The last Thursday of every month, I prepare a meal at St. Christopher’s. Now I’ve done enough cooking to know that folks aren’t always shy about giving a little feedback after they finish their meal. Last week I prepared a Mexican chicken soup with sausage, bits of tomato, cabbage, onions, pasta and zucchini. I liked it when I got done, but that’s no guarantee that my “stoop”—which is what I call a hearty soup that’s almost a stew—would be received enthusiastically. Sure enough, somebody found their way to the kitchen after the meal to give me a critique. To my amazement, the diner told me, “Thank God somebody prepared something with flavor. I can’t stand bland food.” I thanked the man, but I knew there was no secret to my recipe. All I had done was to make sure once the soup was finished to season it. “Seasoning”—in case you don’t cook—is mostly about the salt. Salt, in the right amount, brings out flavor. When the seasoning is right, you don’t taste the salt as much as you taste the flavor of the food. I guess I got the amount right that night.
We think of salt as flavoring, and, to a certain extent, so did the people of Jesus’ time. They knew, as we seem to forget, that salt is absolutely necessary for people to survive. Salt is so essential, the Romans paid their soldiers in salt. The word “salary” has as its origin the Latin word for salt.
Not only is salt essential for life, it also is a preservative. Years ago I took a trip to San Francisco. I took the time to visit Fisherman’s Wharf where I had a chance to see the big ships unloading the fish they’d caught. I was amazed to see the amount of salt caked in the hold of the ships. The ships could transport their catch for thousands of miles because of the amazing properties of salt. Before refrigeration, much of the protein that Europeans and Americans consumed was salted—salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. Salt is amazing and yet so common.
Jesus tells his followers that they are the salt of the earth. Did he mean that they were charged with preserving the earth? Did he mean they were charged with bringing good things out of the world? Or did he mean that they are essentially valuable? I suppose he meant all those things.
But the part of the parable that should give us pause is when he describes what was done in Judea when salt went bad. It was thrown out on to the road to hold down the weeds. It was trodden on by everyone who used the road. It became weed killer and was soon forgotten.
When he says “salt of the earth,” it sounds like he’s talking about the salt that has been thrown out. It doesn’t sound like he’s talking much about seasoning or preserving. It sounds like he’s acknowledging the social and political status of his audience. He’s saying they are disposable people, dispossessed people, people who have been thrown out.
Have you ever wondered why so many people were available to attend Jesus’ sermons? It wasn’t because there were a lot of holidays in those days. It was because there were a lot of homeless people who had been driven off their land by the rich and powerful. They had time on their hands and were willing to use some of that time to listen to Jesus’ message. The fact that he spoke in simple parables drawn from daily life, the fact that those parables spoke directly to their desperate condition, accounts for his following and for the fact that his following was a threat to both Roman and Jewish authorities.
I don’t imagine Jesus’ ministry would have lasted as long as it did if it hadn’t taken place far from the centers of power. The Galilee was the boondocks in Jesus’ time. Nobody bragged about being from the Galilee. Once Jesus took his ministry to the center of power, once he began preaching in Jerusalem, it took the authorities very little time to silence him. His message was tossed out—like so much salt that had gone bad.
People are still being tossed out for that message. There are parts of the world where Christians are being martyred right now, in our time. Does that mean we should hunker down, keep to ourselves and avoid danger?
Jesus goes on to talk about the light of the world and what we’re expected to do with that light. We’re not supposed to duck and cover. We’re supposed to raise high our torches and to make our faith as unavoidable as a shining city on the hill. Sounds great. But it comes with risk.
Next Sunday, I will be presenting to this congregation a portrait of a hero of mine—the Reverend Absalom Jones—the first African American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones was born sometime in the 1740s in Delaware. A slave born to slaves, he was separated from his family and taken to Philadelphia where he managed to obtain an education. About the time of the American revolution, he performed the revolutionary act of earning his wife’s freedom and his own freedom. It was then he joined forces with Richard Allen to create some of the first African American congregations in the New World.
They had tried worshipping with white congregations but were told to keep to the back. They did not. They left and founded their own churches.
While both could have hunkered down—or to use Jesus’ expression—hid their light under a barrel. They stepped forth into the world and gave their witness to the world. They ruffled feathers in the city of Philadelphia. And remember, this was during a time when slave catchers frequently kidnapped emancipated Africans and took them further south to sell them back into slavery. Fighting back was risky, often fatal.
But I’m here to tell you that though Absalom Jones was a revolutionary, he did not rebel against the law as outlined in the Bible and taught by Jesus. In the passage we just read, Jesus explains that his is a particular kind of revolution, one that is designed to change the world by fulfilling the law and the teachings of the prophets. He’s saying to his followers, what I am teaching you is not something of my own invention, it comes from the Father, lives in the law, and was born witness by the Prophets.
We just observed Martin Luther King Day. Doctor King’s career very much conformed to the contours of the career of Absalom Jones. He shook things up, as Jesus shook things up. He did not hide his light from anyone nor did he teach some novel form of Christianity. When he preached, he preached from the Prophets. “Let justice flow on like waters,” he shouted to his congregation, “And righteousness like a mighty stream.” No doubt Absalom Jones would have smiled to hear the Prophet Amos invoked in the land he helped to transform. No doubt Jesus smiled to hear the prophet’s word resonating with the world some two thousand years after his crucifixion.
But the question for us is: do those words resonate for us? Do we feel cast out? As a congregation of gay, lesbian and transgender people, haven’t we been cast out like so much worthless salt? Without asking for a show of hands, I know that many among us came out to their families and were shown the door. Having endured that and many other insults, do we hunker down or do we share our light with the world, even at the risk of being harmed by the brutal and the bigoted?
I think we do. We share our light every Sunday and every day of the week when we live our lives as who we are not as who the world has decided is acceptable.
I think we do when we conduct ourselves as people of faith. We should none of us apologize for the faith we hold dear. We should be guided by that faith and be made strong in the knowledge that we are guided by a power greater than all the powers of the world
My charge to you is to go forth and be the light of the world. Be bold. Let others know who you are and what you stand for. Do not let anyone turn you round. Do not let anyone silence you. Be witnesses who transform a broken world. Be loving, righteous persons in a world that is often cold, unloving and corrupt. Be that shining city on the hill.