Sermon: Fourth Sunday before Lent, 5 February 2017, St John the Divine

Readings  Isaiah 58.1-9, 1 Corinthians 2.1-12, Matthew 5.13-20

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

The symbol of salt has a bewildering range of allusions in the Bible. Salt destroys and salt preserves.  We read in the Book of Judges that King Abimelech used it as a weapon of war when he ‘sowed salt’ in the ruins of Shechem, so that nothing would be able to grow there.   Lot’s unfortunate wife turned to a pillar of salt on the road from Sodom – and she’s still there!  I’ve seen her! – well, if I am to accept the words of the tour guide who drove us through the Jordanian desert a few years back.  Salt purifies. Elijah throws salt into a poisoned spring (II Kings) and at once its water is clean. Did you know the holy water in the stoup has a few grains of salt in it as well, for purification?  Salt brings out the taste of a dish.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever eaten something called purslane, but I guess we must take poor old Job’s word for it (ch.6) when he says ‘the slime of the purslane’ (apparently an otherwise highly nutritious leafy plant) is inedible without it.  Salt heals, and is an antiseptic.  Salt is also associated with God’s bond with his people. The salt with which offerings are to be seasoned is ‘the salt of the covenant’, according to Leviticus.  St Paul, whose own words were anything but bland, tells the Colossians and, by extension, us, too, to ensure that our conversations are ‘seasoned with salt’, a timely reminder in these days of political fragmentation with so many people trying to out-shout each other.

Salt today is used for all sorts of purposes: yes, cooking/seasoning, but also for putting in the dishwasher, or preventing ice forming on the roads.  Back in the time of Jesus, it was also a metaphor for eating together, and it was associated with unbreakable bonds.  It was also, symbolically, a sign of purity, and physically, an element in sacrifices.  Roman soldiers were paid either an allowance to purchase salt or were paid for guarding the salt roads to Rome; scholars vary on this, but either way they received a salary; that’s where the word originates.  For humans, salt is a two-edged sword.  You must have some in order to survive, but too much can be lethal.  Isn’t the experts’ daily recommendation about 6g a day?

Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ And these many associations I’ve just outlined have led people to speculate on what he might have meant by that from many different angles.  Are we called to preserve Christ’s teaching? Are we to consecrate ourselves as holy to the Lord? Are we to be a salve for the wounds of the world?  In the text as we have it, though, Jesus refers only to the taste of salt and not to its other properties. And in this lies a puzzle, because any chemist will tell you that salt is salt.  Its taste is one of its essential properties and it cannot, by definition, lose its savour. 

So what might Jesus mean by suggesting that salt can lose its saltiness?  Some have proposed that whilst salt is indeed always salt, it can corrode and it can become so contaminated by other substances that it ceases to be useful; it may have so many foreign bodies in it that you want to throw it away.  Does Jesus mean that his followers should keep themselves separate from contaminating elements? Separate from the world with all its confusions and complications and compromises, or they risk losing their essential identity?  Well, kept separate, salt cannot do its job – in fact it is literally unpalatable. 

So perhaps Jesus is saying here that disciples all concentrated together on internal matters and not focusing on their role in the wider world are likely to be pretty toxic. A salutary warning for any religious institution.  Even if this is not what Jesus meant, I guess many of us have experience of what happens when we turn in on each other, fighting over things to which we attach huge importance, whilst losing sight of God’s bigger vision for the whole earth, this world where people die in their hundreds of thousands of malnutrition; where people live in the ruins and dangers of war zones and under regimes of terror; where whole environments and species face devastation because of human exploitation… If we were really being salt, would we not be known for our radical interventions to tackle these ills?  Is it not when we retreat from political and social realities that we lose our essential identity, becoming bland and useless?

For if we look back only a few verses in Matthew’s gospel, it is the expansive horizon of God’s compassion and justice that is laid out before us in the words of the Beatitudes.  The word used is blessed, (or, in the Greek happy), but perhaps we could also say, like salt are the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; like salt are the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for seeking justice?  We are not likely to be persecuted if we keep to ourselves.  We are more likely to be ignored; the seasoning we might bring, remaining untasted.

Yet, even if this version of what Jesus was saying appeals to us: ‘don’t get bogged down in the minutiae, concentrate on the big picture’; ‘don’t huddle together, be engaged in the life of the world…’ there is still a problem with his words.  For we all know that even if salt cannot cease to be salty, a Christian presence doesn’t necessarily promote peace.  In fact, sometimes Christians are at the heart of the problem, and I think we are aware of the pain of our fractured and often destructive common history and present.  In this past week, we have been made all too aware, yet again, of still more institutional abuse and misuse of power and influence in the Church.

Maybe this is why Jesus can say to his followers: You are salt (and remember salt doesn’t lose its saltiness), but if you keep yourself separate, or if you lose your essential character and purpose, you are good for nothing.  Jesus, of all people, recognised the fallibility of his disciples and of all human beings… what impossible standard was he setting for us, only to see us fail, whether in the Palestine of his day, or in Richmond today, or in the Church of England, or in Europe, the USA, Syria, or in today’s Holy Land?  What use are these words of Jesus to us?  I have two thoughts.

The first comes from the logic of St Paul who is always saying to his flawed new converts:  You are God’s people, become who you are.  It’s an appeal to us to claim our deep identity and to live it well. ‘You are salt; be salt for the sake of peace, justice, truth and the health of the planet. And the second thought comes from the letter of Peter:  ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…. ‘A holy nation.’  Again, the temptation here is to think about separateness.  Yet holiness is not about setting ourselves apart from others, or about being ‘holier than thou’.  Rather, it is about being conformed to the character of the God whose nature we encounter in Jesus.  Imagine a world seasoned with people who are not afraid to speak out for truth, justice and peace in the name of God, and unafraid to be merciful to others, rather than demonising or condemning them.  And then imagine a world without.  Jesus tells his disciples their faith is not just – not even primarily – about themselves, but about their participation in the life of God in the world. 

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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