February 6th, 2011

Being Salt in a Low-Sodium World

By K Karpen

Church of St Paul and St Andrew

New York City

February 6, 2011

Matthew 5: 13-16

You are the salt of the earth; but salt has lost its flavor…it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Matthew 5:13

It’s been a rough week for salt.

On Monday, the government posted new dietary guidelines.  My favorite part of the statement went, Enjoy your food, but eat less.”  It didn’t go into the specifics of what we should eat less of, except for one little item: salt.

Of course, we’ve been hearing about cutting down on salt for decades.  The grocery store shelves are full of low-sodium options. You can buy salt-free ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise, if you really want to.  You can buy low-sodium V-8 juice or Triscuits.  And there’s my personal favorite, low-sodium Saltines.  You can even buy low-sodium salt!  Which is really great, although they say that it is mildly radioactive.

So, nothing new.  Now, though, many people are being told we need to cut in half the amount of salt we used to think was OK.  Especially people 50 years old and older, African-Americans and people with high blood pressure or diabetes.

Into this brave new low-sodium world comes this teaching of Jesus: You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Of course, this particular teaching had a different sound to those who first gathered on the side of that hill to hear this freelance rabbi from up the block share his thoughts.

Salt was essential to life in Biblical times: as both a preservative in that warm world without refrigeration, as well as a desirable seasoning.  Because of this, salt was valuable.  Looking back as far as the time of the Persian Empire, loyalty to the king is explained in the Book of Ezra by the words, ‘we remain loyal because we are salted with the salt of the palace.’  And by the first century, Roman soldiers were paid a salarium, which was either payment in salt, or an allowance given to them to buy salt. In any case, Salarium is the root of our English word salary.

In addition to all that, those famous roads that all led to Rome were called by the Romans salt-roads”, since a primary purpose was to bring salt to the Imperial capital from the drying fields of the Mediterranean and the deep mines of what is now Austria.

As Siobhan pointed out last week, the people gathering on that hillside with Jesus in Matthew 5 probably included both the committed and the curious.  Both the disciples who were following Jesus, and those just in the crowd.  Maybe it’s true that those farthest from Jesus heard ‘blessed are the cheese-makers’ rather than ‘peacemakers’.   But you can bet that when Jesus started talking about salt, everybody listened.

You are the salt of the earth.”  We use that expression sometimes to denote the common person, rooted in the land. That’s not what Jesus meant.

He meant, you are extremely valuable.  Essential to life.  So live like it.

He meant, you are able to preserve and protect life, to help other people resist the forces of decay and despair in their lives.  So live like it.

He meant, you have the ability in you to give flavor to a bland, bleak, unfeeling, uncaring, apathetic and sometimes painfully uninteresting world.  So live like it.

Salt isn’t something you do.  It’s who you are, says Jesus.  It’s who you are. You’re salty. You’re flavorful and valuable.  Says Jesus.

Same thing with light.  We live in a world that’s never dark.  It’s never really dark.  We worry about light pollution, which makes it hard to sleep normal hours.  It’s getting very difficult for scientists to find places to set up observatories, where their telescopes can peer into space without interference from neon lights, LEDs, and high-pressure sodium lamps, lights that travel far beyond the things they are intended to illuminate.

The ancient near east was dark.  At night, it was dark.  Except for the glow of a fading cook fire or two, a village in ancient Palestine was lit only by the lights of the heavens: the stars, & the moon.  Oil for lamps was expensive, and out of the range of the poorest.

Jesus says, be light.  Don’t be light just for yourself, but be like a light set high on a table, lending light to everything.

God is light, Jesus says elsewhere.  And it says in the Psalms, In your light, we see light.” (That’s the motto of Columbia University.  Luckily for most Columbia students, it’s in Latin, so no one knows what it means or that it comes from scripture.)

Jesus is saying to the disciples, to the crowds, and to us, be light.  Be the means whereby people can see what’s going on.  Be light.  Because light is what you are.

Earlier, we read together the mission statement of this church.  It’s long.  But if we really understand the meaning of these short verses of scripture, we could shorten it to four words.  Be salt.  Be light.”

So as we sing today, as we pray, as we eat this holy meal together, remember who we are.  Remember who you are.

You are salt flavoring the earth…   But you don’t want to be that salt in vain.

You are light shining for the world…  But you don’t want to light that lamp in vain.