Friday, February 24, 2017

Still Salty

Clark Retirement Community
February 5, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        Matthew 5:13-16

Thank you for having me here today.  It is a joy to be with you.  I must confess, though, that when I scheduled this day I did not realize that it was Super Bowl Sunday.  My apologies to you for your missing this hour of pre-game analysis – one of thirty-six hours I think.
However, it is a wonderful serendipity that the lectionary Scripture reading for today is about salt. What better topic on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the best snacking days of the year, than salt.  Of course, we know that salt is both an essential part of the human diet, and that our society easily overdoses on it.  Today, I am sure, is a big salt overdose day.
I don’t think Jesus was a nutritionist, however, and his use of the imagery of salt was unfailingly positive, and it is that image that I want to explore with you this afternoon.  My hope is to offer some new life to this passage of Scripture that we have heard so often.  I am humbled to try and do that among some who have preached on this passage a number of times yourselves. I guess you could say that I want to take this passage about salt and shake it up a bit!
“Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history,” this from Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History.  The psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, who wrote a three-volume biography of Freud, also wrote an essay on salt in 1912.  “In all ages salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding that inherent in its natural properties, interesting and important as these are.  Homer calls it a divine substance.  Plato describes it as especially dear to the Gods” (Kurlansky, 2-3).  Jesus is not alone in using salt as a positive image.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  To dig a little deeper into what this might mean we can explore more broadly the uses of salt.  I want to be careful here, though.  According to the salt industry, salt has some 14,000 uses (5).  I don’t want you to miss the entire Super Bowl.  So let me focus on four uses for salt and relate them back to the idea that we are the salt of the earth.
Salt adds flavor, it affects taste, it seasons.  This may be among our favorite uses for salt.  We know the difference when we taste something that we once ate with salt, but are now using the non-salt version.  To be sure, we can become quite uninspired in our cooking and eating if we rely too much on salt, and too much salt can ruin flavor, but there are somethings that simply seem just a little better with it – potato chips for instance.  Salt, used well, can also bring out flavors in the food we season.
I like to think that when Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth, he was thinking about this.  Eugene Peterson, in his rendering of The Bible, The Message translates Jesus words this way.  “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”  Jesus invites us to help bring the best out of others, to point to the places of grace and wonder in our world.  That’s part of what it means to be salt.
Salt is a preservative.  “Until modern times it provided the principle way to preserve food” (Kurlansky, 6).  Salt is not only used to preserve food, but the Egyptians used salt in the mummification process.  Salt keeps food for the future.  Salt prevents spoilage and decay.
Perhaps Jesus was also thinking about this when he called us the salt of the earth.  I think it is what people mean when they refer to someone as a “salt of the earth” type.  If we are called to bring out the God-flavors of this earth, to bring out the best in others, to point to places of grace and wonder, we are also called to help preserve grace and goodness where they are found.  This is not always easy.
      As human beings, we have a tendency to take things for granted.  We easily neglect the wonder and beauty and grace of our closest relationships.  Perhaps we even take for granted the good gift of life in ourselves, the powers we have and can develop.  We may take for granted that the church will always be there for me, even if I don’t help it along much, until it closes its doors.  I am sometimes concerned that we, Americans, take for granted the precious achievement that is our political system.  Whatever one may think of our new president, the fact that power was transferred peacefully from one person to another is a rarer human achievement than we might think.  Preserving institutions that offer opportunities for change, for channeling conflicts, is important to our world.  Preservation work is also a kind of salt work to which Jesus calls us.
I am from Minnesota and even more there than here, salt provides us some traction when the walkways and roadways are slippery.  Just a couple of winters ago, there was real concern in Minnesota when we had a lot of freezing rain and the salt supplies for our highway departments were getting dangerously low.
I would not suggest that Jesus, calling us the salt of the earth, had any idea of salt trucks on freeways.  Yet the idea that salt can keep us steady, keep us from losing our footing, seems an appropriate extension of Jesus image that we are the salt of the earth.  Perhaps one of the gifts we can offer each other is some steadiness along the way.  Perhaps we can help others keep from falling into hopelessness or despair.  We can help others keep moving forward on their journey of faith through our love and kindness and care and prayers.  Salt does its traction work by just being there, and there is a real power in simply being there for others.
Finally, salt blesses.  In both the Jewish and Islamic traditions, salt is used to seal a bargain, to bless an agreement.  Bringing bread and salt into a new home is a long-standing Jewish tradition, dating back to the Middle ages, as a sign of blessing.  The British for centuries carried salt into new homes for a blessing.
You are the salt of the earth.  Surely Jesus, among the things he may have meant using that image, meant that we are to be a blessing to others, that we are to bless the world as we work for justice, peace, reconciliation, kindness, compassion and love, as we share the good news of God’s love.
One final note on the image of salt, a note you might expect from a United Methodist Bishop.  John Wesley spoke of Christian conference, a means of grace in this way: Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?  He also used such phrases in a sermon on “The Repentance of Believers.”  To be the salt of the earth in the Wesleyan way may also mean engaging in conversation in ways that bring out the God-flavors, that preserve what is best, that provide traction for moving forward, that blesses.  In our world where so much gets said and so little gets communicated, perhaps being this kind of salt is among our urgent tasks.
You are the salt of the earth.  I think taking Jesus’ words seriously involves all these various meanings of salt – seasoning or bringing out God-flavors; preserving; providing traction; and blessing.  We might all agree on this, think this is all rather interesting, and now we are ready to move on to our final song, the benediction, and then find a tv for the Super Bowl.
There is something more to be added.  Jesus goes on.  “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  “If,” that tiny word, is quite a big word here.  “If” - - - salt does not have to lose its saltiness, and that’s also part of the challenge of Jesus’ words to us.  We are invited to still be salty all of our lives.
You are invited to still be salty.  You may be retired, you are called to still be salty.  You may be a retired clergy person, you are called to still be salty.  In fact, our salty faith can be a cornerstone in helping us navigate the various seasons of our lives.
Retirement can be a difficult season to navigate.  At my first Council of Bishops meeting I was asked to convene one of the covenant groups to which all the bishops are assigned. These are meant to be communities of support, care and prayer.  One of the bishops in my group shared about the challenge of getting to a new place in his life post-retirement.  When he retired, he found some new roles, some new tasks.  He worked with some institutions of higher education, but now these post-retirement commitments were coming to an end, and he was feeling a little bit lost.  It is something many experience.  I hope our group can be salt for him, helping him find his own saltiness again, but that’s what God would want for him – finding new ways to still be salty.
The call to still be salty is there even as our bodies change.  Three summers ago, the United Methodist churches in Duluth, MN decided to come together to field one softball team in the local church league.  I wanted to play, and signed up.  It had been twenty-five years since I last played church-league softball.  Running the bases on a cold evening in our third game that year, my quad muscles – the muscles on the front of my thighs, tightened something awful.  Part of the problem was the baseball shoes I was wearing, they had very little padding, and after twenty-five years, I needed more comfortable shoes.  I also needed to stretch out more than I needed to twenty-five years earlier.  Our bodies change and age, and we have to do some things differently.  Still we are called to be salty in whatever ways we can.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste….  Yet it does not have to.  Jesus call to be salty is an invitation that never leaves us.  It is part of the grace of God in our lives that opportunities to be salty are always there. There are always ways we can bring out the God-flavors in the world, there are always ways we can help preserve goodness in the world, there are always ways we can help others from slip-sliding away, there are always ways we can bless others.  No matter our age or stage of life, we are still salty and we are still light.
Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Jesus’ words:  Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth….  You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.  I don’t think that call ever ends, though our response changes over time.  I don’t think that invitation is ever withdrawn, though how we RSVP changes over time.
Be still salty, and if you need some more ideas about how, I invite you to hear this poem I read just this week.

What We Need    (David Budbill, The Sun, February 2017)

The Emperor,
his bullies
and henchmen,
terrorize the world
every day.

which is why
every day

we need

a little poem
of kindness,

a small song
of peace,

a brief moment
of joy.

To stay salty requires a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, brief moments of joy.  May we hear them.  To be salty can mean that we are for others a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, a brief moment of joy. 

Stay salty my friends.  Amen.

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