeed can lose its flavor.

To sum up what Jesus is saying to us this morning:

Salt is a precious gift that should not be allowed to go to waste.

And since we are the salt of the earth, that means that we are precious gifts who should not be allowed to go to waste either.

• • •

Jesus also clearly tells us that we are the light of the world, created not to be hidden under a bushel but to shine forth so brightly that others see us, and through us, give glory to God.

We are God’s gift in creation. And as God’s gift, we are supposed to shine – no, not merely to shine, but to blaze forth in the world – so that God’s gift can be seen, so that God’s gift can made manifest, so that God’s gift … the gift of love … can be known by all.

That’s why we were created, my friends.

To let God’s love be known.

Every moment … of every day … with every person we meet.

We are not created to indulge ourselves (which is why the government is trying to get us to cut back on our salt intake … too much of a good thing is a bad thing and we all know it).

We are created to make manifest, to incarnate God’s wild, radical, improbable, inexplicable, eternal … love.

That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it?

First we find out that we are precious gifts so important that kingdoms rise and fall, all because of us. Then we are told to take the gifts of who we are, created in the image of God, and blaze that image across all creation.

And make no mistake here: Jesus is not suggesting that he would like us to become salt. And he’s not recommending that perhaps if we feel like it, we should shine forth in the world.

Jesus is laying it on the line, telling us that, whether we like it or not, this is who we are: Salt and light. Precious and bright. Necessary and powerful.

Theologian Marianne Williamson, in her book A Return to Love, knows how scary it can be to hear these statements from Jesus.

“Our deepest fear,” she writes, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us; we ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’

“Actually,” Williamson writes, “who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born,” she says, “to manifest the glory of God that is within us.”[4]

Williamson is doing nothing more than echoing Jesus’ words to us today: The people he was addressing in that Sermon on the Mount? Remember them? The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. …  First Jesus tells them they are blessed, then he tells them they are precious … and powerful.

This is Jesus’ message to us as well.

We are precious.

And we are powerful.

Now before we let this message go to our heads, before we decide to overindulge ourselves on just how precious and powerful we are, remember that Jesus was very clear in his message:

All of our preciousness, all of our power, is given to us so that we can glorify God.

This isn’t about us.

It’s about God.

So what are we going to do?

How are we going to glorify God?

We have all the tools we need. We are, as Jesus says, salt and light. We are, as Marianne Williamson reminds us, brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous.

• • •

Yesterday, I presented a dear friend of mine at her ordination to the priesthood. At the end of the sermon, the preacher asked my friend to stand to receive what is called her “charge” as priest. The “charge” is the set of personal instructions a preacher gives to the person being ordained. It is a challenge, a caution and a commission, all rolled up into one.

Today, I would like to give you your charge – your challenge, your caution, your commission.

So I ask you now to stand, please, for it is the tradition of the Church that those being charged stand to receive it. Stand up, please, and I ask you to turn around and to look out the doors of this church, out into God’s very good creation, because the charge you are about to receive is not about you here in this place only. It is about the world in which you live and move and have your being.

This is your charge:

You are the salt of the earth. You are precious. Do not lose your flavor. Do not let it go to waste.

You are the light of the world. You are powerful. Do not hide your light. Do not let your power fade.

Take your salt … take your light … and go into the world, into God’s world, and use your gifts, which God has given you because God loves you, and make God’s love be known in all of God’s very good and beloved creation.

Go into the world, my friends.

Be salty.

Blaze your way through life.

Be brilliant and gorgeous and talented, and most of all, be fabulous.

Not for your sake.

But for God’s.

Amen.

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, College Park, Md., on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 6 February 2011, Year A.

——————————–

[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines on salt intake, Jan. 31, 2011, via http://www.internetbits.com/diet-guide-issued-by-government-eat-less-salt/57392/.

[3] James M. Freeman, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” p. 335, via http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Can_salt_lose_its_flavor

[4] Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

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About Lauren Stanley

All my life, it seems, I’ve been on mission. And it’s all my mother’s fault. You see, when I was a child, my mother was adamant: We were to help those in need, those who had less than we did. We were to speak for those who could not speak, feed those who had no food, give water to those who were thirsty.

Comments

  1. I was in St. Andrew’s when you preached this, and when I went to write about the blessing of bread, wine and salt I wanted to include the information you’d shared about salt going bad. It wasn’t anyway on the web, just a bunch of people assuring me that table salt had no shelf life and a bunch of preachers trying to figure out how salt could go bad. I’m very glad this is here, both because I needed the salt information, and because it was good to read this and be reminded of the powerful words of your sermon.

  2. Great message.

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