Sunday 5 February 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Salad, silt, sausage, salary, salami, soldier, sauce, saline, saucer, salsa. They all have something in common. They all are derived etymologically from the same word: sal or salt. The Romans used salt to counteract the bitter taste of leaf vegetables, giving us the word salad. Silt looks a lot like salt, and salt can be found in it. Sausage is meat made by salting, and salami is a particularly salty kind of sausage. Roman legionaries were sometimes paid in salt, that is, they received a salary. The one who is paid in salt is a soldier. Saline is, of course, salt water. Sauces and salsas are flavored with salt, and they could well be served in a saucer. All of these seemingly disparate words are in fact cognates in English; they all derive their meaning originally from salt.
When we think of salt today, we think of a bad thing. Salt is something that we try to avoid. Salt leads to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and hearth failure. Foods advertise that they have low sodium, because everyone knows that sodium, salt, is bad for you. It may taste good, but it’s bad for you.
So, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” what is that supposed to mean? Do Christians cause heart disease and strokes? Are we best avoided because we are bad for people’s health? Are we something that tastes good even if we’re bad for you? Is religion a guilty pleasure?
We live in a world that has ready and easy access to salt. We can buy it by the pound at any grocery store. It’s cheap enough that we can use it as a craft supply and not worry about throwing it out. And salt ends up in abundance in our food, even if we don’t want it there, in all kinds of packaged and processed foods.
Our conception of salt is completely unlike the way that people in Jesus’s time understood salt. For them, salt was a necessity and an unmitigated good. It was also expensive and hard to get your hands on.
Salt is essential to the metabolism of humans and other mammals. Muscles and nerves cannot function without salt. Animals that don’t get enough salt will start eating dirt, rocks, and wood to get it, and will lick the sweat off other animals. Salt-deprived chickens produce fewer and smaller eggs. Calves that are given salt supplements grow twice as quickly as those that aren’t. Salt is one of the five things that humans can taste. Early settlements and civilizations were typically located near salt supplies.
In addition to it’s basic metabolic function, salt is the world’s oldest food preservative. It was used to preserve meat long before the first human writing. Salt has driven trade all over the world. The first Roman colony was built near a salt mine, and the first Roman road was built to transport salt. Caravans cross the Sahara desert to deliver salt. Wars have been fought over salt. At times, salt has been traded at twice the value by weight as gold. Salt has been used as money. Salt can be used to condition water, to make better soaps, and to clean pipes and faucets. And of course, we remember at this time of year that salt can be used to deice roads and sidewalks.
Salt and salt taxes have played a role in major world social movements. Records from 1785 say that ten thousand men were arrested every year in England for smuggling salt in defiance of the salt tax. A few years later, English livestock started to die from lack of salt, and in the face of riots, Parliament was forced to repeal the salt tax. A royal salt tax was one of the main issues of the French Revolution of 1789.
Mahatma Gandhi’s first major act of civil disobedience in British-controlled India was defiance against the salt tax. He led Indians in a 24-day march to Dandi where he made salt from sea water in defiance of the British salt monopoly. This was the beginning of the Satyagraha movement that eventually won Indian independence. Gandhi was jailed for his leadership of the Salt March, along with more than 80,000 other Indians who were jailed in the Salt Satyagraha.
You are the salt of the earth. It doesn’t mean that we are a health risk, and it doesn’t mean that we are tasty. Being salt means being life-giving, having preservative and cleansing qualities, being valuable beyond measure. Being salt of the earth means bring life to the earth.
Jesus goes on to say that if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless. It can’t be used for anything. Now, technically speaking, it is impossible for salt to lose it’s saltiness. Sodium Chloride is a stable element; it can’t lose it’s saltiness. But, Jesus may have been referring to impure forms of salt, if stored improperly, that could lose some of their salt to water.
What is interesting, though is how Jesus refers to salt losing it’s saltiness. He says, if salt is μωρανθῇ, if salt becomes moronic, if it becomes stupid, foolish, or speechless, then how can it be restored? It can’t. It becomes worthless and useless.
Salt may not be able to lose it’s saltiness, but what happens when we lose our saltiness? What happens when our faith becomes foolish or speechless? What happens when we get carried away with things that don’t matter, things that distract us from our true callings? What happens when we argue over petty things? What happens when we fail to open our mouths in witness? What happens when our message fails to address the concerns and happenings of the real world? What happens when we lose the will to engage with what is going on around, or when we lose the courage to speak out against injustice? What happens when we lose our saltiness?
Jesus uses a second metaphor to describe his followers. Not only are they the salt of the earth, they are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, it is put on a lamp stand and provides light to everyone in the room.
Light provides illumination, it provides clarity. Without light, we cannot see. We cannot tell where we are going or what dangers might be in our path. We cannot tell the difference between colors, or appreciate the beauty of the created world. Of all of the senses, sight is perhaps the one we rely upon most. We often equate sight with understanding. In the cartoons, when someone gets an idea or figures something out for the first time, we can tell because a lightbulb switches on next to their head. If I want to say that I understand something, I can simply say, “I see.” It was the same in ancient Greek. The word that means “I know” is actually an ancient form of the word for seeing: it literally means “I have seen.”
And light, like salt, is something that is not good on its own. If light is hidden, it isn’t good for anything. Light is only good if it is put somewhere where it can shine. Light is only good if it illuminates things for people to see. Salt, also, is not any particular good on it’s own. It is only good if it is consumed to facilitate metabolism, or used to preserve or season food, or spread to melt ice. It is only good if it is used.
Being a Christian is not about being good in myself. It is not about focusing on my interior life to the exclusion of everything else. It is not about being satisfied with myself and my learning, or my purity, or my holiness. Learning, purity, and holiness can be good things, but not if they are not shared, not if they are not put to use. Being a Christian is not a solitary venture. Being a Christian is always about our relationship with others, both those inside and those outside the Christian community.
Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hid. Its light will reveal it even from far away. The phrase was famously used by President Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly spoke about America as a shining city on a hill. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase in reference to America. John Winthrop first used it in 1630 aboard to ship Arbello to tell the future Massachusetts Bay Colonists that the eyes of the world would be watching them. Their experiment would either show the world an example of Christian charity or it would show the world the colonists’ failure to achieve Christian charity and unity. President John F. Kennedy used it in the days leading up to his inauguration in the same way, to say that the eyes of world would be on America to see if we would succeed or fail at the great tasks ahead of us.
But Reagan used the phrase over and over, and he altered the wording a bit. Jesus spoke of a city on a hill that could not be hid. Reagan spoke of a shining city on a hill. And in doing so, he changed the meaning of the phrase. Winthrop and Kennedy were making the point that the world would be scrutinizing America. Reagan meant that the world was being drawn to America. It wasn’t just that America was being watched, or even that America was an example for the rest of the world. Reagan meant that the world’s peoples were being drawn to join America. For him it was a profound statement of America’s diversity, of our ability to welcome people from all nations, races, and religions. He explicitly said that shining city was indifferent to differences in race, religion, or political leanings.
In his farewell address, Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
That vision of America as a shining city on a hill is a far cry from how America is presenting itself in the world today. Now we are a nation defined by a border wall, a nation whose ports of entry are closed to those we see as different, those whose nationality, or language, or race, or religion do not conform to a certain mold. We are becoming more and more a nation of exclusion and division.
And it is in this context that we must struggle with what it means to be salt for the earth and light for the world. What is the truth we must speak, the saltiness we cannot afford to lose? What is the light we must shine, the situations we cannot allow to go unseen?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to share God’s radical message of love and inclusion. We have an obligation to shine a light on injustice when we encounter it, an obligation to preserve what is good and just and life-giving in our world. We cannot abdicate our responsibility, hide our light under a basket, or allow our salt to become saltless. You are the light of the world, that is, of the whole world, not just part of it. You are the salt of the earth, that is, of the whole earth, not just a small section. We must be brave. We must be bold. We must share the love of God in every way that we can, taking courage from the one who calls us, the one who gives us light and life, Jesus the Christ.