You Are the Salt of the Earth
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel this morning. The phrase comes in the Sermon on the Mount, just after the Beatitudes. This is a phrase that we know, that we hear, and that we may even use to describe good, solid, people — people who are kind, responsible, truthful, and go out of their way to help others. But how does salt of the earth come to mean these good qualities? What do kindness, duty, and honesty have to do with salt? And how would salt, a mineral consisting primarily of sodium chloride, “lose its saltiness” and yet still BE salt?
In our beautiful Newport harborside location, it’s interesting to note that the open ocean has about 35 grams — that’s 1.2 oz. — of solid salt per liter of sea water. Salt is an essential pivot point in life. The right amount is essential — there is no life without it. But too much is deadly. Our bodies need it in hot, sweaty climates to hold fluids and to stay alive, but too much salt causes or worsens hypertension — high blood pressure, which is life-threatening — so we have to watch our salty foods.
The Dead Sea
The sea is another place where this pivot point exists. The salinity in the open ocean is about 3.5%, and animal and vegetable life thrives at those levels. But at the Dead Sea — one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world at almost ten times the salinity of the open ocean — the only thing living in the water is all of the happy pilgrims and native Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis. They’re all rubbing the rich, dark, gooey mud from the shallows of the Dead Sea all over their bodies and then bobbing in the waters like cheerful corks, savoring the novelty of floating sitting up. There is no plant or animal life in the Dead Sea other than these bathers.
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)
The Episcopal Church now teaches a kind of development — help for communities — that is different from just charity, and different from just giving aid. It’s called asset-based community development — ABCD. It’s our new missionary model. The idea is to listen to what communities really need, and not to impose our own ideas. This nurtures local leadership and strengthens local autonomy. The helpers — the missionaries — become students of the community they are helping, learning the culture and needs of those they are helping. Missionaries like this end up learning more than they can ever teach, and receiving greater gifts of the spirit than any material gifts they give.
One of the metaphors we use for this kind of asset-based community development is the Sea of Galilee — which even today is teeming with fish that nourish the nation — as opposed to the Dead Sea. The Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee, and then flows out. There is sharing, there is seasoning, and gifts flow both ways. Then the Jordan River flows from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea, and there it stops. All the gifts flow in, and none flow out. There is no exchange, and no life — other than those happy pilgrims bobbing around like corks that I mentioned.
It’s the same idea for us — the salt of the earth. So when Jesus tells us, as he does in our gospel this week, YOU ARE the salt of the earth, what does that mean, and what do we do about it? We all know this description — people who are the salt of the earth. It’s always spoken with affirmation and respect. It doesn’t imply social status, wealth, education, intelligence, professional attainment, or anything else that stands still. It’s about doing. And acting.
People who are the salt of the earth show up. They do the right thing. They are kind. They are truthful. They think first of others. They are the backbone of the community, the people who get good things done.
How Are We the Salt of the Earth
Jesus says: “YOU are the salt of the earth.” Not some other people, but Jesus’ followers, those listening around him, and all of us, leaning in and listening now. Jesus is talking to US. We are the salt of the earth.
The first thing I notice about Jesus’ words is that the verb is in the present tense: You ARE the salt of the earth. Jesus is not saying “follow me and you will BECOME the salt of the earth some day,” or “you USED TO BE the salt of the earth before you messed up and didn’t love your neighbor as yourself.” Right here, right now, Jesus is saying, WE are the salt of the earth.
But what do we do with that idea? We know now, today, that too much salt can give us high blood pressure, and stress out our hearts. Too much salt can kill all life, or prevent new life from growing. This, in fact, is another important use of salt. Before refrigeration, and sometimes now instead of refrigeration, people salted meats and other foods to preserve them — to prevent bacteria from growing and spoiling the food.
Some have traditionally interpreted Matthew’s gospel’s use of salt in the sense of a preservative: the salt of the earth — that’s us — mixes around with the whole population of the world, preserving it and keeping it pure. Salt was extremely important in Jesus’ time, and ancient communities knew that salt was a requirement of life. It was most used as a preservative, and this use was important enough that salt was sometimes even used as currency and used to raise revenues and pay taxes. As a commodity of great value, it was traded all around the Mediterranean and shipped in caravans — of CAMELS! — across the sand sea of the Sahara. We get our word salary from these commercial uses.
I find it a little more helpful to think of the phrase in our context — in a cooking sense, like when we’re making a meal to share with our friends and families. Salt is one of the most basic human tastes — and one of the oldest seasonings. It brings out the flavor of individual foods, helping each to shine in its own way. It enhances the flavor of fish, brings out the complexity of a tomato ripened on the vine in your garden, and perfectly balances and enhances fresh vegetables. So what do we do to act like the earth’s salt, so that we stay on the right side of life’s pivot point?
If we are the salt of the earth, we have to be sprinkled out in the world — liberally distributed, nicely seasoning all around us, bringing out all the special flavors — and not all gathered together uselessly in a salt shaker — all bottled up potential but no action. We need to function like salt — to bring out the best in others and to preserve and sustain life, and not lose our saltiness by getting all concentrated in one place like the Dead Sea.
This last Thursday, Bishop Knisely and the congregation of St. Matthew’s in Jamestown installed Christa Moore-Levesque as their new rector. Bishop Knisely preached an inspiring sermon, focused on our call as Christians to answer the needs of the world. Bishop Knisely was not preaching on our text today, but was making the point that asking others what they need and how we can help — in our church, our community, and our world — is what Christians do. As Bishop Knisely said, asking others what they need and showing up sows love. And love heals and helps. This is how communities are strengthened. And this is what the salt of the earth does when it is shaken out.
At the end of his sermon, Bishop Knisely asked Christa to stand and then asked her the question from our baptismal covenant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help, she responded, as we do in the Book of Common Prayer.
He then asked the congregation the next question in the baptismal covenant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help, we said.
As you might guess, salt relates directly to our baptismal covenant. Salt, as an item of great value and great price, seals deals — seals covenants. Ancient Christians, and Roman Catholics to this day — sealed their baptism by having salt placed in their mouths. It’s still in our Book of Common Prayer that we use salt in baptism in the blessing of the water in the Occasional Rites, and we do it with this prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, you have created salt for the use of man, we ask you to bless this salt and grant that wherever it is sprinkled and whatever is touched by it may be set free from all impurity and the attacks of Satan.
This is what the salt of the earth does. This is how we keep our saltiness, and how, if we have lost our saltiness we can become salty again. It’s about going and doing. It’s just like Jesus’ next words in Matthew’s gospel today. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. As the light of the world, which Jesus also says we are in today’s gospel, we must shine out.
As the salt of the earth, we go out. We seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. We do all that our reading from Isaiah tells us for what he calls the fast acceptable to the Lord: loose the bonds of injustice, share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house. We shake ourselves out in love among our neighbors, helping where we can. And we drop generous pinches of ourselves into the great soup pot of our lives, to increase the broth’s savor. Amen