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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Have salt in yourselves


A Sermon Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 
Georgetown, Delaware
and simultaneously broadcast on Facebook Sirach 26:10 
September 26, 2021


Well, the disciples are complaining because John, one of the Sons of Thunder, ran across someone who was healing in the name of Jesus, but he was not a follower of Jesus. Apparently, he had not yet sat for his “Disciple Boards,” or paid his Annual Apostle Union dues, or signed his Oath of Conformity, or placed his hand on a Bible or crossed his heart and hoped to die.


Jesus says to let him go, adding, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Well, that’s a pretty low bar, isn’t it? Indeed, Jesus turns the tables ‘round on the disciples and tells them the personal cost to them if they try to put a stumbling block in the way of anyone trying to do some good in His name.


Here are a few examples: A millstone round the neck and thrown into the sea. Cutting off your hand – or a foot – or tearing out your eye. Yikes! Let’s hope Jesus is exaggerating again, just to make a point; that this is just his way of saying, “Listen. This is serious. Pay close attention. I really mean this.” Or, maybe he’s trying to evoke in them an understanding of the suffering of others by citing that which would cause suffering in them.


Jesus says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Havesalt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


Have salt in yourselves. And be at peace with one another. What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about?


Well, we know that the human body contains many salts, of which sodium chloride (AKA common table salt) is the major one, making up around 0.4 per cent of the body's weight at a concentration pretty well equivalent to that in seawater, interestingly enough.


According to the Salt Association (yes, there is such an organization), Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt. It is said to be from this that we get the word soldier – ‘sal dare’, meaning to give salt. From the same source we get the word salary, ‘salarium’. Other sources disagree with this and call it a myth, but I’ve long ago discovered that there are few coincidences in the world.


Salt was used for healing and purifying. Salt water was applied to infections and wounds and newborn babies were bathed in it. In some forms of Christianity, “the salt of wisdom” is placed on the baby’s tongue at baptism. That is also later ‘balanced’ with a drop of honey on the baby’s tongue, to signify the sweetness of the words of the Gospel.


Salt was connected with worship and covenant[i]. The ‘Covenant of Salt’ God had with King David refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.[ii] Salt was also used as an image for wisdom.[iii]


Salt is used for many purposes: Preservative. Adding taste. Cleansing. But, for the punishment of looking back as Sodom and Gomorrah burned, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. I know, right? Go figure.


I remember that my grandmother always kept a small bowl of salt in her kitchen. She would take a huge handful of salt and sprinkle it into a huge vat of soup or a large casserole pan before hoisting it into the oven. She would rub it briskly into beef or pork or on the outside and in the cavity of a chicken or turkey along with freshly ground pepper kernels.


However, it was a good thing that, in those days – with occasional exception –we only took a full tub bath once a week, on Saturday night before church on Sunday morning , because there was always a huge piece of salt cod soaking in the tub. The thick layer of salt had done its work to preserve the goodness of the fish; now it was time to soak the fish in a tub of water to remove the salt and cook the fish with other seasonings, along with vegetables and potatoes.


Salt can preserve. Too much salt can burn, which is why there is an old saying about “Rubbing salt into the wound.” It not only burns, but it preserves the hurt and pain.


Have salt in yourselves. What might Jesus mean by this?


In preparation for my upcoming pilgrimage to Egypt, I've been reading "How to Love" by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.


At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism, it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psycho-emotional or spiritual.)


Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding.


He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

"If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform."

Thich Nhat Han teaches that understanding is love's other name.


There is a wise saying that “Jesus and Buddha walk together in heaven”. More and more, I think that may well be true. Jesus is teaching that, once we understand the suffering of others, once we recognize that suffering in ourselves and can see it in others, we find that understanding is love’s other name. 


It’s what our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls, “The Way of Love.”


There is no longer need to criticize or cast out or cut off or judge. There is no need to cause pain. We are called to try to understand – or as Jesus commanded, love one another.


Now, I confess to you that I am far from perfect on this Way of Love. I am as guilty as ‘flying off the handle’ and ‘rushing to judgment’ as the next person. That said, you should have seen me before I met Jesus. Let me just put it this way, it wasn’t a very pretty picture.


With practice and with (ahem!) age, I have gotten saltier and a bit wiser. I confess that church bureaucracy is still a huge stumbling block for me. I’m a bit like John, one of the Sons of Thunder. The institutional church makes me pull out my hair in absolute frustration. I have very little patience with it, mostly because, like the disciple, John, I really don’t understand it. I admit, this has entered into and been a factor in my decision-making process to be with you consistently for a period of time. 


You’ve no doubt heard me talk about “The Four Killer B's of Parish Ministry: Buildings, Boilers, Budgets and …. Lemme think…. There’s a Fourth Killer B . . . Oh, right, BISHOPS!


Buildings. Boilers. Budgets. Bishops. The Four Killer B's of Parish Ministry.


If we could just worship God together and enjoy each other’s fellowship and hospitality and do the stuff Jesus asks us to do like feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and love our neighbor, and bring more people to Jesus and bring Jesus to more people, well, it would be enough. It would be more than enough. 


I honestly love you all and, although we all have our “issues” and there are bumps in the road ahead, I see a bright future, and I seriously want to be part of that journey.


So, these words of Jesus sting a bit for me: “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” Jesus calls me to realize that in order to be with you, I have to take the salt of the church as institution with the honey of the church as Body of Christ. 


I promise to try.


It's not unlike the rest of life, right? We have to take the bitter with the sweet. Try to see in every challenge an opportunity - to learn, to grow, to change.  As Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."


“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” 


These words of Jesus remind me of the wisdom of children’s author Shel Silverstein, 

How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it. 

How many slices in a bread? Depends how thin you cut it. 

How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. 

How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.”



[i] Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”


[ii] For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5)


[iii] Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).

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