The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Being Salt in the World

Sermon for Kansas Diocesan Convention

Grace Cathedral, Topeka, Kansas

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


I think most Americans would say that the average Midwesterner is "salt of the earth." It conveys the understanding that good common sense is present everywhere around here, that you aren't going to be lured away by the excesses of some dubious enterprise or flagrantly seductive advertising. Yet Kansas is hardly average. It's more like the community Garrison Keillor celebrates, even turning the cultural stereotypes upside down - good-looking men, strong women, and all the children above average- you are all of those and more!

Average or not, Jesus will take us wherever we start, and ask us to be appropriately salty. In this gospel context, we're not supposed to avoid the salt, for it is a sign of life - and it always has been. It's still a basic symbol of hospitality in the Middle East and on the steppes of Asia. It's often presented to visitors, along with bread, as a way of saying, ‘your life is safe with us, and we recognize you as friend.' That's actually what Jesus did for us - "I call you friend, no longer do I call you servant, but friend."

Where do we encounter the kind of salt that Jesus is talking about, that salt of welcome and friendship and life? Where do you know salt in your own life? Maybe it was the whiff of salt in the air along New York's East River Thursday morning, as the tide pushed in from the sea, but what I thought of first was the salt within us. The taste of salt in the tears my eyes were making in the cold wind, but also the taste of salt in blood and sweat. And the connection with the sea isn't trivial - sea water has a lot to do with the composition of the blood in our veins. The salt within us is indeed about life, for it reflects our evolutionary history, and our origins in a salty sea.

Salt was an ancient coin, a medium of exchange, because it's portable and reasonable stable - it only melts away in a rainstorm, and they're not so common in the Middle East. It's a sign of value, and at some times and places has been exchangeable, ounce for ounce, with gold.

The salty signs of blood, sweat, and tears remind us continually of the cost of life, and its preciousness. Jesus gave abundantly of all three, weeping at the death of a friend, sweating in the Garden of Gethsemane, and at the end giving up his blood along with his life. Blood, sweat, and tears are part of our own costly living, if we are going to be truly alive. They are sacramental evidence of a compassionate heart.

That heart is what Jesus is asking his disciples for - a heart of flesh, fully alive, connected to other human beings and the whole of creation, able to feel with and respond to the pain and joy of others. That's salt.

The value of salt was involved in the practice of seating some "above the salt" and others below - ranking the guests at a dinner party. Yet Jesus' table is effectively round, and the salt is in the center, at the heart. All his friends are equally welcome to share his meal of life - a meal with plenty of salt, in the bread and in the wine, and even a little in the water.

Salt has other resonances - like a salty vocabulary, or palabras saladas, those earthy words our mothers discouraged us from using. That kind of salt gets attention, and when our audience is asleep, such language can be very useful. The biblical prophets used the ancient equivalent of salty words all the time: "you cows of Bashan, lolling around on ivory couches, while your neighbors are starving on your doorstep." John Baptist and Jesus did, too: "you brood of vipers, you whitewashed tombs." Those salty words can indeed be divinely abrasive signs of God's urgency.

Your letter to a member of Congress, or to the editor of the local paper, or the words you speak in a town meeting can be salt, when they challenge a sleepy government to pay attention to the needs of hungry children or the unemployed. That is the salt of compassion, even though it may feel irritating to those who are invited to wake up to their neighbors' need, and demonstrate compassion.

Like all good gifts, salt can be overused - and the excessive use of a good gift often leads to counterintuitive results. Salt is a very good preservative, and we still use it to make things like ham or pickles. But too much in our food also pickles us - and leads to less of life, rather than more. Excessively salty critique may end a relationship and the possibility of change. When our conversation partners shut down in the face of overly sharp words, the agony of the situation is simply fixed, frozen in place. It will take some healing balm or the water of grace or even the purification of salt tears to find signs of life once more.

In addition to salt, Jesus also asks us to be the light of the world. Salt is actually necessary to make light. Salts - and there are lots of kinds of salts - are merely charged particles, ions, that generate some (re)action. Whether it's the fiery energy of the sun, the light from a battery or an outlet, or even the light from a firefly, the ways we know of producing light depend on something salty. If we're going to become light to the world, and show what God looks like in human form, we're going to have to be appropriately salty.

Our task is to figure out where and how. What's cooking in Kansas right now? What needs signs of life, and good news? Health care reform, unemployment, caring for our neighbors? I heard Fred Phelps and his clan were demonstrating outside our meeting place yesterday, and here this morning, though I didn't see them. Their message, that hateful message, just might be addressed by being entombed in a pillar of salt - like Lot's wife. It's a method of purification or protection, like our government's plans to bury nuclear waste in old salt mines in Nevada. That stuff certainly isn't life-giving - let's salt it away till it decomposes.

How and where will you use your salt?

Sometimes it only takes the tiniest pinch of salt to transform a life. The woman who cuts my hair is a Brazilian immigrant. She's been here more than 20 years, and she speaks English pretty well. Last spring she told me she could read English reasonably well, but she couldn't write. She wanted to learn, but she couldn't afford the tuition. I went back to the office and did a little digging. First I tried the local Episcopal churches, but none of them had ESL classes - and this in New York City, where every other person seems to be an immigrant! The next time I saw her I told her I hadn't had any luck. Then it dawned on me that there must be other resources in the community. A quick Google search turned up the Adult Education department in New York City, which indeed does offer ESL classes, and they're free. I printed off the brochure, and the different locations where these classes are offered. When I took these two measly sheets of paper to her, she absolutely lit up, she was ecstatic!

The last time I saw her, she told me that she is in love with the Saturday computer course she's also taking. She also told me that her English teacher thinks she'll be able to pass her GED pretty soon. Eventually, I expect she'll find significantly better employment - and I'll probably have to find another person to cut my hair. But, oh, what light she radiates, every time I see her!

Following Jesus means using our blood, sweat, and tears, and in the process becoming light to a dark and distracted world. Where are you going to spend your salt?

[Taken by permission from the website of the Episcopal Church.]