Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 5, 2023

Matthew 5:13-20

When I was seven years old, I spent a week in the hospital because of pneumonia. For the most part, this was a great vacation. People paying a lot of attention to me – bringing my meals on a tray – my parents visiting and bringing coloring books.

For the first couple of days in the hospital I had a roommate. He was an old guy and we hit it off from the start. He was a retired sea captain, or so he said. Someone had brought him a bag of candy bars and he wasn’t going to eat those, so he gave them to me. At night he regaled me with tales of the sea. I told him jokes that he pretended to find hilarious.

Then on around the third day the nurses put me in a different room. I asked why they were moving me away from my pal. One of them said, “His language is too salty for a young boy.”

I had not noticed anything unusual about his language, other than he was a colorful speaker and a good storyteller. That was just the way some grownups talked. The nurses let me play with a wheelchair, so I managed to wheel down the hallway and visit my old pal. And after a few more days I was well enough to go home.

“Too salty;” It was the first time that anyone was ever concerned about the salt in my diet.

When Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was talking about a valuable item. Salt was difficult to come by and pure salt was a rarity. They had little idea of salt as too much of a good thing.

In describing the desired qualities that he was looking for, Jesus could have said, “Here’s a list of the top ten good practices expected of my followers.”

Instead he used metaphors – implied comparisons. The law of Moses was straight prose. All one had to do was to follow it. Do these ten things and God is pleased. It’s easy for religion to become like a recipe to be followed – you put these ingredients together and follow this recipe for a perfect outcome.

But by using metaphors such as “salt of the earth” or “light of the world” Jesus is inviting his followers to think about their sense of character and integrity, their place in the world and how they relate to the world around them. Salt and light are qualities that come from within.

Salt has become like so many things in our lives, in the sense of too much of a good thing. When Jesus talked about salt, people were not concerned about there being too much of it in their diet. Traditionally, salt is great for preserving food; it enhances the texture of bread, it enhances flavor, it’s a binding agent and sodium is needed to conduct nerve impulses, to help muscles relax and contract and for the proper balance of minerals and water in the body.

The end result of salt is greater than sum of its parts. A little bit goes a long way. The salt of the earth is who you are. Be that – not too much and not too little. Just enough.

At certain times in history salt has been worth its weight in gold. Sometimes governments thought it would be a good idea to place a tax on salt. A commodity that everyone wants and is willing to pay for – so why not create a revenue stream by taxing it? A salt tax was a contributing factor in the French Revolution. Mahatma Ghandi organized mass protests against the salt tax in India which led to the Indian Revolution.

When you go to the grocery store the salt on the shelf costs pennies. Salt producers market it in ways to convince us to spend more money on it.

Fine Crystal Sea Salt

Coarse Crystal Sea Salt

Himalayan Pink Salt

Maldon Sea Salt

Cornish Sea Salt

Hebridean Sea Salt Peat Smoked

Geo Organics Atlantic Sea Salt

Emperors from long ago would be astounded by the wealth of salt displayed on the average grocery store shelf.

When we think about who we are, either as individuals or as a church community, if Jesus said we are the “salt of the earth” then that implies we have some mission or purpose. But a lot of what we do is not about seeking publicity for our efforts. We’re not out there patting ourselves on the back, reminding people what a great job we are doing for them.

Like salt, if we are doing our job, we won’t be much noticed. But the effects of what we do are profound and life enhancing.

In thinking about significant or life changing moments I go back to when I was in seminary. I’ve told this story before, but I hope it bears repeating.

I was attending a neighborhood church where the people were friendly and warm hearted. Among the small groups in this church was a men’s fellowship group. Once every month they would go and serve a meal at a homeless shelter in St. Paul – a place called “The Union Gospel Mission.”

Feeding the hungry would seem like the kind of thing that Jesus would do; an act of Christian charity and compassion. But like many things related to Jesus, somewhere between the intent of the gospel and the way the church acts it out, a few changes were made. We might think of these as an alteration to the original recipe, by adding too much salt.

The men of the church asked me to go with them to the Union Gospel Mission and “do the program.” I was in seminary, so this would be an opportunity to practice the gospel. The program was based on a simple formula. The formula being, “there’s no such thing as a free meal.”

The night I went along was a cold winter night in the month of February. People started to gather in the shelter around supper time. The place was crowded with mostly men. The formula was that in order to get to the free meal, they had to sit through a chance at redemption. First the attempt to save their souls, which might lead them to more productive lives, then they could eat.

I got up in front of this group of people who were waiting to eat. You could smell the food waiting to be served and hear the clatter of people working back in the kitchen. My job was to say something about Jesus and their souls. They were thinking about their physical hunger.  

I preached a sermon about how Jesus could save them, and I played a tune or two on the harmonica. A few prayers were said and then the meal was served. The people whose souls I had tried to save lined up for their meal. The men of the church and I hung around in case, “anybody needed to talk.” I went along the line and tried to greet people. Most were polite, in a “you did your job, now get lost,” sort of way.

I remember one fellow, an older man. He was a bit frayed around the edges; there was an air about him as if the Union Gospel Mission on a cold winter’s night was the last place he ever expected to be. When I greeted him with an outstretched hand, he returned my well-meaning gesture with a withering glare.

I thought about it afterward. Why would he respond that way? It seemed fairly apparent. In order for him to eat that night, he had to sit through my little salvation talk. In my ignorance, I had expected gratitude. Instead, I received a more authentic reaction – scorn.

That started me thinking differently about the nature of what it means to serve someone in the name of Jesus. I never went back to the Union Gospel Mission. I never wanted to again be the reason why someone had to wait in order to eat. I never again wanted to serve as a barrier between someone and the light of God.

The salt that we are comes into the world when we act in ways that enlarge the realms of love and justice; when we share another’s pain or offer comfort to a friend in need; when we treat our neighbors with respect; when we try to overcome differences with understanding and solve conflict with peaceful means; when we look for the good in other people and in ourselves; when we do not stay quiet in the face of prejudice, but speak our minds with firm conviction; when we work against despair and side with hope; when we use our powers justly and in the service of love for humanity.

Jesus described himself in many ways. He said “I am” many things – the way, truth and life; bread of life, living water, the vine, the good shepherd. All descriptions that tell us something about himself. But you, he said, you are the salt of the earth. Not too salty, but just enough. Be that. Amen.

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