Do you make your own bread? I wonder if you’ve ever forgotten to put the yeast in? The result is pretty disastrous, isn’t it? But what if you forget to put the salt in? Maybe not quite such as disaster but salt-free bread doesn’t taste very good, does it? These days we’re always being warned not to have too much salt in our diets and, indeed, the amount of salt in many processed/prepared foods is pretty alarming – we do well to check the labels. But salt does a lot more than bring out the flavour of food. Too much salt may raise our blood pressure but the effects of too little salt are equally, if not more, devastating. Too little salt in our bodies can, for example, cause permanent muscle damage. We add it to bread dough not just to make bread taste better to stop the yeast being overactive; we add it when boiling potatoes not just to improve the flavour but because it causes the water in the potatoes to come out of them and so softening them.
Salt has cleansing, antiseptic properties; it was so valuable as a preservative in the time of Jesus and for many centuries after, that it was used as currency. Salt is so important, so essential to life and well-being that not only has it been used as currency but it has sparked uprisings such as the El Paso ‘salt wars’ of the 1870s in America and protests such as Gandhi’s salt march – a non-violent opposition to the heavy taxes imposed on salt by the British Raj in India.
Too little or too much salt can lead to big problems. Too much salt can ruin your meal; it’s unpleasant to drink – making you thirstier than before at best and making you sick at worst. Yet strangely enough, if you have been running or doing some other very active sport, a drink with some salt in it won’t taste salty or unpleasant because your body knows its need to replace the salt it has lost through perspiration. How very cleverly we are created by God!
When the amount of salt is just right, then we hardly notice it. It’s the same with light – that other image that Jesus uses in our gospel reading today. If there isn’t enough light, we can’t see where we’re going or what we’re doing. If there’s too much light, or it’s shining right into our eyes, then we’re dazzled and can see either.
It’s a question of balance, of getting it right. And so Jesus compares his followers, his disciples to salt and to light. Apart from needing just the right amount of salt or light, there is a significant difference between the two which Jesus highlights. Salt is generally the hidden ingredient. It’s not noticeable either to the naked eye nor in terms of taste. It just enhances the flavour of the food. The right amount is not noticed at all – only its absence or too much. What does this say to us as a church community, as present-day disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we the salt of the earth that enhances our local community? Just suppose for a moment that there were no disciples of Jesus Christ – no church – in in the place where you live. Leaving aside the question of the physical church building for the moment, what would be missing if there wasn’t a Christian presence here? Would it matter? Would something be missing? And if so, what? Would people notice the ‘lack of seasoning’? How would our community be different if it wasn’t for the people of this church?
If we look back to our first reading, where Isaiah describes the sort of commitment, the sacrifices that God requires of his people, the sort of difference we the church are called to make – to loose the bonds of injustice, share food with the hungry, welcoming the homeless, – and those more difficult demands – not pointing the finger, not saying unkind things….. These are the sort of things that are going to add flavour to our community, to our fellow human beings. And look at the promises God makes, the rewards which will result from this behaviour: our needs will be satisfied; we will flourish like a watered garden; we will be peace-makers, repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in.
Although the right sort and intensity of light is unobtrusive, Jesus makes the point that, unlike salt which can be hidden, mixed in, light needs to be out in the open to be effective. It has to be in a position where it can be effective. At our recent ‘Messy Church’, adults and children made a collage showing their homes as ‘beacons of blessing’
– light streams from the doors and windows of houses making them noticeable, inviting, encouraging. Jesus says, in those words we use at the offertory in the Prayer Book service, that we should let our light shine – make all those things that Isaiah encouraged obvious – so that people would give glory to God. Here, unlike the salt, Christ’s followers should stand out, should shine out. We are the light of the world! Jesus in John’s gospel describes himself as the Light of the World but here, in Matthew’s gospel, he tells his disciples that they – we – are the light of the world. How do we enlighten the world. Do we enlighten the world? Do we light up our own community?
There’s something of a contrast here, isn’t there – between the salt which is unobtrusive, hidden, subtle, self-effacing and the light which is like a city on a hill, shining out. Both are effective, both are encouraged by Jesus. It’s not a case of “either or”, but “both and”. We are the church, the body of Christ in this place both in the way we are present alongside our family, friends and neighbours, living a life of faithful discipleship, and when we declare our allegiance, our faith in more obvious ways, when we speak out and stand up for those who are treated unjustly.
There is one last point I want to make about the image of salt and that is that it doesn’t take much. Only a pinch of salt is needed. And I hope that thought might be a comfort and an inspiration to us when we look around and think that we are too few to make a difference. Remember the words of the Dalai Lama – ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’
May you be as salt where there is staleness;
light where there is darkness;
truth where there is unbelief
and love where there is great need.
And may you know the blessing of God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit,
close to you each moment and each day.
This week, when you switch on a light or taste salt, use this moment to pray for God, and ask him how you can show his love to others.