02/05/23 – Salty Living

SALTY LIVING

February 5, 2023
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isa. 58:1-9; Ps. 112: 1-9a;1 Cor. 2:1-12; Matt. 5:13-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

If you’ve ever been put on a salt-free diet, you have learned to appreciate salt. Without it, many foods taste bland. As much as I love chocolate, if I had to choose between giving up salt or sugar, I’d choose sugar. I love salty snacks. Even in the book of Job, one of the oldest books of the bible, we read: “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6) In our gospel passage for today, another excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses salt and light as imagery to describe how important it is for his disciples to maintain their commitment to God’s kingdom on earth and to act accordingly. Of course, we know the extensive use of light as imagery in the bible, but maybe not so much salt.

In biblical times salt was critically important, and not just as a seasoning to make food taste better. People were dependent on salt to preserve their food. In ancient times it was so valuable that it could be used in place of money. Roman soldiers, and others, received part of their wages in salt. This is where we get the word, “salary.” The prefix, “sal,” comes from the Latin word for “sea,” the place from which the salt was collected. For those in ancient times, water and salt were linked, both physically and spiritually.  We know that water was a spiritually significant symbol for the Jewish people. It is from that tradition that we get the sacrament of baptism.

Salt was also used in spiritual practices. Salt was used as a sacrifice, cleansing and blessing.  From the book of Ezekiel, we know that newborns were rubbed with salt to harden their skin as protection from an external world that was not as soft as their world inside the womb. From other sources, including the ancient physician, Galen, we have learned this was a common practice in the ancient Middle East. There are records of the practice through the Middle Ages. There was also the belief that salt warded off evil spirits.

The word, “salvation,” meaning to preserve, comes from the word salt. You not only needed salt to live, you also needed salt to die. Salt was used to preserve bodies and prevent the flesh’s rapid decay. In the same way, salt became a metaphor for preserving, or saving, the soul. Salt was used to cleanse infected areas of the body; it was an agent of healing. Being so valuable to life, salt was used in sacrifices to God and when entering covenants or establishing relationships. The word salutation comes from the expression of “wishing salt to the other person,” which served as a kind of blessing when greeting or bidding farewell to others.

The expression “salt of the earth” isn’t heard as much today as it once was. I remember that my grandfather used it quite a lot. It was high praise. If he said someone was “the salt of the earth” it meant he or she was a good neighbor. Someone who was “salt of the earth” would help out a neighbor without being asked – doing chores like milking the cows or shoveling snow if the owner was ailing. He or she would give money or bring over groceries when someone else was having hard times, oftentimes anonymously. If you were a person of my Grandfather’s age, but a Jew of Eastern European heritage, you would call such a person a “mensch.”

Usually, the one called “the salt of the earth” lived on humble means. Oh sure, it would be possible for a rich person to be called the salt of the earth, but not usually. The people I heard my Grandfather and other relatives of a certain age in the Appalachian Mountains call “salt of the earth” were most often people who gave out of their limited resources, not their abundance. They didn’t just sign a check, they performed labor for or gave something needed to someone with whom they had a relationship, even if that person was a stranger because the benefactor took seriously their Christian faith which demanded they treat their neighbor as they would want to be treated. The stranger in need became a neighbor with the only tie that bound them being the mutuality of giving and receiving in the context of need. From reading the Gospels, I think that’s what Jesus was describing when he said his disciples were “the salt of the earth.” He meant they were invaluable to the kingdom of God on earth.

When Jesus called his disciples, “salt of the earth,” he was affirming their great value as well as instructing them on their mission. By calling them “salt” he was telling them that they were to live in the world doing God’s work to preserve life; to heal the wounds of broken lives; to enhance or season it by telling others how to live life to the fullest with all of God’s abundant gifts; and to purify life by renouncing evil, in all its forms in the world. The disciples’ lives were to be lived in such a way that their witness to God’s love would draw others into God’s covenantal love also. This blessing Jesus bestowed on his disciples also came with a reciprocal responsibility. The blessing contained a warning. Salt, once it has lost its taste, is no longer good for anything.”

Salt is salt. How could it lose its saltiness? In the first-century, Palestine, salt was harvested from the Dead Sea and its surrounding areas. The crystals were frequently tainted with other minerals of the earth, which made them “impure.” If the salt could not be extracted from these impurities, it could not be used. If the impure minerals were less soluble than the salt, then rain might dissolve the salt, leaving only the useless minerals.

Here at Westminster, we try to be salt for our community. Today, community groups meet in our Parish House to provide services. The Moss-Bradley Residential Association, Quest Charter School’s Robotic team, and a foster parent group meet regularly there. Except for a nominal fee for the Robotics team which meets twice a week, these community groups meet in the Parish House without cost. This spring and summer, a community Penguin Project will rehearse there for several nights a week for four months. This is an organization that provides disabled children and youth the opportunity to participate in a musical.

Over the years, the Westminster Parish House has been the location for many church mission projects. Since I have been at Westminster, one goal has been to expand the utilization of the Parish House to be salt for Peoria. There have been obstacles, the Covid pandemic being one of them. In recent years, we have added a handicapped bathroom and a lift to allow people with mobility problems to participate in activities there. Currently, this wonderful, versatile, and well-maintained space is underutilized, primarily, for lack of a sprinkler system and air-conditioning in all of the rooms. The session and I have a vision of the Parish House housing services for children and families, perhaps expanding on the WICC program for infants with a preschool that would serve the dire need for quality childcare for working parents in Peoria. With the Choir Camp, which began 8 years ago but was halted during the pandemic, we had the opportunity to see and hear children at Westminster again.

From my early days as pastor here, I observed the passion the Westminster congregation has had for mission and for the arts and attempted to have the church “play to its strengths,” so to speak. Building on the success of the Iben Concert Series in bringing people into Westminster, we will be adding “host for the Peoria Bach Festival” to our resume of serving the Peoria Community. Of course, once the visitors are in the door, it’s up to you to invite them to return for worship. The raison d’etre for Bach’s prolific compositions appears on our sanctuary’s organ: “Soli Deo Gloria” – only for the Glory of God. This describes Westminster’s worship music. The music in our worship goes hand in hand with the scripture readings and liturgy for each service to give glory to God and to draw the congregation into the whole worship service with God as the focus of our praise, thanksgiving, and supplication. As the 19th century Christian theologian, Soren Kierkegaard famously explained, the congregation does not gather to be a spectator, but to be active participants in worship, with God as the audience. Our worship is salt for the world – healing, life- saving and life-enhancing, a blessing. And we are salt when we visit or call the sick and the lonely, when we give rides to people who can’t drive when we work at the food pantry.

When does a Christian or a church lose its saltiness? When worship is no longer dynamic because the congregation loses its sense of relationship to God and one another. When coming to church becomes a personal decision based on what’s in it for me, and even sadder, when one loses faith that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit will meet you here. Then, both the member and the local church loses saltiness. Both individual Christians and a church lose saltiness when the mission is no longer intentional and relational. In speaking to the quarrels and divisions in the Corinthian congregation, Paul might have said saltiness is lost when judgment and partiality become the impurities that make us ineffective disciples of Christ.

“What makes salt pure salt? Think about how it is used to savor the food. Salt must be different from the food before it can be of use. In the same way, our faith and our worship must be different from the world to make the world a better place. The light must be different from darkness to illumine and reveal the truth about what is really present in the world – good and evil. If we are Sunday morning Christians and then go back to the ways of the world on Monday morning, we are of the world not of God’s kingdom. We cannot bring others to the light of Christ if we have lost the ability to do as the old Sunday school song says: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Jesus, and with different words his apostle Paul, tells us that if believers have nothing that distinguishes them from unbelievers, then they are like salt that has lost its saltiness and therefore cannot make a difference. And what distinguishes us from non-believers should be, as Isaiah admonishes, not so much what we claim to be, but the life we live. Jesus instructs his disciples in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have a love for one another.” Jesus told his disciples that love is the distinctive mark by which you can recognize the true Christ follower.

Both salt and light work by operating on the thing to be changed. Salt cannot enhance the food unless it mixes with the food and transforms from within. Light cannot guide the way unless it enters into the darkness. We cannot be salt and light from a distance. The prophet Isaiah gives this instruction to the people of Israel in exile. “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)

Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his disciples to make the world a better place for the children of God to live. Like salt, Jesus’ disciples have the commission to do the good that salt can do – to heal, to cleanse and purify, to preserve and save, to sacrifice for the sake of higher goals than our own acquisitions, and to build relationships with others that enhance the quality of life for each. That’s what we pledge in our baptisms – to be a part of Jesus’ vision to save the world by following the Way of the Savior that God has already revealed to us.

Which, as always, brings us to the table. Here Christ invites us to renew our saltiness so we might go out into the world and preserve, purify, enhance, and share life. It is a chance to plug into our power source so that we might be better conduits of Christ’s light that shines into the dark places in the world.

Amen. May it be so!

 

The information above the uses of salt in biblical times from:

  1. Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C; Longman, Temper III. Eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL, USA, p.752.
  2. Another 12 MinistriesPODCAST. “Unsalty Salt” (Matthew 5:13), June 20, 2022

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501