From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 21 Year B September 27
Text of the sermon as prepared:
At the end of our Gospel passage from Mark today, Jesus gives some perplexing teaching: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way as he preaches the sermon on the mount, “You are the salt of the earth.” What does it mean to have a salty faith? How are we to live out this call to saltiness? “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.”
Here are some things we know about salt both in Biblical times and today. Salt is a seasoning for food. It is a preservative to prevent spoiling. Salt is a nutrient necessary for life. Salt is medicinal. This summer I cut my foot on our family beach trip. I went to my sister-in-law, who is a doctor, and asked her what I should do about it. She told me to go put it in the ocean, of course! That salty water heals all ills. Mahatma Gandhi performed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in modern history when he marched to the Indian Ocean and defied British tyranny by making salt. Gandhi’s salt march makes me think that salt can be symbol of liberation. The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, once wrote an ode to salt. In his poem he imagines the salt on our tables as connected with the mines deep in the earth, connected with oceans, connected with ancient ships and every meal we eat. He writes, “the smallest, miniature wave from the saltcellar reveals to us more than domestic whiteness; in it we taste infinitude.” In salt we taste infinitude, the limitless connections between all of God’s creations.
When we hear Jesus talking about having salt among ourselves, we can draw all kinds of connections with these images of salt that I have just described. We help to bring out the delicious flavor of the world with our acts of love and compassion. Our commitment to a larger communion, the body of Christ, preserves us against the spoiling of a self-centered world. When we act together as that community of faith, we can be agents of physical and spiritual health and healing. God uses us as agents of liberation and justice. At rare moments, we may without realizing it reveal a taste of God’s infinitude. I was exploring this theme with our guests from Tanzania, my friend from seminary, Bishop James Almasi and his Diocesan secretary, Canon Geoffrey Patrick. They are visiting Fredericksburg for a few days as part of a larger North American trip. Welcome! Canon Geoffrey remarked as we were talking about this passage that salt makes one thirsty. We Christians can be the salt which makes people thirsty for the living water of God. We could spend a long time imagining what Jesus might mean when he says for us to be salty.
The problem many Christians have, though, is that we sometimes get a little bit carried away with our saltiness. It’s not enough for us to bring the flavors of the dish together, we need to dominate the stew. It’s not enough for us to heal the wound, we need to make it sting a little bit. I think of the disciple, John, in today’s Gospel. John, the brother of James: the “sons of thunder.” John and James who will later come to Jesus to ask for the seats of honor when he comes in his glory. John and James who go up on the mountain with Jesus at the transfiguration. That John. He’s a salty sort of disciple, and he comes to Jesus saying that someone else, someone they didn’t know, someone who wasn’t part of their little group, has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The nerve of some people, right?! But don’t worry, Jesus, we took care of it, says John. We told him he couldn’t do that, because he wasn’t part of our group! You can just see Jesus shaking his head, “John, John! Do not stop him!”
Christian faith is not a game with insiders and outsiders. Christian faith is not about who has the most salt or the right kind of salt. I find it interesting by the way that these days in our cooking culture there is a gourmet thing going on with salt. Somehow the food tastes better if the salt was mined from deep inside the Himalayan mountains where it has become infused with nutrients over thousands of years. This is how we sometimes look at our churches. Which church in town has the saltiest music or theology or outreach or youth programs? You’d better believe it’s our church and not that church down the street. We are the saltiest. I’ve been encouraged by the Pope’s visits this week, because he is reaching out across church boundaries, but I can just hear some people saying, “If only he were an Episcopalian!” This is a stumbling block, the kind of stumbling block which Jesus warns against in the Gospel today. This kind of Christian smugness is just the kind of thing that makes a lot of people want to run in the other direction. They can taste the salt, and it turns them off. I don’t know that this is a big problem at St. George’s, because I think we’re trying to live our faith without having to make a big show or tell others they have to do it our way. But to the people who never come to church, we look like a big pillar of salt, and all they see is crusty corrosion. All they see is too much overpowering flavor that’s going to dry up their souls like a slug. They expect us to come out of here saying, “come be salty like us but only if you’re willing to follow our rules and do things our way.” That’s the stumbling block we have to be aware of, the stumbling block of our insider traditions that keep others on the outside and even pushes them away.
One place where I see just the right kind of saltiness is at The Table, our market style food pantry on Tuesdays. We say we are feeding people, but really we are providing a container. We put a bunch of people together, some rich, some poor, and some in between. We give them a bunch of food, some fresh, some canned, some dried. Then the most delicious dish emerges, seasoned by all our gifts. Jesus says to have salt among ourselves, and then he says, be at peace with one another. That word, peace, means wholeness and fulfillment. It means having the perfect amount of saltiness. It means all the flavors come together just so. It means that we do not have to worry about providing all that is needed. God has already provided the salt. If only the disciple John had said to the person who was also casting out demons, “hey where did you learn how to do that–and maybe we can learn from you?” It would have changed the whole equation. What if our guiding principle for evangelism (that’s the “e” word that we in the Episcopal Church are afraid of sometimes) was inquiry not inquisition? Curiosity not curatorial lecturing? God wants us to be at peace, whole and complete, which we can only know when we stop drawing lines of inside and out and realize that God’s grace has drawn a line around us all. We have all been seasoned with grace. We have all been salted with love. We have all been given a capacity to bring out the flavor in each other, to heal each other’s wounds, to proclaim each other’s liberation, to seek the infinitude, the limitless connections in and among and through each other’s lives. We do not need to try to be salty. With God’s help, we may discover each other’s saltiness. With God’s help, we may remove the stumbling blocks, the corrosive pillars of salt, and inspire each other to taste the infinitude; taste and see that God is good.