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The Rt. Rev. Nathan Baxter The Rt. Rev. Nathan Baxter

The Rt. Rev. Nathan D. Baxter is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and former dean of Washington (D.C.) National Cathedral.

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Diocese of Central Pennsylvania


Can the Salt of the Earth Be Preserved?

Matthew 5:13-20

February 04, 1996

Whenever I hear this lesson following about "salt of the earth" my mind always goes back to my boyhood days in church and Sunday School. In those days I was always quite incredulous, if not humored, that Jesus would think of me as salt. Sugar maybe, or better yet, gold or silver; but salt! I didn't even mind the second example in the teaching, "Ye are the light of the world;" but salt!

The only outstanding qualities of salt I could think of were that we used salt in the ice cream churn at my grandmother's house and that salt was, indeed, essential for french fries. But these few heartwarming qualities were not sufficient to merit some exulted immolation for Christian character.

In today's relatively advanced culture, most of us take salt for granted. In Jesus' day there were no refrigerators or freezers to preserve food. Salt was the only source of preservation for perishable staples which would quickly decay in the Mediterranean heat. In some cases salt even served as a remedy for ailments, especially for some stomach disorders.

And about salt as a spice - for the average persons of antiquity, salt was perhaps their only seasoning. The first hearers of Jesus' teaching were not Sunday School boys seeking something entertaining in an odd analogy. Few things were more precious or essential than salt to their lives and the lives of their neighbors. Pliny, the first century Roman naturalist and writer, and contemporary of Jesus, wrote in one of his encyclopedias, "nothing is more useful than salt and sunshine."

Salt is still a prevalent ingredient in our diets. We don't realize how much so until our doctor places us on a salt free diet. Then, to our distress, we realize that most things enjoyable and convenient contain salt.

And so Jesus says to those who would be his followers, "You are the salt of the earth, 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 under foot."

Jesus was saying to us that as a "person of faith" you are essential to the world, but if you lose the quality of your faith, what good are you? For the purposes of God's vision for the world your value is lost. And thus, the saying moves from a curious statement to a harsh challenge.

Why are we so important to the plan of God? Because of the faith within us. The absence of that faith as an active and engaging reality makes us useless to God's mission, which is to redeem the world. Remember that "God so loved the world that he gave his only son..." Now that love, that vision for the wholeness of our lives, our communities and our world, is being sought through you and me and people of faith everywhere. No matter how dreadful our world may seem, from the beginning God has placed in the human spirit and constitution the resources necessary to preserve and enrich human community.

First, we are called as people of faith to preserve the quality of righteousness. What is righteousness? Earlier in this lesson Jesus taught the Beatitudes. First, it is humility of spirit. What Paul wrote of love in I Corinthians can also be said of righteousness. Like love, righteousness is not curious, arrogant or rude; it does not force its own way...it is humble. Why? Because love, like righteousness, prevails by conviction and conversion through the power of its truth. Imposed truth and coerced justice may manage righteousness for a time, but it will never be an authentic part of a culture if it is not in a people's heart. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Laws will not make you love me, but they might stop you from killing me." However, that being said, we all know that the righteousness which Dr. King sought was through non-violent resistance, and was ultimately intended to change the hearts and the spirit of a culture.

Once again in America we are experiencing racial divisions, gross social and economic despair and moral regression. In both the public and political arena there is blatant bitterness, rudeness and arrogance, and, at times, violence around social and moral issues. There is open disregard for the poor in deference to the security of upper classes. All of this lost civility is not due to changes in our laws. It is our hearts that have not changed.

As it was in the 60's, many new laws are being proposed and passed to address serious problems in our society. But again, we must humble our own anxiety and interest to ask how proposed solutions affect the most vulnerable, especially children and the elderly. Humility says, what is just is more important than my convenience alone. Someone said, "Justice is not about, Just Us!" Humility asks, is the social, economic and spiritual relationship between me or my group and others truly what God would expect of us? Humility's question can only be answered if we are listening to one another. Only if we are as willing to hear as we are to speak. Yes, righteousness is about humility, and God knows it needs to be preserved in our society lest we fall further into the decay of arrogance and bitterness.

Not only does righteousness call for humility of spirit, but it should cause our spirits to grieve. ("Blessed are they who mourn.") For it is not only a social decay, it is a spiritual matter; it is the dying of our nation's soul.

I think particularly of children. The Catholic Bishops' Report on Children suggests that each day, let's say tomorrow; 150,000 children will bring guns to school. Nearly 3,000 will see their parents divorce. About 3,500 will run away from home. One hundred thousand will be homeless, hundreds because of violence, thousands because of poverty and neglect. These statistics do not include the staggering number that will be aborted and those suffering from AIDS.

Righteousness is like a circle, for even the quality of passion is conditioned by mercy. (The beatitudes go from humility to mercy.) Mercy saves us from becoming the evil we deplore, from using the rightness of our convictions to abuse or hate those who oppose us. For the ultimate aim of righteousness is peace, peace in our homes, communities, streets, in our world. In some way, in some arena of life, to be a Christian is to be about preserving or bringing about peace.

This calling is not unique to the Christian tradition. People of Godly faith all seem to have this inspiration, this core tenant of faith. One thinks not only of Christians such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Mother Teresa, but of Gandhi and most recently of Premier Rabin. Righteousness is always defined by humility of spirit, spiritual grief and passion for justice, tempered with mercy or kindness. And its goal is always peace: shalom, asaalom, satyagrahi.

It is this quality of righteousness for the ends of peace that is most abandoned by extremists and radicals of religion. Single-minded obsessions always make a mockery of the justice extremists would advocate. Micah 6:8 "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk HUMBLY with your God?"

But what is unique about our faith, Christianity? What is the seasoning quality essential to the world in the search for righteousness? Christianity, like no other faith, reveals God as personal, caring and intimate. It is in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that we know that even in the whims and misfortunes of life, God is present, loving us, suffering with us, offering us his healing and redemptive hope. God is more than the divine principle of truth, the distant creator, the eternal judge. In Jesus we know that God is Abba, daddy, the intimate loving father.

Professor Paul Schilling, in his book, God and Human Anguish, tells of a man he pastored whose wife was deathly ill. After a long and desperate illness she began to recover. Looking back the husband said, "I can no longer hear the words of the Apostle's Creed, 'he descended into hell,' without tears; for I have been to hell and I know that Christ is there."

Yes, God is present in our personal tragedies. And God is present in the places of social decay, grieving for the violence, prejudice, abuse and confusion. This God calls us to not simply work for redemption, but to work with God in His work of redemption.

What greater power is there for living life's trials and blessings? What greater joy is there than in service for others? What greater hope for our hour of dying? What greater meaning for life than the revelation of God made known in Jesus Christ, our living Lord?

We are the salt of the earth. We are to preserve the quality of righteousness and make known the loving God who calls us to work for healing and wholeness.

This may seem like an awesome expectation upon your faith. But Jesus always seemed to impress upon his disciples the power of small, common things such as a lump of yeast in bread, a widow's mite, a mustard seed, a child's fish and loaves and, of course, salt. A simple faith, which is in someway engaged and lived out prayerfully in every day life, can mean far more than we could ever imagine. Yes, we are people of faith. Like salt, our faith has unique properties to preserve and enliven what is good, just and redemptive in the world around us. Amen.


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