Tag Archives: Beatitudes

Where’s the salt?

Matthew 5:13-20
Where is the salt?
9 February 2020

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

Whenever I hear our passage from Matthew, I have flashbacks to the Great Salt Panic of 2015. You remember that, don’t you? No? Here’s a refresher.

Tricia, Eric, and Essie came to New York to celebrate the holiday with Sean and me. We decided to eat at my apartment because I had a full-size oven. Tricia did the cooking. At some point, she opened the food pantry and asked, “Where is the salt?”

The salt.

Silence hung in the air as I framed my response. Years ago, I  gave up adding salt to food. I did not give up salty foods. If you attended our October feast and counted the pretzels I ate, you know that. But I have not added salt to food either in cooking or on my plate for many years.

 Where is the salt? Not in my apartment.

This posed a problem to whatever Tricia was making. She called Sean. On his way uptown, he stopped at a Duane Reade and bought some salt. Thanksgiving dinner proved a success. And that container of salt remains in the pantry. A full shaker sits on the table. Waiting for Tricia or the kids to come and use them.

Salt has a long and interesting history. It was once traded for gold. The early Chinese used coins of salt and in Europe some Mediterranean people used cakes of salt as currency.[i] During the time of the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle Ages, salt carried such value that it was sometimes called “white gold.” Roman soldiers sometimes received pay in with salt instead of money. Because “sal” is the Latin word for salt, the soldiers monthly allowance became called “salarium”. Linguists say the process took a couple steps, but “salarium” eventually became “salary” in English.[ii] This then leads to the phrase that a worker is “worth her … salt.”  

In India, the colonizing British passed a Salt Act in 1882 that prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt.  The Indian people could only purchase salt from the British. Who exercised a monopoly over salt’s manufacture and sale … and who benefited from the tax. As is the case with most economic injustice, the people living in poverty suffered the most although everyone needed salt.[iii]

To challenge British rule, Mohandas Gandhi determined to break the Salt Act. He organized a 240-mile march to the sea in March of 1930. There marchers would make their own salt. Thousands of people marched to the sea where, in defiance to the empire, they made salt. The movement grew. Millions more began to break the Salt Act. The British arrested some 60,000, including Gandhi. At the Dharasana Salt Works, nonviolent protestors were brutally beaten by police. The British released Gandhi from prison in January of 1931. The Salt Act was not abolished. But Gandhi participated as a negotiator at a conference on India’s future. Those negotiations did not go well. But sixteen years later India and Pakistan received independence. The door to that independence pushed open by nonviolent direct action over salt.[iv]

My Uncle Pete lives near Syracuse. He  reminds me of the role that salt played in the history of the city. Millions of years ago, a sea covered central New York. As the sea evaporated, it left behind deposits of salt. The Onondaga people who lived in the area knew something was going on with some of the water in the area. Salt production began in the 1770s and continued until about 1900. During much of that time, Syracuse was a major, if not the major salt, producer in the United States.[v] Uncle Pete will proudly tell you that Syracuse is “The Salt City.”

Salt melts ice. Softens water. Creates a solution that when gargled can soothe a sore throat. Flavors food and beverages. I remember as a child my grandparents encouraging me to use salt to brush my teeth.

At the time Jesus lived, salt flavored food. Salt helped purify or cleanses meats through the removal of blood. It was used to help heal or cleanse certain ailments. And it preserved certain foods—meat or fish among them. The use of salt as a preservative was essential until the invention of refrigeration. The people who lived in first century Palestine knew all these uses for salt.[vi]

Salt also had ritual and symbolic uses at the time. People used salt in offerings and sacrifices. The Hebrew Scriptures refer twice to a “covenant of salt.” In one instance, this covenant is made between God and the priests. In the other, God makes such a covenant with the kings. According to the New Oxford Annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, this image most likely refers to the perpetual nature of the covenant because of salt’s preservative nature.[vii]

“You are the salt of the earth.” When the people who heard them from Jesus, they recognized he had said something important. He provided the people with an understanding of who they were and how they were to be.

“You are the salt of the earth.” They carry meaning for us today. With these simple words, Jesus tells us who we are and how we are to live.

It is important that we pay close attention to the words. We need to understand why Jesus said and what Jesus did not say.

Jesus does not say, “If you want to be salt, you have to do this, that, and the other thing.” Jesus does not say, “I will call you salt, if I see you behave in these ways.

Like the Beatitudes we considered last Sunday, Jesus’ words bring no requirement or conditions. “You are the salt of the earth.” They are blessing. Affirmation. Commissioning. They were blessing, affirmation, and commissioning for those who heard the Sermon on the Mount. They were blessing, affirmation, and commissioning for those who have read the Sermon on the Mount. They are blessing, affirmation, and commissioning for us. “We are the salt of the earth.”

Yes, Jesus goes on to say that “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.”[viii]

Clearly Jesus never spent a winter in Western Pennsylvania. We trampled salt under foot many days. It was good. Often it was essential.

As I researched today’s sermon, I came across several authors who raised the question of “can salt lose its saltiness?” Or flavor or taste as some other versions of the Bible translate the term.[ix]

They answer salt does not. And if you have ever taken a sled down a blocked-off street in Western Pennsylvania and ended up in a snowbank where the salt truck had been, you would know. It still tastes like salt. These scholars believe that Jesus knew that salt does not lose its saltiness. And those who heard Jesus knew that salt does not lose its saltiness. They believe that by talking about “salt that has lost its taste,” Jesus underscores the reliability and resilience of the blessing he has bestowed. Lutheran pastor David Lose says Jesus tells his people, tells us: “You are the salt of the earth! That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will stay. Period.”

With this image, Jesus affirms our worth. We matter to Jesus. We matter to God. We have great value. God has gifted us and put us in this world to uses those gifts as well as we are able to flavor life with  God’s justice, kindness, and love. The salt of the earth, we help preserve and bring healing and offer flavor according to God’s will. It is who we are. It is what we do.

What does it look like to live as salt?

Congressman John Lewis from Georgia is a man of profound and deep faith in Jesus Christ. At one point, he considered entering the ministry. In his graphic novel, March: Book One, Lewis writes that as he cared for the chickens on his family’ farm, he preached to the chickens.[x] He  participated in the Nashville Student Movement[xi] and became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963.[xii] He was one of the original Freedom Riders.[xiii] He spoke at the March on Washington, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and after the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church.[xiv]

March: Book One

On March 7, 1965, civil rights activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to call for full voting rights for all people. John Lewis led the march. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. There state troopers and a posse organized by the county ordered them to disperse. When the marchers did not, the “law enforcement” officials, including some on horseback, attacked with nightsticks and tear gas. Many marchers received severe beatings and injuries, including John Lewis.

Jump forward in time almost 55 years. On December 28, 2019 Congressman Lewis shared the news that he has Stage IV pancreatic cancer. He began his statement about the illness with these words: “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”[xv]

This past Thursday, the annual National Prayer Breakfast took place in Washington, DC. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) received the invitation to deliver the closing benediction. He accepted, even though his fight against cancer meant that he had to appear by video.

As he spoke, Congressman Lewis quoted his friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I have decided to stick with love, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” Congressman Lewis spoke of the brutal beating he endured in Selma. And then said, “But I never hated the people who beat me because I chose the way of peace, the way of love, and the way of nonviolence. For the God Almighty helped me.” His benediction ended with an admonition to the attendees, and to all the nation, to “go in peace, go in love, and we commit to treating each other as we would treat ourselves. Amen.”[xvi]

Peace.

Love.

Treating each other as we would treat ourselves.

That is how we live as salt, church. That is how we live as salt.

We may not have similar experiences to Congressman Lewis. But we have daily opportunities to live in peace, to love, and to treat each other as we would treat ourselves. We can love individually and as a congregation. We can love individuals and we can act for justice, love expressed in the public arena.

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone is the salt of the earth. We pray for one another, for our community, and for people and circumstances around God’s world. Aid people recovering from disasters. Support efforts to address gun violence and welcome refugees and provide food and water to the world. Help children in the Philippines enjoy a Christmas meal.

Individually, we can love and live in peace and treat people as we would like to be treated. We can love our neighbors – the people who live around us. We can help each other as we face challenges of life. Our work or our life at school can be done in kindness and in peace. We can listen patiently and prayerfully to one another in the pews around us, help meet each other’s needs, and serve Jesus together. And then we can do the really challenging ministry – loving our family, the people closest to us. That’s how Jesus commissions us to live.

Where is the salt? It’s you. It’s me. It’s us. By God’s grace, we are the salt of the earth. Amen.


[i] https://mypages.iit.edu/~smart/smitcha1/lesson1.htm

[ii] https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/11/08/362478685/from-salt-to-salary-linguists-take-a-page-from-science

[iii] https://www.history.com/topics/india/salt-march

[iv] Ibid

[v] https://exploringupstate.com/story-syracuse-salt/

[vi] https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-saltiness-matthew-513-20-amy-allen/

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covenant_of_salt

[viii] Matthew 5:13

[ix] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1543; https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-saltiness-matthew-513-20-amy-allen/; and http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2014/02/you-are-salt-of-earth.html?m=1

[x] John Lewis, Andrew Aydi, Nate Powell, March: Book One  (Marietta, Georgia, 2013), pp. 26-28.

[xi] Ibid, pp 75-121

[xii] https://snccdigital.org/people/john-lewis/

[xiii] John Lewis, Andrew Aydi, Nate Powell, March: Book Two (Marietta, Georgia, 2015), pp. 32-33.

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_on_Washington_for_Jobs_and_Freedom#/media/File:March-on-washington-jobs-freedom-program.jpg

[xv] https://johnlewis.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/rep-john-lewis-undergoing-cancer-treatment

[xvi] https://sojo.net/articles/personal-prayer-day-national-prayer-breakfast

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A New Scene Begins

72214504_10157395131336063_6548324250078412800_nA New Scene Begins
Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-16
13 October 2019
Installation of the Rev. Eric Koenig
Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

I will never forget the day that Eric returned from a youth conference and gushed: “Mark Lomax is a great preacher!” After he said that several times, my poker face must have failed me, because he quickly added, “But Dad, you are OK, too.”

The Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax is pastor of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia. Professor of homiletics and worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center. He is a friend. A faithful follower of Jesus. A superb preacher. But he is somewhere else today. And I am here. And that’s OK.

We gather today for the installation of an associate pastor. Remember our context as we do. Presbyterians believe that all who follow Jesus are called to serve Jesus. We witness to Christ in all we do and say wherever we may be. God requires that corporately, and individually, we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Jesus summons each of us and all of us. Jesus invites us to live as he lived as well as we are able and to trust in God’s grace when we fall short. Jesus calls us to love as he loved and to establish the justice which, as Dr. Cornell West reminds us, is love in public. “Will you – singular you and plural you – will you come and follow me?”

Presbyterians further believe that from the midst of God’s people, some are called to ordered ministries. These are roles within the Church that allow the ministry of the whole people of God to flourish. We ordain the people who fill those roles. We do so not because they are superior followers of Jesus but to recognize the specific role they play in the life of God’s people.

Of ordered ministries in the Presbyterian Church there are three. Three are the number of ordered ministries. Deacon. Elder. And … to be honest, we have had some question about the language to use for the third ordered ministy. We have used “ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” We have used “teaching elders.” The Book of Order has a passage that covers all the bases: “teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament).”

By whatever name, the church ordains people to the role. Ordained individuals are then installed to specific positions and tasks.

In response to the Holy Spirit and discernment by Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of New Castle, and Eric, with significant input from Essie, we gather today to install Eric as associate pastor.

As we do, I offer some insights I have gleaned through the years about ministry.  In the words of those classic theogians the Beatles, I so with a little help from my friends. Ginger, Babs, Mac, Bunty, Fowler, Nick and Fetcher.

Well they could be friends. If we had met. If they were real.

They are castmembers of a movie called Chicken Run – a claymation movie involving chickens, rats, dogs, and some humans.

Chicken Run is set in 1950s Great Britain on the Tweedy’s chicken farm. The chickens live ringed by barbed wire fences and guarded by large, nasty dogs.

The chickens are there to make money for the Tweedys  by laying eggs. Hens that fail to lay eggs soon make their final appearance. On the Tweedy’s dinner table.

The chickens, led by a hen named Ginger, become fed up with this life.  Ginger knows that the chickens deserve better – a life free from the demand to produce eggs, free from the threat of death, and free from the farm.  She shares her vision with the other chickens and convinces them to begin living out the vision in the only way possible – escape.

They devise a plan for escape and put it into operation. And they fail. Again. And again. And again. Every attempt fails and the chickens are caught. And every time they are caught the chickens attempt another escape.

Two events break this cycle. A rooster from the United States named Rocky arrives. He brashly promises to teach the chickens to fly across the fence that traps them. At the same time, Mrs. Tweedy decides that eggs are not profitable enough. The farm will produce chicken pies. This makes escape essential. As one chicken profoundly says, “I don’t want to end up as a pie. I don’t even like gravy.”

I will tell no more of the story so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it. But what does it say about ministry?

The Tweedys said the chickens’ role was to live on their farm in the conditions they established and produce wealth for the Tweedys.  Led by the prophet Ginger, the chickens had an alternative vision. They envisioned a world with no barbed wire, no dogs, no huts, and no quotas. Instead there would be freedom and abundance and sunshine and sharing.

Jesus proclaimed and lived an alternative vision. In the face of the domination of empire and the division of the human family along lines of class and gender and sexual identity and age and nationality, Jesus taught a vision of radical inclusion, expansive love, and unfailing justice. He envisioned a world turned upside down. And he calls us as his followers to live in that world.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Whether we use the traditional translation of “blessed” or whether we ride with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer’s translation of “greatly honored,” the Beatitudes proclaim a radical disruption of the status quo. They contain an alternative vision for reality. Jesus lived and died and was raised for that vision. He summons us to live in it. We are invited to work together to bring that vision into reality. And we are freed to know that we will fall short and when we do, we can seek and accept forgiveness, and pick ourselves back up and trying anew. Vision is where we start.

Part of that vision involves recognizing who we are and whose we are. The chickens refused to accept the way in which they were assigned worth by the dominant culture. To the Tweedys, the chickens had worth only as means of production. Once they ceased to be productive they had no value and they were disposed of. The chickens knew that they were more than that. They knew they had value simply because they existed. We are talking some profoundly self aware chickens here.

Ministry involves accepting our own value and reminding others of their value. We are repeatedly told that our value comes from externals – skin color, wealth, status, gender or sexual identity, age, ability. The list goes on. Elaborate systems and structures are built upon human differences by the powerful for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing their power.

Ministry is knowing and claiming and living the awareness that I am God’s beloved child. And so are you. And so is everyone we meet. We should be treated as such. We should treat each other as such. We should challenge anyone who says otherwise. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, we move from treating people as others to embracing one another in God’s love. And then we work to dismantle systems that perpetuate privilege and inflict oppression.

The chickens created community. They understood that they were in it together. When one hen had problems laying eggs, others would share theirs.  Rocky points out that one or two chickens could easily escape. Ginger replies, “But that’s not the point. Either we all escape or none of us escape.”

Building, expanding, and nurturing community is an essential part of ministry today. Ministry is a corporate practice – a communal art. It is not for the professionals alone. It is for all of us.

The community created in Chicken Run crossed the usual lines.  Nick and Fetcher are rats. That’s not a comment on their character. That’s an identification of their species. They aren’t the brightest rats. They spend a good amount of time waiting for the eggs that Rocky, the rooster, has promised to lay for them. Still the rats become part of the community working together toward the goal of freedom and a better life for all.

Ministry involves reaching out to and serving with people from whom we differ. God creates and enjoys an amazing diversity. Our challenge and opportunity is to build a welcoming, including community. God calls us to create a place at the table for everyone born, to paraphrase Shirley Murray’s hymn. God calls us to break down and reshape, remake, and replace as needed. And to make sure that since everyone has a voice, every voice is heard.

Each chicken and rat has unique gifts to use in the effort. They live out the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something.” Each chicken and rat contributes to the effort.

Ministry involves discerning the gifts we each have and then putting those gifts to use for the good of the community and the world.

Chicken Run includes a rooster named Fowler who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “644th Squadron, Poultry Division – we were the mascots.” He fondly tells stories about, “Back in my day…” The time comes when his gifts are needed.  When he is asked to help, Fowler begs off. Ginger says, “Fowler you are always talking about back in your day. Well you are here now. And it is now that we need you. This is your day.”

Time has a way of jumbling together. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We plan and dream into the future. But in the end, today is the only day we have. Today we follow. Today we serve.

Today we begin a new scene in God’s Master Story – a story that began in the act of creation and that will extend until the end of days and the fulfillment of all things. A story of Divine creativity and grace and love in which we are privileged to play a part for a time. It is the story that has brought us to this time and place. It is the story that draws us into the future. We do not know for sure where the story will take us. Members of the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church who were here at the end of June may remember a long-haired, bearded preacher who referenced advice shared by the hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings:  “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

We do not know for sure where our part in God’s Master Story will lead us. But of this we may be certain. It will be a story of God’s grace and our response in ministry. And God will be with us. This day. Every day.

Thanks be to God.

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