Salty, Not Saccharine

February 1, 1998


Salt, Not Sugar!

Everyone present this morning has two quite different vocabularies. One is called “active,” meaning that group of words we use constantly in conversation with our friends and strangers. The other is called “passive,” meaning the words we recognize in speech or print, but which we almost never use. Words like imbroglio, orsatyriasis or lachrymose , which we may be able to define when we hear or see them, but which we do not employ in normal talk — words that would be ostentatious when there are more familiar words that work just as well.
I’m thinking right now of a simpler word that lies about halfway between formal and informal, the word “insipid,” used very effectively in a certain verse in the Bible, and a key word for purposes in this morning’s meditation. It describes something that is without any distinctive or interesting or attractive qualities. I can hardly imagine a more stinging judgment on what I do than to have you tell a friend an hour from now that you have just come from the most insipid sermon you ever heard in your life. Insipid is bland, flat, dull, vapid — totally lacking in zest and pungency. Insipid conversation is bad enough, but it’s not just talk that can be without flavor. Some personalities are like that, and although it may not have occurred to you that it might be almost sinful to be insipid, I think Christian scripture practically says so — not just once but two or three times.
Let’s get underway with an amazing compliment Jesus paid to his disciples one day when he said, “My friends, you are this world’s salt.” It certainly was more hopeful than realistic at the moment he said it, but that was a way of his: to credit people in advance with qualities he believed they could by and by possess, as when he looked at an impulsive, hair-trigger man named Simon and told him he would be known as the “Rock.” I think his disciples must have been astonished when he called them the salt of the earth. Here they were, a handful of rugged fishermen, ignorant of the wider world around them — a world which even if it had known who they were would have seen them as nobodies — and here is this young Jewish teacher, about to change that world in ways they can’t even imagine, daring them to believe that they are as vital to human life as salt.
It’s easy to overlook the force of that compliment if we forget the different roles salt played in the time of Christ. Nowadays, when somebody asks about one of you and we respond: “She is a member of this church and we all agree that she is the salt of the earth,” we mean that you are reliable, that you are important and that you are a joy to have around — and that’s a nice compliment, but it’s not nearly so extravagant as the one Jesus has in mind when he tells his disciples that they are the world’s salt. Because he isn’t simply telling them that they are nice people, with some fine qualities. He’s telling them that they are essential, that the world cannot do without them.
In their social life, salt was not used merely to flavor food. It was also a priceless preservative in a world without refrigeration. The disciples who fished for a living would have understood that even better than most. Without you, he tells them, the world decays like unsalted meat, but you now have a message that preserves what is best in life. You help it survive. It was survival, not just convenience but survival, which my Depression-scarred father had in mind when he used to say to me, , “Don’t spend everything you make. Salt some of it away.” In other words, preserve it.
If you feel uncomfortable with the thought that the world depends on you, there is more to come. Jesus may have been saying that if his people are what they should be, they add spice to life — they give it flavor and zest. He could hardly have imagined that twenty centuries later we might be the very people the world thinks of as dull, bland and tedious. Or perhaps the thought did occur to him, because he goes on to say, “But if the salt becomes tasteless….it’s good for nothing then but to be thrown out for people to walk on.” Literal-minded people have had a problem at this point. Pure sodium chloride, they know, does not deteriorate; how could Jesus not be scientifically accurate?
Well, what should be obvious from his life is that he wasn’t much interested in physics. He was concerned to teach behavior, and he used what worked, especially the exaggeration that might startle a listener. Ten girls set out for a wedding, and exactly five of them forget to take enough oil? Two religious leaders pass by a wounded man while a despised outcast stops to offer help? An employer hires men to start work at 8 in the morning, and other men just before quitting time, and pays them both the same? Those are all exaggerations meant to make us sit up and take notice. So, in our text, Jesus is not a physicist defining pure sodium chloride. What he knows and cares about is that his followers, who are the spiritual salt of the earth, can become flat and stale, and when that happens they are worthless — of no more significance to fellow travelers than a blade of dry grass. It’s a painful thought, but we have to face it: Christians either redeem and flavor the world they live in, or they lose any reason to bear the name. It doesn’t mean that you have to stand on street corners to proclaim your faith, or rush off to huge rallies and make noise about it. But it does mean that your faith makes a difference in and around you, or else it means nothing. In street talk, “use it or lose it.” Walk the walk, or become a detour for busy people on their way to something else.
Besides its use to preserve and flavor, salt had still another valuable function in the first century. Without antibiotic sprays and creams and pills, people found salt useful as a disinfectant. It wasn’t particularly pleasant to rub salt into a wound, but it was better than having an infection spread. Put all those things together, and you can see that being told that you are the earth’s salt drops quite a load on your shoulders. You have to help preserve society, you have to help heal its sickness, you have to flavor it with your enthusiasm and confidence and good humor.
I’m especially intrigued this morning by the idea that you and I are supposed to add spiece to the life around us. How many times have you sat at table with someone who said, “This soup needs a little more salt, it’s too bland for me.” Could Jesus have been saying to his friends, “Keep life from being tasteless Salt it by your excitement about the things I’ve told you”? I think one of his greatest messengers understood that. The Apostle Paul says to one of his young churches, “Let your speech be….seasoned with salt.” (Col. 4:6) The New English Bible translates that remark a little differently;: “Let your conversation….never be insipid….” There’s that damning word again, synonymous with nerveless, wishy-washy, lacking in spunk. One way to be insipid is to like everything — to have that kind of soft, sweet, sloppy mind that refuses to discriminate, refuses to make a critical judgment.
I like the J. B. Phillips translation of what Paul said: “Speak pleasantly….but never sentimentally….” Tough-minded people, salty people, have strong emotions but they don’t haul them out and wave them at the slightest opportunity. They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. But let’s be honest. We’ve all met people who obviously feel that a kind of sticky, cloying sentimentalism is proof of their Christian faith — strong on feelings, dubious about the dangers of critical intelligence. Quick with tears, afraid of humor’s place in religion…..nervous in the presence of a joke.
This may strike you as a rather jolting thing for me to say, but I think the overly-sweet pietism that some church folk see as a mark of true religion would have made Jesus sick to his stomach. Before you reject that comment, think about that church in Laodicea to whom the Lord is represented as saying, “I wish you were either cold or hot. But since you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I intend to spit you out of my mouth.” Translate that into modern speech and you can feel the sting of it: “Get with it! Be on one side or the other, but for God’s sake feel some passion and excitement. Flavor up your life! Put some salt in your conversation!”
Another implication of being called salt is that we can’t excuse ourselves for having no impact on the grounds that there are just not enough of us. A pinch of salt is potent out of all proportion to its size. I see no hint anywhere in the Christian story that Jesus frantically counted heads to see if his ideas would prevail. I think he would be disconcerted and puzzled to visit a typical American city and read about the colisum rallies in His name, or walk into one of those megachurches that hope to promote His ideas by celebrity appearances and bands and pep talks by famous athletes, with flags flying everywhere as if to suggest that patriotism and Christianity are somehow irrevocably linked.
I succumb to all sorts of advertising messages, but there is one that doesn’t move me at all: the notion that “bigger is better,” that unless you leapfrog wildly up the ladder of corporate success you can’t count for much, that unless a church doubles its membership every two or three years it’s not fulfilling its work in the dream of Christ for the world. If we don’t know that, we’ve missed his clear insistence on the power of little things: a pinch of yeast in the dough, one strayed sheep so important that the shepherd drops everything to look for it, a single lost coin, the life force and potential in one tiny mustard seed – all of them images of the quiet, simple ways by which most good things happen in the world. I was lucky enough to see a bumpersticker the other day that summed up what I’m trying to say: IF YOU THINK THE LITTLE GUY HAS NO POWER, YOU HAVE OBVIOUSLY NEVER TRIED TO SLEEP WITH A MOSQUITO IN YOUR ROOM.
There is one last lesson to learn from being called salt: we are not called to a hermit way of life. Salt does nothing good on the shelf. We are mean to be involved with what goes on in the world. I vividly remember a man who came up to me when I was called to a certain church and wanted to know right away whether I was a “social activist.” When I asked what that meant for him, he made it clear: he wanted to be sure I would never use the pulpit to confront a political or economic issue in the community because that might make the church seem….well, salty! So, just to be sure that he didn’t represent how the general membership felt, I made sure to say in my very first sermon that that we were not called by Christ to huddle together in a safe and beautiful saltshaker, but to sprinkle ourselves all over town.
Not in sensational ways, buttonholing busriders to ask if they’ve been saved, or asking strangers on street corners if they’ve accepted Jesus into their hearts, but quietly and inconspicuously adding flavor, healing and preservation to the lives we touch. It’s always good to turn sermonic advice into a concrete example, so here’s how saving salt works in ordinary moments: It was the second day of school, and for the second time the only kid in the room without a book bag was Eddie. The book bag, as you know, is as essential a part of arriving at school as scissors and glue and the old red Chief’s notebook were when I was a child. So without one, Eddie didn’t quite belong, and Eddie knew it. His teacher, a sensitive woman most of you know, thought on the first day that he must simply have forgotten to bring it. But on the second day, seeing his discomfort, she thought she would ask.
So, at the door, as he bent over to retrieve a dropped notebook, she put her hand on his shoulder. “Eddie, do you have a book bag?” His face was a road map of embarrassment. “No, ma’am.” She looked more closely at his clothes — the tennis shoes left over from last year, the sleep-rumpled hair no one had bothered to notice as he left home — and she made a sudden decision. “Oh,” she said, “I have yours around here someplace. I’ll give it to you in the morning.”
That night, she stopped by Walmart….and no one there had the slightest notion that she was the salt of the earth.

Teach us, gracious God, not to underestimate ourselves. It is
always within our power, if we are sensitive and caring, to bring
comfort and new hope into someone’s life, in the spirit of Christ
our Lord. Amen.