Salt and Light
Epiphany 5A 2/5/2017
All Saints, Brookline
Psalm 112.1-9 I Corinthians 2.1-12 Matthew 5.13-20
Salt and Light
“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” At first glance, this question reminds me of a Zen koan. A seemingly impossible riddle that just might bring me greater enlightenment if I consider it long enough. I mean, how can salt lose its taste in the first place. None of this makes any sense!
And, with all of the variety of spices in the culture around him, why on earth would Jesus choose something as ordinary as salt to compare his followers; to compare us?
Salt, though we tend to take it for granted now, was actually highly valued in Jesus day. In fact, salt was often used as currency. The Roman word for salt, sal, is the origin of the word salary as it made up part of a soldier’s paycheck. Salt was routinely traded ounce for ounce with gold. It was also what determined the seating at a table- the most privileged places being the ones closest to the salt. So, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he’s saying you have immense value.
Though we may have lost this sense of salt’s worth, we certainly still appreciate its many diverse uses. Salt preserves, heals wounds, brings out flavors, and deices roadways. Yet, distinct as each of these applications may be, they all have one thing in common: the necessity of contact. Salt is of little use if it simply remains in its shaker.
Similarly, a lamp cannot serve its purpose if hidden under a bushel basket. Light has little effect if it doesn’t come into contact with darkness. And, it’s often at this point of contact that light is most beautiful and holy. The first few moments at dawn when brilliant color begins to chase away the dark of night. The dancing flames of a fire glowing in the hearth. The soft light streaming through stained glass in a dim sanctuary. And, as we well know, there is plenty of darkness in this world. Within us, as well as around us.
It’s in the holiness of our connection with others that our own light shines into the world. It’s in the holiness of contact with loved ones and strangers that we flavor the earth.
You are the salt of the earth. You heal, purify, enhance what is already there. You are the light of the world. You shine before others, glorify God.
We are in community to enhance, to heal, to shine, to point to God.
And yet, there are times when this feels impossible and exhausting and hopeless. Times when it feels like ‘this little light of mine’ isn’t doing much good. Times when our own value feels as diminished as that of salt.
I still can’t say that I understand how salt can lose it’s saltiness. But, I have experienced the frustration of a clogged salt shaker. Shaking harder and harder to no avail. Cleaning out the tiny holes and adding rice to keep the remaining salt from clumping together.
When your outlook is bleak, the key to restoring your saltiness is to find something to unclog your salt shaker. Perhaps, easier said than done. This is why we cultivate spiritual practices- the rice mixed in the salt that helps keep it from sticking together and clogging the shaker.
Whether it’s a prayer before mealtime, a physical activity like running, creative work like crafting, gathering for worship, or one of the millions of other ways of praying in community or alone, the spiritual habits we develop sustain us when we become bland.
One of my early experiences of monasticism was a retreat to the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati as a part of one of my seminary classes. There was one conversation in particular that framed this visit for me. A classmate asked one of the sisters, don’t you ever get tired of praying so many times a day? Is it ever hard to focus on the psalms you’re reading? The sister quietly looked at us with a ‘well, duh’ sort of expression, before responding that of course it’s hard to focus some days. But, she explained, that is why they pray together as a community. So that when you feel tired, angry, or unfocused your sisters bear you up and carry you along. It’s connection to each other and to God that sustains the sisters through periods of weariness. It’s connection to each other and to God that sustains us when we lose our flavor. Salt needs contact to be salty.
What do you do to unclog your salt shaker? Who helps to keep you salty?
Light also needs contact in order to grow and spread. It’s easy to feel as though your own light doesn’t burn as brightly as someone next to you. Perhaps you feel less spiritual or less powerful or less influential than others you witness. But, you never know who your seemingly small light will touch. Or what small bit of darkness you can brighten for someone else. Again, it’s by cultivating practices that draw us closer to God and to our community that our “light shall break forth like the dawn” as we heard in Isaiah.
How do you invite God’s light to shine through you? Who helps you keep your light uncovered?
If you don’t have answers to these questions, or even if you do, there is one more property of salt that I find significant.
As someone who has spent a lifetime of summers at the beach, playing in the ocean waves, I’ve taken in a lot of ocean water. So, I can tell you with complete confidence that salt makes you thirsty. And, when you consume a lot of salt, repeated mouthfuls of ocean for example, it’s the kind of thirst that makes it really hard to think about anything else until it is quenched. It is with such a thirst that we most avidly seek God. And, I’ve found, that just as a mouthful of ocean water drives me to quench my physical thirst, a community of salty people drives me to quench the resultant spiritual thirst. It’s the saltiness of a friend or spiritual leader or author or even sometimes a stranger that spurs my own desire and motivation to seek God. In turn, helping to unclog my own salt shaker; providing the strength to shine my light before others.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Stay thirsty, be salty, shine your light into the darkness.