A Sermon about Salt

Based on Matthew 5:13-20

I imagine you’re already familiar with some of the language from today’s gospel reading. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” Sometimes biblical language is successful enough that people forget it came from the Bible, so you might hear people say this sort of thing even if they’re not talking about Bible stuff. I’ve decided to focus on that phrase Salt of the Earth today because, well, not really for any principled reason. I sort of just felt like it. Maybe when the text comes up again in 3 years I’ll give a Light of the World sermon. (Fun fact: it used to be a spiritual exercise, for monastics and other religious folks with a lot of time on their hands, to see how many sermons you could preach based on a single verse. Now we have the lectionary, which gives us different texts every week, so the challenge for a lot of ministers seems to be preaching the same sermon based on a bunch of different texts.) Alright, so anyhow today is about salt.

If you call someone the salt of the earth or if you call a group of people the salt of the earth then that’s a compliment, in some ways it’s one of the highest compliments you can pay someone. Salt of the Earth people are wholesome, dependable, hard-working, humble, generous. You can usually find the phrase “salt of the earth” palling around with the phrase “shirt off of their back.” It means basically that people can count on you to do the decent thing. It’s a compliment and if you’ve earned the label Salt of the Earth you’re probably doing well, morally speaking, better than most at least.

But it is can be a bit dull, being the Salt the Earth. If you’re the Salt the Earth of the earth you’re exemplary but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re exceptional. Here’s the difference: Exemplary people do the things we’ve decided everyone ought to do. It’s not an achievement to be exemplary so much as its a failing if you’re not. Exemplary is like when the teacher calls you up to blackboard and says “Show the rest of the class how you solved this math problem.” The teacher’s not saying you’re a great mathematical mind.  An exemplary person doesn’t really get credit for doing anything exceptional; usually they’re a standard bearer for normalcy. Exemplary sounds like: “Now why can’t you be more like your brother?” That’s exemplary in action. And my impression is that when we say Salt of the Earth we typically mean a person’s exemplary, which is good, of course, but also a little bit dull.

You may know already that for a long time salt was used as a preservative. If you wanted to avoid spoiling and mold and things like that you could salt your food, really cake it in salt, and then all the salt draws out the water from the food and you get something like beef jerky. I thought about developing beef jerky into some sort of elaborate theological metaphor but then I decided against it. But let me just say quickly that preservation seems to be the meaning we have in mind when we call people Salt of the Earth. We mean they keep things the way they ought to be. They preserve the possibility that someone could to live up to our idea of what’s desirable in a person.

I’d encourage you at some point to think of someone, identify someone you consider to be exemplary. If possible try to spend some time with them, see how they spend their day and as you’re doing so try to pay attention. I mean notice the sorts of things that they do, how’s the day structured, what’re their habits. You probably think this way already. I’m always seeing those articles that detail the writing habits of famous authors and I think part of the appeal is the idea that if you knew the right routine you’d be a bit more productive, too.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. I was talking a few months ago with the Divinity School’s new Dean, Dean Townes, and over the course of our dinner conversation the topic turns to productivity. She mentions to me that one of her colleagues at another institution was apparently pretty impressed with her scholarly output, and so he asks at some point, “Would you mind if I stopped by your office one day while you’re working?; I’d like to see how you’re able to get so much work done.” She says yes and so one day she’s working as she normally would with a very small audience. Her colleague is sitting in the room and will occasionally comment, ask a question. Finally he asks the most important question. After seeing Dean Townes sit down, open the computer, start working on this or that project and then after a while switch to a different project he asks, “Is that it?” She says “Yeah that’s it.” She told me, “He didn’t get it.”  I think he was expecting a bound and published book to materialize out of thin air. But it turns out the way to be a scholar is to be in the routine of doing scholarship.

That’s the difference, usually, that’s the difference between exemplary people, salt of the earth people, and the rest of us.  Exemplary people are disciplined, focused, they have a routine. But, if you think about it, we all have routines. That colleague of the Dean’s was just as disciplined as she was, it just happened that he was committed to different disciplines. He might have been very studiously committed to the routine of procrastination, for example. So, we all have routines but routine sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s viewed as stifling or repetitive, like something you’re doing just because that’s the way its been done before. It might be the case that you like your way of doing the routine better than others, but you really can’t escape routine.

I remember reading a parenting article article a few months ago. I don’t have kids but I’m interested sometimes in conversations about parenting so I read the articles. This one was about the bedtime routine for the little ones–take a bath, put on pajamas, brush the teeth, go to bed–it was about the bedtime routine and all of the conflicts of interest that sometimes happen when its time to do the routine. For example, maybe you want your three year old to brush their teeth and then go to sleep, but they’re more interested in spilling an entire box of cheerios and then throwing a tantrum about how its not fair that you’re making them brush their teeth. So, the article suggests some ways you might think about making the routine go more smoothly. You can say, “would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?” and apparently kids are sometimes more amiable if they’re given a little bit of a choice. And there were a bunch of other techniques, some more manipulative than others, but the point is that the routine has to happen one way or another so you may as well put some thought into making the routine work better for everyone. You can’t escape the routine, not really, and sometimes routine can be burdensome.

But sometimes, sometimes a routine is not burdensome at all. Sometimes a routine can be a gift. Some of you, most of you know that a couple of weeks ago I flew up to Michigan to attend a funeral and of course funerals usually follow something of a routine. There’s the welcome from the funeral director, there’s the sermon, they open the floor for comments either prepared or extemporaneous. Always a similar order. Everyone files past the casket, and then you join the caravan. The minister says a few words once you’ve arrived at the final resting place. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes, or something of that sort, always similar words. And no one ever says, “Well that was quite the dull funeral, just the same as all of the others, if you ask me.” Because of course without the routine no one would know what to do.

Sometimes the routine does the work for us. You don’t know what to say but the routine gives you a script. No one knows where to go but there’s some designated–a funeral director, maybe–to so this is what we do now and then next we’ll head over to the cemetery. The routine’s a gift in those cases because it lessens the pressure on everyone. You don’t have to worry about doing the right thing, saying the right thing. Someone’s already thought of that.

And I’ve discovered that it’s during these times–the times of routine when the right actions are pre-determined–it’s during those times that you’re most likely to find the salt of the earth. Here’s how you find them: Look around the room and find the people who didn’t have to be there. They won’t be doing anything exceptional or even exemplary. Just look for the people who are there when they didn’t have to be there, the one’s you were surprised and yet grateful to see. Because probably the most grace-filled moment of those services a couple of weeks ago was when I looked around a saw family friends, extended family–people you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be there but there they are. And if I had to pick anyone to call salt of the earth then those would be the ones.


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