Greenwood Forest Sermons
Behave Yourself
Salt for the Land

Salt for the Land

February 10, 2020

There was a boy named Sam who didn’t speak. His parents began to get very concerned as he passed all the developmental milestones and still wasn’t talking. They took to the pediatrician, to the speech therapist, to the neurologist—all the docs said the same thing: we can’t find any medical reason why he isn’t speaking. One night while the family was eating dinner, Sam looked up and said, “my soup is too salty.” His parents freaked out, and started yelling and crying with relief, and saying “we can’t believe it, Sam! You can talk! It’s a miracle. How did this happen?” Sam just calmly said, “Well up to now, everything has been fine.”

Salt is used for so many things in our world. It is the most ubiquitous food seasoning on earth. From sea salt to kosher salt to pink Himalayan salt to Japanese moshio made from dried seaweed, every culture has its own unique forms of salt that people use to flavor cuisine. Salt is vital in the preservation process and was used to keep food safe to eat without refrigeration. Bacteria can’t survive without water so people figured out a long time ago that if they covered meats and other foods in salt, the salt would remove all the moisture, flavor the food, and keep the food from growing harmful bacteria. Salt has been used by many cultures for ritual purposes, often symbolizing purity or cleansing. Salt doesn’t just serve flavoring, preserving, and symbolic functions, however: it is actually essential to the functioning of the human body. It is necessary for nerve and muscle function, it helps regulate fluids, it plays a role in the body’s control of blood volume, and it provides electrolytes that regulate blood pH and pressure. We simply can’t live without it.

The people of ancient Palestine couldn’t live without salt either. But in addition to the uses I’ve already mentioned, salt had another very important use for people in the ancient world. The Greek word translated as “earth” in the phrase “salt of the earth” from our passage gives us a clue. The word is “ges,” the root for English words such as geology. It means earth but most often in the sense of arable land, the ground we are standing on, the soil. Jesus is more accurately saying “you are salt for the land” or “salt for the soil.”[1] Salt was frequently used in ancient farming techniques as a fertilizer to be applied directly on arable land, and to keep manure from rotting until it could be transported to a field. The version of this teaching in the Gospel of Luke makes Jesus’s intended meaning clear. Luke 14:34-35 says “salt is good, but if it loses its savor, how can saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap.” Jesus is employing an agricultural metaphor, not a metaphor about seasoning food.

This has been blowing my mind all week and for me, adds a lot to the conversation about what Jesus expects from his followers. We are not simply to add flavor to the world around us, or to preserve it, but to scatter ourselves into the world’s arid places and make abundant life possible. We should be integrated into the soil around us, providing essential nutrients and stimulating growth. We should be a transformative presence in our community. If a fertilizer sits in the shed until the nutrients in it break down and it expires, it does nothing for the soil and has to be thrown out. Fertilizer is meant to be used for the life of the land around it. You are fertilizer for the ground also fits more neatly with Jesus’s other metaphor in this passage—you are the light of the world. In the same way, fertilizer does no good if it sits idle and isn’t scattered, light does no good if it is hidden under a basket. Fertilizer must give life to arid ground, and light must illuminate darkness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased the follow him.”[2]

The metaphors of salt, light, and the city on a hill were not just general images Jesus pulled out of thin air to describe how his followers should live. These metaphors were Jesus’s response to a very real conundrum facing the people of Israel in his day: how do we remain faithful to God under the boot of the Roman empire? For some in Jesus’s day, the best way to be faithful under oppressive Roman rule was a kind of “circle the wagons” approach—keep to ourselves, try to follow the law and the prophets as best we can, and interact with the gentile oppressors as little as possible. Pharisees often fell into this camp. The people in this camp placed a high value on maintaining a distinct identity from Rome, on being holy, and they thought the best way to accomplish this was to focus their energy internally, bolstering the Jewish community’s knowledge of their faith and exploring how to fulfill the law in daily life. I call this option revolutionary withdrawal. It remains an appealing option for religious people of many faiths, especially those who live under a government that is hostile to their religious practices. You can see this tendency throughout the history of the Christian church from some forms of the monastic movement to the radical reformers such as the Amish to a recent dustup over a book by conservative evangelical author Rod Dreyer called the “Benedict Option,” in which he argues that the only way for conservative evangelicals to escape the increasing decadence and immorality of American society is to “embrace exile from mainstream culture.”

The second prominent option for remaining faithful during Jesus’s day was to take up arms and attempt to drive out the Romans so that a kingdom faithful to God might be established in Israel. I call this option revolutionary violence. Two memories animated the draw to revolutionary violence: the memory of God defeating Pharaoh and liberating the Hebrew people celebrated at Passover, and the memory of the Maccabean Revolt, which happened just 150 years before Jesus was born, where Judah Maccabee led a briefly successful guerilla war against the Greek/Seleucid empire, expelling them from Jerusalem and re-dedicating the temple to the worship of the one true God. In Jesus’s day, people such as the Zealots preferred this option, hoping to lead an armed rebellion against the Romans, kick them out of Israel, and freely live and worship as they chose. Several of Jesus’s disciples were likely affiliated with Zealot groups before becoming his followers and found this option appealing.[3]

It was into this climate, and in answer to this specific question, that Jesus is offering the metaphors of salt and light. Jesus is rejecting the path of revolutionary withdrawal and the path of revolutionary violence, and offering an alternative path to faithfulness in the midst of Roman oppression: revolutionary discipleship. “God’s people are salt for barren ground,” he says. Salt is meant to be scattered across the land, catalyzing growth and life wherever it embeds itself. But salt that doesn’t do what it is meant to do, that doesn’t perform this life-giving and transformative role for the earth, is useless. “God’s people are light for a dark world,” he says. Why would you go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in the darkness and then hide it, confining its impact by covering it up? You wouldn’t! Light must shine to be what it was meant to be! And it only takes a little to illuminate the deepest dark. A city built on a hill is meant to be seen not hidden! Revolutionary withdrawal hides the light of God under a bushel basket and leaves the fertilizer in the shed. Revolutionary violence destroys the image of God in the one you are called to love, and puts your own light out. But revolutionary discipleship allows the light to be seen, the salt to be used for the good of the earth, and opens up the possibility that even one’s enemies might glorify God in heaven.

As a saying I came across this week says, “There can be no such thing as secret discipleship, for either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy.” Following Jesus in revolutionary discipleship cannot help but be visible. It cannot help but generate reaction from the world around it. Sometimes those reactions are positive—some will see our good works and give glory to God. Some will be drawn to the city on a hill, they will want the meaning and purpose that comes with fertilizing an arid earth. But sometimes the reactions revolutionary discipleship brings are negative. Jesus was killed after all and promised us that if we truly wanted to follow him, we will have to be prepared to share in his suffering. It takes courage to be salt and light in a barren and dark world.

When I think of courageous people who embraced their calling to be salt and light come what may, the first person that comes to my mind is Ida B. Wells. Our youth learned about Ida B. Wells last year in the lead-up to the Freedom Ride, but I’d venture a guess that very few of us learned about her until recently (if at all). She is one of the unjustly forgotten Black women whose uncommon boldness and prophetic fire should be at the forefront of our national memory, and certainly at the forefront of the U.S. church’s memory. Wells was born a slave in Mississippi a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation.[4] She learned her courage from her mother and father, who fled their former slaveowner after they were liberated and made a life for themselves, including boldly participating in political meetings among freed slaves, even as White backlash to Black enfranchisement was heating up. Tragically, both her parents and her baby brother died of yellow fever when Wells was only 16. She took responsibility for raising her other 6 siblings and took a job as a schoolteacher among freedpeople in rural Mississippi before she had even finished school herself. Once her brothers were old enough to care for themselves, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee with her sisters in tow and got a job as a journalist. It was in journalism that Wells found her calling. She began reporting on and protesting the establishment of Jim Crow laws around the South. In 1883, after Tennessee had adopted segregated train cars, Wells refused to move from the ladies car to the smoking car, which was where Black passengers were told to go if a train did not yet have a segregated car for them. The conductor returned with more White men to forcibly remove her, but she chose to get off the train rather than move to the smoking car. She sued the train company and won an initial suit, before the Tennessee Supreme Court eventually ruled against her, chastising her unladylike “persistence.”

In 1892, she launched the crusade that would occupy the rest of her life. A White mob lynched the three owners of a Black grocery store in town, including one of Wells’s closest friends. Instead of retreating in self-preservation, or lashing out in soul-destroying violence, Wells devoted her life to investigating, documenting, and exposing the brutality of lynching. She travelled around the South, by herself, interviewing witnesses and documenting thousands of lynchings that were intended to terrorize Black Americans into not exercising the freedoms to which they were entitled. Wells is the reason we know as much as we do about how widespread lynching was as a practice. She was tireless and fearless in her devotion to what was right, deconstructing the harmful myths and lies that were used to justify these murders. She once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Wells’s courageous devotion to what was right and good inspired many other freedom-fighters, including Frederick Douglass, who remarked about Wells, “brave woman! You have done your people a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.” She chose revolutionary discipleship, and because she did, her witness was compounded immeasurably. She was light and salt in the midst of a dark and barren world.

Our world is not so different from Jesus’s or Ida B. Wells’s. The particulars are different, but cruelty and oppression still run rampant. Those who wish to be faithful to God in the midst of darkness and barrenness still face a choice. We can try to insulate ourselves from danger, from hostility, from loss. We can choose to try and ride out the storm from inside the safety of these walls rather than engage boldly with the world around us. We can try to eliminate all the threats against us. Or we can pursue a revolutionary discipleship that rejects the violence of our world and refuses to shrink back in fear or self-preservation.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, an author and activist, wrote a moving letter to those engaged in the fight for goodness, and truth, and justice in our world today. She said: “Mis estimados queridos, My esteemed ones: do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable has become, in large societal arenas, the new normal. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to visionary people. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet…I urge you: do not lose hope. We were made for these times. I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world.  Look out over the prow; there are millions of righteous souls on the waters with you. One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is not to allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of despair. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these, to be fierce and show mercy towards others, are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: when a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But…that is not what great ships are built for.”[5]

Greenwood Forest, look up. Our beautiful ceiling resembles the underside of a ship, which has long been a symbol for the church universal’s journey in the world. Our challenge today is to see this place as the boat from which we leap like Peter to follow Jesus out on the water, rather than an ark in which we hide until the rain stops. We were made for times like this—to be salt for arid ground and light for a dark world. Let us stand up and let our souls shine for all those in our world who are waiting to see the light of other brave souls. If we can do that, then together, as the prophet Isaiah says our light will rise in the darkness, we will rebuild ruins, we will repair breaches, we will restore streets, and with the power of the God who made us salt and light, we will right the wrongs within our reach and be who we were built to be. Let us pray.


[1] See Anthony Bradley, “You Are the Manure of the Earth” Christianity Today October 2016; and Eugene Deatrick, “Salt, Soil, Savior” The Biblical Archeaologist 25 no. 2 (May 1962).

[2] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

[3] See Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

[4] See Wells, The Light of Truth ed. Mia Bay


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