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Be Salty

May the words I speak this day be only God’s. May the words you hear today be only God’s.

Growing up on the gulf coast of Texas, I spent a lot of time at the beach. I could not wait to run and jump in the water. I loved swimming and diving into the waves. When I misjudged the size of the waves, I would come up sputtering with a mouth full of salty water and eyes stinging from the salt. I would play with my siblings and friends until the angle of the sun and the thirst from drinking too much sea water drove us to our family’s towels where we retreated from the sun and quenched our hunger and thirst with watermelon and sandwiches. These simple treats tasted memorably delicious. 

But it was not until I watched the series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat based on the book by Samin Nosrat that I put together the idea that the salt dripping from my skin mixed with the fruit made it especially delicious. On her show, Samin drizzles a few grains of salt on ice cream and the taste is amplified. She thoroughly salts a piece of meat before cooking and her guests remark how every bite of the meat has as a result a rich and intense flavor. Samin says that salt is essential to food. It enhances the flavor. It makes everything taste more like itself. In fact, she says, salt brings food to life![1]

Many of these kinds of ideas have percolated through my mind as I reflected on the Gospel reading this morning. Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” What did Jesus mean when he said those words to his disciples?  What power did these words have for those who heard them? 

In our times, we take household goods like salt for granted. But as Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.” Homer called it “a divine substance.” Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Salt was to the ancient Hebrews, the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. In the Torah, the Book of Numbers, is written, “It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord.” And later in Chronicles, “The Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, even to him and to his sons, by a covenant of salt.”  Religious covenants were often sealed with salt. Loyalty and friendship were sealed with salt because its essence did not change. In both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain because it is constant.[2]

Because salt prevents decay, it protects from harm. The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits. The practice of protecting newborn infants either by putting salt on their tongues or by submerging them in salt water is thought to predate Christian baptism. Salt was used for medicinal purposes, to disinfect wounds, stop bleeding, stimulate thirst, and treat skin diseases. 

Salt was used as currency. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt—hence our English word, “salary.” Brides and grooms went to church with salt in their pockets to insure fertility. The Romans salted their vegetables, as we do our modern day “salads.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt. People would leave salt outside their homes to attract the animals. And in the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for preserving food.

Today, we still use salt for all sorts of purposes. Salt accentuates flavors, melts ice, soften water, and hastens a boil. It soothes sore throats, rinses sinuses, eases swelling, and cleanses wounds. In some situations, salt has more than a flavor. It has an edge. It stings, burns, and irritates. Without enough salt our body cannot carry out basic biological processes, such as maintaining proper blood pressure and water distribution in the body, delivering nutrients to and from cells. But if we have too much salt, we can become unhealthy and even die.

So when Jesus calls his followers “the salt of the earth,” he is saying something profound that we might miss listening with our 21st century ears.

First Jesus is telling us who we are. We are salt. We are not encouraged to become salt or told that if we become salt, God will love us more. Jesus uses language that is complete. We are the salt of the earth. We are essential to life. We are that which will enhance or embitter, soothe or irritate, preserve or ruin. We are the salt of the earth and what we do with our saltiness matters. It matters alot. Whether we are aware or not, whether we want to or not, we impact the world in which we live.

Second, we are precious. It may be easy to miss the importance of this in our modern world where salt is easy and relatively inexpensive to come by. But imagine what Jesus’ followers heard when he called them salt. Remember who these people were. 

In the words of the Beatitudes that precede this part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus is speaking to people who are poor, who are in mourning, who are meek, who are persecuted. Jesus is speaking to people who do not see themselves as even registering in the minds of their community, much less as blessed or precious or in any way worthy of notice or concern. “You” Jesus tells them—every one of them—”You are the salt of the earth.” You who have faced rejection, you who have been discarded, you who have been wounded, insulted, forgotten—you are essential. You are worthwhile. You are treasured. Jesus chose a commodity that was priceless in his time and place to name those who did not consider themselves valuable. God is still doing this. Right now. For us all.

Third, for the powerful properties of salt to be effective, it must be poured out; it must be scattered; it must become a part of what is around it. Salt, kept in its shaker in a locked pantry in the kitchen does nothing to bring life to that which it is meant to enhance. Samin Nosrat liberally salts meat and vegetables so they “ring” with flavor, with life. She says the correct use of salt, makes food its best self. Salt only contributes when it gives. It is meant to share its vital essence, to bring out the best in all that surrounds it. 

So as “salt of the earth” if we want to enliven, enhance, and preserve the goodness of the world in which we live, we must give fully of ourselves. We must not cluster and hide away all the many gifts God has given us to share. We must not retreat into enclaves or institutions to preserve our own comfort. Salt doesn’t exist to preserve itself. It exists to preserve what is not itself. 

So in these brutal times, what are we to do? Jesus calls us not to lose our saltiness. It can be tempting to retreat—to hide, to close our eyes, to protect ourselves by pulling the covers over our head and closing all the doors and windows. To keep our love of Jesus hidden and bland.

But that kind of salt, Jesus told his listeners is useless. It denies its essence. So we are called to live fully, creatively, boldly. We are to be salty because salt at its best sustains and enriches life. It pours itself out so that God’s kingdom may be known on the earth.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes concrete the work of love, compassion, healing, and justice. It is not enough to simply believe. It is not enough to practice our faith only in private. Jesus is calling us to be salt–to broadcast our love, kindness, and mercy, to live lives of justice, peace, and respect for all people and all creation. Jesus calls us to take seriously our identity as the “salt of the earth.” This is who we are and whose we are.

So be salty. We are to bring our zest, our wholeness, our depth and complexity to the world, when we, in our own way, participate in loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, sharing our love with our neighbor, and then in the words of the prophet Isaiah, Our “light shall break forth like the dawn, and (our) healing shall spring up quickly.” 

In a recent Instagram post, Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms said, “I’ve been a minister for 28 years now. And sometimes I really do believe it’s all about the hokey pokey. The answer to the questions about how we live our faith is to put our whole selves in.” Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Be salty for the life of the world. 

Amen


[1] “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” a series by Samin Nosrat on Netflix

[2] Mark Kurlansky. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.