Salt of the Earth, Feb 2020

Salt. I wonder how many times you’ve heard sermons on us as humans being the salt of the earth. I’m hoping and praying that I can provide some new insight that allows you to go home with a new understanding of salt.

We all know that salt can’t actually lose it’s saltiness. That’s its chemical composition. Different impurities will make it taste slightly different, and rock salt is different from sea salt. But by its very nature and crystalline structure, good old hydrated sodium chloride is a salt. 

It is used and was used as a preserve. It is used as a flavour enhancer. So what on earth does Jesus mean when he asks about salt losing its taste? It would have to be leached out of the very thing it is flavouring or preserving. And if say meat was preserved in salt and that salt has leached out, through whatever means, then that meat or whatever is no longer good to eat. It is thrown out. It is worthless.

The New Testament Greek used for ‘losing saltiness’ literally means ‘to become foolish.’ Dull, sluggish, without an edge, to play the fool. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis states: “a thing is wisest when it is most like itself, when it tastes most like itself, in keeping with its nature. It is foolish when it forgets to be what it is, when it no longer has its proper flavour.”

Let’s go back to our two readings from the Hebraic Scriptures. Both readings begin with an acclamation. “Shout out. Do not hold back.” “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.”

Much of the psalm goes on to state what will happen to those who go after God while finishing on a slightly wild, and triumphant and bone-crushing defeat of the wicked. While in Isaiah, we have some rather disparaging comments. Things uttered that aren’t that obvious. 

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? ”Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

So often we read the Bible with a monotone. Thinking we’re reading it with reverence yet missing the nuances in inflexion and tone. [V1 – God musing. V2 – pious questions meet with truth from God. V3 – more facts of how people treat each other. V4 – sarcastic query.]

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
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.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways,
then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

[V5 onwards – God, caring and compassionate pleading with his people.]

Isaiah is wrestling there with what he thinks God is saying to the people. He’s saying their false worship, their false piety, their own determinations of what should be going on, their determination to be seen to work is but foolishness in the eyes of God. 

God wants something different. Then and now. That’s why Jesus speaks of salt and light. Salt enables all that is around it to become more fully and intensely what it was created to be. When Christians are truly themselves, they can help the world remember and grow into its true identity – as something called into being by and for the love of God. 

Easy enough to be said, but what does that really mean? Well, let’s just look at verse 13 again:

“If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways,…”

This verse isn’t about going for a long walk, and doing in your own thing. It’s about judgement or being judgemental, self-righteousness, self-pity. One’s own interests.

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 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.”

Paul Swann states: “When identity is defined by performance, we can be driven beyond our capacity or left feeling worthless.” We’ve lost our saltiness. We eventually find, as Thomas Merton once wrote, “we spend our whole lives climbing the ladder only to reach the top and find it was leaning against the wrong wall.”

Our culture places such a high premium on what other people think that we can become popularity addicts. We must learn to spot when we find the slightest praise causes us to soar and criticism causes us to sink. But how do we grow into our true identity? We need to work together, to come together, to be vulnerable with each other. To trust one another, to be able to discuss openly and honestly things we might think are criticisms but realise that  actually this is the best way forward.

The struggle is not about repression, oppression and suppression. It’s not about not allowing these thoughts to come to the surface. But it’s about taking each thought of hurt, criticism and so on and looking at it, unpicking it, and allowing God to heal us of those wounds. It’s about returning to God over and over and over, focussing on Him so that in the end we become grounded in His love.

When Christians are truly themselves, they can help the world remember and grow into its true identity – as something called into being by and for the love of God. We become salt.

Paul Swann also writes: “Dying to our false self and allowing our true self to emerge is frightening. Anything that takes us beyond our known circle of comfort brings fear and stress. The temptation is to withdraw into what we know. But the reward for pushing on though will be to enlarge our zone of comfort. We will learn new skills, feel new emotions, try new ways of being and praying. We can discover that it is all right to receive a compliment; that to say no will not bring an end to all life as we know it; that to admit weakness does not make the roof fall in; or that to engage with conflict does not lead to the destruction of friendship.”

The psalmist, Isaiah and Jesus warn us about locating our identity in the wrong places. The encouragement to self-awareness, enlightenment, and allowing God to love us, leads us to recovering our core identity. “Be yourself: everybody else is already taken.” All we need is through our core identity with God. We can serve others without the need for affirmation. Without giving ourselves a pat on the back. 

Because if we do need that affirmation, or see that we have achieved so much in comparison to others, it either raises ourselves up to heights of lofty grandeur or pushes us down into misery. Neither of these is what God wants. In neither of these places is our core identity found. 

There is actually great freedom in discovering this core identity. The freedom, dare I say, that I am discovering in my curacy. That I am not beholden to any particular person or group of people, but to God. In Him is my core identity. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get things wrong, but it does mean that I can sit with Him and work through those things together. Serving freely is life-giving rather than life-sapping. Free from needing it to be all about you. You can begin to find, as Jesus did, what it means for the Father’s love to come alive in you. To be the salt of the world. 

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