Out of the Salt Cellar
Our Lay Minister, Alison, preached today, using the Gospel reading as her inspiration
Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Psalm 112:1-9, (10)
I like crisps, in fact, I could be called a crisp-oholic, and I have to admit that here in France I find that the range of flavours is both limited – and a little bizarre. Goats Cheese and honey? Bolognaise flavour? Hmm…not my cup of tea, or rather my bag of crisps. I used to find it difficult to choose a favourite flavour, and would hold up a queue in a shop as I dithered between the roast chicken...or pickled onion...or barbecue beef...but never would I, or will I choose plain crisps.
Now, I’m not sure what psychologists would make of this, but I put my love of flavoured crisps down to a deprived childhood. You see, when I was growing up the only crisps that seemed to be on sale - or maybe they were the only crisps I was allowed to have - were those plain crisps that came with a little blue packet of salt in them. I hated them. Obviously other people loved them, and yearned nostalgically after them, as they have now been re-introduced as “Shake-n-Salt” crisps, but I’m afraid, I hated them. And for a very good reason: I could never find the little packet of salt!
It would either be lurking at the very bottom of the packet, or else it wouldn’t be there at all. Which meant, I ended up eating an extremely bland, unflavoured snack...because crisps are really rather nothing-y unless they are salted.
In fact, many foods are vastly improved by a good dash of salt. I’m afraid I’ve never managed to cut down on my salt intake as doctors recommend you should do; I don’t salt my vegetables when they’re cooking - and then end up adding more when they’re on the plate! Salt is still an important part of our cooking today, but in Jesus’ time it was even more important, as salt not only flavoured food, it preserved it as well. In our modern kitchens, with refrigerators, and freezers, with dried food, canned food, freeze-dried food, quick-dried food, and every other sort of preserving method, we sometimes forget that salt was originally used as a preservative. Good housewives would diligently spend the summer months salting meat and fish away for the oncoming winter, so that they would have something resembling fresh meat later on. Thus, salt was seen as being important. In fact, Pliny once wrote “nothing is more useful than salt or sunshine” The importance of salt was so great as to be measured alongside the sun’s life giving warmth and life. To emphasise this in some cultures, salt was recognised and used as a form of currency, thus showing how much it was valued in the lives of ordinary people.
It was important for its healing properties as well. It makes me wince just to think of it, but in earlier times, if there was a serious cut or wound, it would often be dressed with salt, because of the way salt cleansed and helped the healing processes. Today, we use the phrase “Don’t rub salt into the wound” when we mean “don’t make something hurt more than it has to.” But that is precisely what people in the past would do - they would rub salt into the wound. It hurt, but in the end, it healed.
We all know too of the way salt magically melts ice. I can’t understand why it happens - my husband, Andrew, a scientist by training, has explained it patiently to me several times, telling me that the salt depresses the freezing point of water - but it does happen, making the steps or the path or the road a safer place to walk.
But this is not meant to be a Handy Hints Guide to the Wonderful Properties of Salt. It is meant to be looking at what God wants of us, in our every day lives. Well, here it comes; as Jesus said, in Matthew 5, verse 13 “You are the salt of the earth”.
So what does that mean?
Remembering our Handy Hints Guide, it means that we should add flavour to the lives of those around us. Salt doesn’t do anything special, it just is, and by just being salty, it adds a new dimension to the food we are eating. In the same way, we can add a new dimension to the lives of others, not by going up to them and saying “I want to be your friend....” or “I want to help”, or “Do you know the Lord?” but by showing what Jesus means to us, by going about our daily business, by connecting with other people, and by being ourselves. It is worth noting that Jesus’ description of his followers as “the salt of the earth” is preceded directly by the Beatitudes. As Christians we strive to reach the standards Jesus set before us - to be merciful, to be pure, to be peacemakers. In the same way as Jesus gives us a standard to strive for, so too does Paul. In Romans Paul describes the actions of a loving person: they are devoted to others, they are joyful in hope, they share with those in need. As we try to follow these instructions, as we become more as God wants us to be, then we are being as salt, flavouring the lives of those around us. And, just as salt can make people thirsty for water, so, by being Christians in an unchristian world, so we can make people thirsty for the living Water, for Jesus.
Looking at the same idea from a different perspective, salt can melt ice. If we are being salty, if we are being Christians, then we can melt hearts that are frozen. We can get through to people, and heal their broken heartedness. There is a meditation that I noted down in my journal which I have tried to find again, but can’t. I know the book it is in, but I’m blowed if I can find it!! However in it, the author spoke of Jesus, and said “You talked with people who felt cheated by the system, spending time with those who needed you the most....You didn’t only visit those left to rot in prison cells and mental hospitals, you loved them, laughed and sang with them.” You talked...you spent time...you laughed... you sang...you loved...That is what we are being called to do - to melt the ice of people’s loneliness, to help them carry their burdens, first and foremost by just being there.
Sometimes the healing process can be painful, and sometimes people don’t want to know. That is what happened to Jesus - he loved other people, and by just because he was being himself, people recognised their own inadequacies beside him. For some people, they grasped the pain of that, and strived to improve, and to reach a better self, but for others what they saw was too painful, and they shied away from it, eventually bringing Jesus to his death. That is what could happen with us. In being salty, we can hurt other people, as they see that they are missing something. Sometimes, that will make them strive to reach it too, but sometimes, it might make them hate us. In this situation we will be faced by those who find our Christianity too much to handle. Their reactions might be different to each other, but ours should always be the same: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse...do not repay anyone evil for evil”. It is when faced by the hatred of others that we need to pray: “Give us courage to go against the crowd, to die for self interest, and so to overcome evil in the world today.”
Now, all of this is all very well, but as I discovered in my childhood, even salt has its limitations. If it stays firmly twisted up in its little blue packet, lurking at the very bottom of the packet of crisps, then it is no good. It might be extremely salty salt, but it isn’t flavouring my crisps. In the same way, we might be extremely Christian Christians but if we’re all together in our church, lurking away from the metaphorical crisp packet of the
world, then we’re doing no good either.
There was a group of Christians working together in Oldham, who opened a coffee bar and restaurant, which they have called “The Salt Cellar”. As well as the professional staff who work there are about 70 volunteers who are also involved. On the menu there are the words “We are a Christian group, believing that it is important to place the church in the market place. We are willing to share our faith with you, but we believe that help offered to people must be sought and asked for and never thrust upon them. If we can be of help, our team are always available.” Unfortunately, I have read that through loss of income during the pandemic, the café has been forced to close, but while it was open, for 30 years, we had a group of Christians who got out of their little blue packet and flavouring the world around them. They are doing it subtly, not over-flavouring - for as any cook will tell you, over-salting can be worse than under-salting- but they are letting themselves be used.
Isn’t this what we are reminded to do in the words of Isaiah? We are told:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
When I was at college, I was not very good at sharing my beliefs with others. I’m not really sure I’ve improved much now, but I’m trying to! Anyway, we had a “Mission”, and I’m afraid for most of the time I kept myself to myself in my little blue packet, and only came out when it seemed safe. This was obviously noticed by someone, as I was given a book as a present. The book talked of how we as Christians are called to share our faith, and how we are called to be salty. Using the same image as the Oldham Christians, the book was entitled: “Out of the Salt-cellar”.
When you think of it, that is what we are being called to do - to get out of our salt cellar, and to start being salty. We already know this; we already know that we are called to touch the lives of people around us, not by overwhelming them, but by being there, by being Christians, in our community.
And finally, here comes the good news. For those of us who are feeling “Oh, I can’t do that, I’ll just keep my head down at work, and pretend that this has nothing to do with me”, well, Jesus has a message. I read it earlier, but listen again, very carefully. “You are the salt of the earth.”
Not, “You will be the salt of the earth”, not “If you go out and tell everyone about
me, then you are the salt of the earth”, but “You are the salt of the earth”. If you know Jesus, then you can’t help but be salty. But, let’s be honest, it is worth using that saltiness, as what is the use of a box of Saxa salt if it stays there and never gets used? None whatsoever. And if we are salt, then what use are we to Jesus, if we don’t get out of the saltcellar, and start to get used...?