Sermons in Epiphany

SALT          The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand                     2/9/14   A few years ago, I had an opportunity to go for a week of sailing down in Baha de California Sur,  sailing out of La Paz.   It was a memorable week made possible from a gift of my long-term friend Doug.  Doug and I sailed out of La Paz with a group from northern  California, a group of sailors most of whom like me had never been sailing in  Mexico.

One day we came to a beautiful desert island marked by a wonderful cove where we anchored.  A fishing trawler was there, sleeping during the day so as to be able to work during the night.  And there was a wonderful cruising sloops of about 37 feet also anchored there; the couple on that boat had come south from California to cruise Mexico during the winter months.

We went ashore and hiked about and noted the sparse vegetation and the wild goats living up on the steep hillsides of the island.  Near the end of our time there, we came to a broad rectangular pan-like structure carved out in the sand.  The rectangular piece was really an impression made in the sand.  About a foot deep, it was long and wide and flat on the bottom.  Unlike the surrounding sand, however, the stuff on the bottom was white.

This was my first introduction to a small, simple commercial salt flat.  Created by residents from a nearby island, it was a simple operation.  Salt water was channeled into the salt flat during a high tide and the flat was then capped off, trapping the salt water inside.   Days and even weeks would pass under the hot sun.  Slowly the water evaporated, leaving the white salt.  After a few times of this, the remaining salt would be raked and shoveled up and carted off to be sold.

The salt was only available when the water was removed.  It was only accentuated and really noticed and really powerful when the surrounding water had evaporated into thin air.

Today, among other things,  Jesus brings us face to face with salt.  He tells us that we are salt,  salt of the earth, and pretty much leaves it at that.   But salt has many uses and many powers.

Salt in water is not particularly attractive.   Spread on the earth in large quantites,  salt is a killer,  rending the ground useless for growing things.  The ancients used to poison the growing fields of enemies by sowing salt.  We know salt at this time of year,  though we hardly taste it.   Salt in various forms is spread on the roadways instead of sand.  It melts and trickles off into ditches and sanitation systems to play sometimes havoc with our water supply.

So I am thinking that too much salt can be a bad thing.  It can dominate and ruin and even poison.  People too mindful of their own random acts of kindness,  too interested in getting “credit” for their own good deeds fall into this category.   Their actions may be salty, but their spiritual attitude may communicate a very disagreeable spirit that says in effect, look at me, not trying to be too proud—look at all the good things that I am doing,  thank me please.  And often we do.

No, the salt that Jesus  has in mind, I think, comes in smaller doses.  That is it is in small doses when salt really is valuable.  We say that salt brings out the flavor in things.  If we, therefore, are to be  salt,  then we can better be about the task of bringing out the goodness,  the humanity,  the richness,  the uniqueness of things.   Isn’t that what being a follower of Jesus is all about?

Are we not called to be some kind of enabling and enhancing presence as we live our lives?

But let’s not get too carried away with salt and saltiness.   There are times when we will be the ones needing the extra touch,  the extra presence,  the extra bit of encouragement or care or love that salt can bring.  And so we have also to ask ourselves,  am I ready to receive,  to find again the flavor of living and loving and serving?    If I am depressed, am I really willing to be encouraged or do I simply want to abide in the depths of my darkness and cling to everything there?   If I have harbor childhood memories of times when I was bullied or abused or discounted or left out or maybe even simply ignored,  is it my duty to define myself by these things or to let the flavor of other times and other experiences,  properly salted,  now come into play to change my perspective?

On that island,  the waves were gently lapping the shore of the beach as we looked at the salt flat.  Behind us, in the cove,  vast quantities of salty water could be seen looking a pale blue.   And so it is that salt is all around us.  But it is hardly available. What we need, to be salty or to be salted, is to be intentional.   We have to stop and to take some of that water and boil it down until we get to the grains of salt themselves.   When this happens, then we can capture the salt,  take the salt and use it in our lives.

It takes a long time for water to evaporate on a primitive salt flat.  For water to leave behind white saltine crystals.   And so one must ask Does salt, to be in my life, have to be cultivated,  teased into existence?   Does it take time for me to become salty?   I think that perhaps it does.   In the flow of life, in the flowing past of one experience after another,  perhaps we need to have a way of trapping things, if only for a moment,  to squeeze the goodness out.

Prayer is one way to slow things down and to examine things over a longer period of time.  Contemplation is something that we should also use. Journaling is another way to examine the flow,  to trap the water of life if you will so that the goodness,  the tang,  the zest of things can come out.

Story telling is perhaps something that we may not think of in this regard, but it is another dimension of life that we need to use.  A few years ago, Marilee and I attended an eighth grade graduation party for a member of the church I was serving in Illlinois.   The party was for the kids, but gradually the adults and some of the kids also found themselves out of the backyard where the food had been served and back inside the living room where people sat around in chairs, couches and on the living room rug.  The conversation of the usual sort went on for a while until finally someone decided to tell a story.  It was a story from the past, followed by  another and yet another.   Sometimes people offered little stories in reaction to a particularly powerful or funny one.  But often one memory would trigger the memory of another who would offer a story that would take us in an entirely different direction.  Stories did not have to match or to be connected.  Rather, in the silence, they were offerings.

The sun was gradually setting.   The light in the room softened.   I was struck by the way in which all of us together were really listening very hard,  focusing,  savoring.  We were not waiting in line to be able to tell our story.  We were not sifting through the backroads of our own mental process, hoping to be able to find a particularly wonderful ‘capper’ of a tale.  No,  we often were silent; we listened deeply.  More than telling, we together tasted the richness and the flavor of someone else’s experience.   And so in this way, the flow,  the ordinary water of human experience, was trapped.   It was trapped and held until some of the water evaporated and the salt of the experience itself began to appear.

If we are to be salt,  then we have to find salt.   To make sure that life does not pass us by.   If we are to bring salt,  to bring out the flavor in someone else’s life,  then we by all means will need to find the flavor in our own experiences and to savor them.

God is present in all the experiences and events and perceptions of the life flowing about us.   Now our challenge is clear:   Taste and see that the Lord is good.

In the name of God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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