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Monday, March 16, 2020

The Hope and Help of Salt

Matthew 5:1-20
Have you checked out the variety of salts called for in recipes and available in the cooking aisle of the grocery store these days? There are easily a dozen different kinds of salt called for in various recipes and found in the store.
When I was growing up and learning to cook there was only one kind of salt in our cabinet or on our table: Morton’s Iodized Salt.
It came in a round blue cardboard canister with the picture of a little girl in a yellow dress, walking under an open umbrella with a canister of the salt tucked under her arm, but trailing a bit of the salt on the ground behind her.
Early on I learned – the hard way – that the amount of salt used in a recipe matters a great deal, for too little or too much of the stuff could ruin a dish.
Take for example chocolate cookies – a little salt brings out the sweetness in the chocolate and other ingredients in the cookie, but if you confuse the teaspoon called for in a recipe with a tablespoon of the stuff, well, let’s just say no one is going to want to eat your batch of America’s favorite cookie. How do I know this? Well, I’ll leave you in suspense on that one.
So, what is it with all these salts of varying shape, size and colors?
We can agree that in the kitchen, there's no ingredient more important than salt.  Aside from being one of the five basic tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami), salt has properties that release food molecules into the air, giving food an aroma - an integral part of taste.
Salt enhances the taste of food, and that's all we really need to know. Simple. Right? Well...
Salt also highlights and suppresses the different flavors we perceive in our food. In small amounts, various kinds of salt curb bitterness, but enhance sweet, sour and umami, giving our recipes more complex and multi-layered flavors popular today. Hence, the variety you can buy, which includes table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, black Hawaiian salt, red Hawaiian salt, gray Celtic sea salt, brown smoked salt, flake salt, and so on, may be used depending on the effect you desire and the food being used.
Jesus addresses a large crowd of people from various backgrounds and places. Matthew tells us in the gospel verses just before these that Jesus has been traveling throughout Galilee, preaching, teaching, curing every disease and sickness from among the people. As he did so his fame increased and spread so that people began traveling great distances from throughout the region of Syria, Jerusalem, Judea and even the Decapolis, and the region beyond the Jordan, bringing those tormented by every disease and affliction to be healed by him.
When Jesus looks out from the mountain that day, he looks upon a vast number of faces looking back at him with hope and expectation and even desperation.
He begins with those words that make up what we call the Beatitudes – the “Blessed are” sayings. Jesus describes those who come seeking help and hope – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he begins – and then names others who the world sees as worthless and powerless, but whom God sees as beloved and blessed – for instance, those who mourn all manner of losses in their lives – loss of loved ones, loss of hope for the future, loss of financial security or livelihood, loss of freedom and autonomy, loss of safety and security. Blessed are the meek, Jesus goes on, blessed are those hungering and seeking for justice, those who are merciful, pure in heart, and the peacemakers.
Jesus empowers all those who hear him. In his eyes they are not unfortunate, abandoned by God and despised people, but blessed, beloved of God and precious in his sight. The people within hearing distance hear these words applied to them.
Jesus lifts up those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and justice, and for his sake, promising them that their work is kingdom work, and they have a place in that kingdom. Jesus came into the world for those such as these.
There on the mountain, that place perceived as closest to God, Jesus tells them who and what they are because of God’s love and determination poured out on them for the sake of the world.
They are salt. Jesus doesn’t say that they will become salt, but that God has already made them salt – essential, life-giving, flavorful and immensely valuable.
Until a hundred or so years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human existence – not plentiful and in such wide varieties as it is today.
Ancients used salt to ward off evil spirits, cleanse wounds and cure illnesses, and even as payment for services and barter for goods. The salt with which Roman soldiers were sometimes paid gives us the origin of our word “salary”.
Covenants, even religious ones, were sealed with salt and salt was used for everything from rubbing on the body to increase fertility, to domesticating animals, to preserving food.
Everyone knew the high value of salt, and the indispensable commodity it was, essential for life, highly valued and precious. For Jesus to tell them that they are that precious to God, and that essential to the work of God’s kingdom, must have astonished them. Jesus conferred on those who did not consider themselves valuable great value then – and he still does this today.
As we read these words, know this, my friends - Jesus was talking about us here, too. As the people gathered around Jesus that day are the salt of the earth, we, lovers and followers of Jesus are the salt of the earth today.
We are salt by God’s doing and for the sake of Jesus – for the sake of the kingdom he is bringing into the world.
Even those, who aren’t valued by the society around them, who therefore don’t consider themselves at all valuable, are loved and cherished by God, uniquely gifted to bless the world and bring out the best in God’s kingdom, to the delight of our maker.
As salt for Jesus’ sake, we are precious in God’s eyes, just as salt is precious in everyday life. We are indispensable to the life of the world and are highly valued by God. As the salt of the earth we can change the flavor of life for those we encounter.
What we do will enhance, improve, and even save the lives of those others who are not valued by the world, but who are loved and blessed just the same by God.
Keeping our essential saltiness is therefore vitally important, and Jesus will tells us how we can do that. Following Jesus by keeping the commandments is a crucial part of keeping salty, even in the face of rejection, persecution, and abandonment by the structures of culture and society (and in the following verses and chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will expound on what that means, how to go deeper when seeking the guidance of the commandments – they offer more than what you think).
Jesus then uses another metaphor to drive home how you affect the world through your daily interactions and life: you are the light of the world, a light that should not be hidden but should shine for all the world to see.
Light breaks into the darkness, disrupts it, and weakens its power to produce fear. Light changes the reality of those who live in darkness and brings bountiful hope with it. As salt increases and enhances flavor, light brings out the color in things. No longer is everything black or white or gray but an infinite variety of shades and hues and colors once light shines upon the world.
            Salt and light do their best work when they are poured out and scattered broadly about – not, perhaps, as the Morton Salt girl poured salt out willy-nilly from a broken canister but poured out just the same. As a light does no good hidden beneath a basket or in a sealed box, salt does no good if it is kept in a salt box or jar or canister. It must be used, it must be shared, it must be poured and mixed into the world.
            The poor and the grieving, the sick and rejected ones, the persecuted, hungry, and oppressed ones, the crippled and frightened and seeking ones, the outcast, desperate and demon-possessed ones, all named by Jesus, still fill our world.
What do they look like today? Who are they?  They yearn for life as did all those people who followed Jesus and crowded around him, eager, desperate for the good news.
Sometimes we are those people. Certainly, we see them and encounter them on the street, in our homes and businesses, in our communities and schools. Our prisons and hospitals are running over with them. We are salt and light to them.
They are the children who are cast aside, rejected by their peers, starving for a chance in life, defined by their poverty and circumstances. They are our elderly poor who lack the means of accessing the kinds of help they need, who are left lonely, and isolated.
They are the families and children who travel hundreds of miles and halfway around the world, desperately seeking safety, a better life, a future, only to be turned away. They are the farmers whose situations have become so desperate and hopeless that suicide rates among their group have skyrocketed in recent years. They are the addicted, the abused, the mentally ill, the homeless. They are veterans who faithfully served our country in war and are haunted by their experiences and memories, who do not receive the kind of assistance they deserve.
It would be easy to run and hide when faced with all the pain in the world, to keep the good news of Jesus’ love and mercy, forgiveness and grace all to ourselves. But then our salt would be useless, wasted, and the world would be worse for it.
            Disciples of Jesus are salt and light for just such as these, Jesus tells us. God calls on us to flavor their world, to shine light in the darkness as conduits of God’s righteousness, and signposts to the glory of God.
            May we, each and every day, strive to be the kind of salt Jesus needs us to be. May we shine brightly with death-dispersing light. Depending on Jesus’ righteousness, may we humbly serve all God’s blessed ones.

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