This sermon was preached by Rev Sue. You can read it again here:
Salt has a bad press these days. We are constantly being warned not to eat too much, because it is present in so many foods from bread to cornflakes and we don’t realise how much we eat. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure. But too little salt is also dangerous, because every cell in the body needs salt to operate. Wild animals seek out salt licks, places that have natural deposits of the essential mineral, and in prehistoric times humans followed the paths the animals had used and built settlements nearby. These settlements became cities and then nations. Salt was mined and traded. It was a scarce and expensive commodity and its value was legendary. To sit above or below the salt identified precedence in the seating arrangements at a feast, according to one’s rank. Not to be worth one’s salt was a great insult. The word salary comes from the same root as salt, and stems from the pay of the Roman army, partly used to buy their salt ration. Salt was often used as money, and was desperately coveted, hoarded, searched for, traded, and even fought over. Fast forward to eighteenth century France – one of the causes of the French Revolution was the much-hated salt tax, which made salt cripplingly expensive for poor people. And let’s be honest, it is absolutely essential on chips.
So, to be compared with salt is a definite compliment. The phrase taken from the reading ‘The salt of the earth’ has become proverbial. Here’s an example: it’s used as the title of a song by The Rolling Stones:
‘Let’s drink to the hard-working people,
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth,
Raise your glass to the good and the evil.
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.’
I’m not sure about the bit about evil, but you get the general drift. Hard working, humble people are ‘the salt of the earth.’ But that usage has come some way from what Jesus was referring to in today’s gospel. He uses the familiar image of salt to convey a challenging truth, telling his followers that they are to be salt of the earth. Their message and witness are as essential to the world as salt is to food.
The idea of salt losing its taste is quite puzzling. It is the mineral sodium chloride and it stays the same for thousands of years. There is the wonderful example you may have heard about. A carton labelled 250-million-year-old Himalayan salt was stamped with a best before date of 2022. No, salt is salt and cannot decay or go stale. But in Palestine most salt was formed by evaporation from the Dead Sea, and contained many impurities. If it was allowed to get damp, the actual salt would dissolve and leach away, and only the worthless, tasteless impurities would be left.
Jesus was telling us that we are that precious, commodity necessary for life itself, and we must guard ourselves from becoming stale and ineffective. So, that gives us two questions to answer. In what ways are we salt, and how can we prevent ourselves from losing our distinctive flavour.
It’s a good practice to spend a few minutes in prayer each morning, bringing before God your plans for the day, the people you will meet, both the ones that you intend to see and the ones that you may come across unexpectedly. In every encounter there will be at least three, you, the other person and the Spirit of God. Your task is to let God’s Spirit work in you and between you. Let’s look at some examples of what that might look like in practice.
As you walk along the street you encounter a person begging. What do you do? Most people prefer not to give money, and you might or might not offer to buy him a cup of tea. But what you can always do is to look him in the eye and smile. I used to be embarrassed about doing that, because I was refusing the money he was asking for, but I find that to just say “sorry” with a smile usually gets the response “Have a nice Day”. You have treated that person as a human being, and every person who does that helps him recover just a little of his self-respect. You have been one of those grains of salt necessary for him to begin to flourish.
How we treat the despised in our society is a measure of humanity, but very often the real tests come nearer to home. You are a fortunate person, indeed if none of your closest relatives cause you problems, pain or at the very least irritation. We watch them making the mistakes we knew would happen, and experience their inconsiderate habits. Or we are subject to their unjustified criticism or unfair outbursts. These are surely the hardest relationships of all to behave as representatives of Christ. Avoiding being a doormat on the one hand without resorting to using a sharp tongue, or responding with generosity without being taken advantage of, are surely some of the hardest things we ever do. And we have a constant feeling of never getting it right. But God calls us to be his salt in family life, too. I don’t know whether you have read my piece in the magazine about praying for difficult people. I entitled it “Love your enemies” but to be honest it applies equally well to our nearest and dearest. The idea is to pray for yourself and for people who you love in an uncomplicated way first, to put us in the right frame of mind for tackling the person who is causing us discomfort in some way. Try it, on a daily basis if necessary. I find that it helps me to keep a sense of proportion and to maintain goodwill towards those I am struggling with.
Between the unknown beggar and family life lies the whole realm of the people we interact with at work, paid or voluntary, or in our social lives. I wonder, do others recognise the Spirit of God in us? Being a Christian is no easy thing, if others, knowing our faith, judge the church by us. In any group in can be hard to speak out about things we believe in, refusing to let a comment which could be construed as racist pass, or pointing out that a workplace practice is unethical. Someone said to me the other day that she became a Christian as a teenager when a friend told her how much her faith had helped her when she had had to cope with her grief after the death of her mother. Until then my friend hadn’t known that God is for every day, not just for Sundays. He is interested in every aspect of our life, and cares deeply about everything that matters to us. And our side of the bargain is to let him into the everyday, mundane relationships and tasks. And there will be no retirement date. I have met many frail and elderly people who leave me feeling blessed when I have spoken with them. They are the ones who make the routines of their care workers feel worthwhile, who brighten up any care home, hospital ward or hospice where they find themselves. I pray that when my day comes, I may have learnt from their patience, gratitude and goodwill for those around them.
So how do we maintain our saltiness, our enthusiasm for God, our courage to speak out and our determination to love the difficult people in our lives? I have already spoken of prayer, and that is always, in one form or another, my first port of call. There will be as many answers, though, as there are people in the room. Everyone’s life needs to be a balance between giving and receiving and between work and play. What makes your heart sing? Is it nature, your garden, country walks or holidays? Or perhaps art or music is more your thing? Or are there people who lift your spirits? Make sure that you have time in your life for the things you love, and give thanks and praise to God for them. Make sure that you get plenty of rest and look after yourself – if you are tired and weary it is so easy to become jaded and uninspired. Don’t let the savour leave your life.
Next time you enjoy a plate of chips or reach for that salt cellar, remember – you, too, are a valued commodity, and the world wouldn’t be the same without you.