A Sermon for the Salted and Unsalted

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Augustana Lutheran Church
5 February 2017 + Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 5A)
Matthew 5.13-20


Now with video!


rhyjdghe-4pdYou are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth! It’s almost impossible not to break into a song from Godspell when you hear these words. (It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?)

But for as peppy as Stephen Schwartz’s musical setting of the fifth chapter of Matthew is, I’ve also found myself asking: What happens when we don’t feel very much like the salt of the earth and the light of the world? What happens in those moments when we do indeed lose our saltiness?

I don’t think it’s much of stretch to call to mind those moments when we’re simply not feeling it, whatever “it” is: our jobs, our volunteering, our protesting, even our church-going. So when Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” I suspect there are times when it’s easier to simply throw up our arms in despair or surrender.

Then there’s the metaphor of salt itself. Sort of an unusual choice for Jesus to pull out of thin air, isn’t it? The uses for the ubiquitous condiment that I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have in our kitchen cupboards are many. In fact, by one count, there are over 14,000 uses for salt, or so says Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History. Salt, too, he writes, even has ties to major events of world history—from the salt tax that inspired Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence to a salt shortage that helped fuel the American Revolution.

Salt, despite doctors’ and dietitians’ warnings, is also crucial for the human body to propel oxygen through our blood. Quite frankly, we simply cannot live without it. Likewise, a good chef will tell you that salt is crucial for cooking, bringing out and enhancing the other seasonings and flavors of a dish.

The ancient world, too, had an understanding of the multiple uses and connotations of salt—from sacrificial rites and a symbol of covenant faithfulness to food preservation and seasoning. Jesus’s saying would have evoked many of these layers of meaning among his listeners.

And yet, I think an equally crucial piece of this simple statement — You are the salt of the earth — is the first word: you. In translation, it’s impossible to notice, but in the original Greek of the New Testament, that you is plural (as in “you all”). And the very fact that the Greek text includes the pronoun itself is emphatic: Y’ALL are the salt of the earth.

Grammatical nuance taken together with all these layers of meaning, this passage might be rendered something like: You are all salt for each other, enhancing one another’s being, including and especially when you don’t feel very salty yourself. You are salt for each other when you carry one another’s burdens, tangibly reminding each other of God’s covenantal love for all people.

This back-and-forth of seasoning and being seasoned is part of the life of faith. Indeed, it goes without saying that life itself is full of ups and downs. Life is very rarely lived in a straight, uneventful line from point A to point B, but it probably looks a little more…chaotic. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—but quite the opposite.

In her latest book, Lesley Hazleton poses the question, “What is so very wrong about losing one’s way?” She compares wandering through life to a physical journey or road trip. Sure, there’s a certain sense of security in knowing exactly where you are on your GPS screen, but it also precludes any chance of meandering off the main path. In other words, to avoid the chance of getting lost also eliminates the possibility of adventure or spontaneity. In so doing, Hazleton writes, “you leave no room for the original meaning of happiness… a variant of ‘hap,’ as in fortune or chance… a matter of openness—to the fortuitous, to the unexpected, to moments of grace.”

Moments we enter feeling less than salty but which we leave having been seasoned, enhanced, carried by another. You are salt for each other.

I’ll admit that the last few months haven’t left me feeling very much like the salt of the earth. The day after the election, we opened our doors at Augustana, offering our sanctuary as a safe space for those who might be feeling scared, angry, and vulnerable with the results.

That day, difficult as it was, seems to have paled in comparison to the past couple weeks of the new administration, where executive orders have threatened the healthcare of millions, the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the safety of our refugee and immigrant populations. I didn’t feel very much like the salt of the earth this past week when one of the ESL teachers here asked me to photocopy some immigration paperwork for her students and I was suddenly confronted by the fact that the administration’s harmful new policy was affecting actual people that I see every day outside my office. It made me feel both angry and powerless.

But also this week, along with Pr. Jan and a handful of other Augustana folks and about 1500 others from across the city, we gathered on Tuesday night in Turner Park for a candlelight vigil to hear firsthand the stories of refugees and the witness of local religious leaders speaking out against unjust immigration policies and reminding us that our faith compels us to welcome the stranger. Peppered throughout the crowd were specks of light, whether from candles or cell phones, shining all the more brightly as the sun set. People literally holding light, being light.

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Candlelight vigil in Turner Park, January 31, 2016 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

It was a life-giving experience to be surrounded by that cloud of witnesses, being light and being salt for each other. And not only for each other but also as a witness for the city, for the country, for the world.

Amidst fearful times that threaten our most vulnerable communities, we hear Jesus’s words of promise that we are the salt of the earth, for the sake of each other, with the capacity to resist.

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