I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 5, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:13-20, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”
Last year as we were preparing for the Easter Vigil (the nighttime service that is the culmination of both Holy Week and, really, the entire liturgical year), Father T.J. let me know that I would be responsible for building and lighting the outdoor Paschal fire, the flames of which signify resurrection and which are used to light the Paschal candle for the first time.
And I thought, great. I love the Paschal fire; it evokes something so deep and elemental about our faith and worship tradition; it is such a powerful liturgical moment. This was going to be amazing!
But there was just one problem. And if you recall my sermon from a couple weeks ago about my reticence towards going ice fishing, you might be able to put the pieces together: I am not the most outdoorsy person. As a Cub Scout I was more likely to get a badge for indoor activities like cooking or arts & crafts than I was for anything out in the woods. So building fires? Not exactly my strong suit. Members of the Young Adults group have seen my rather suspect attempts at building a “camp fire” in the church garth by simply lighting a Duraflame log…so they’ve known this for some time.
But anyway, back to the Paschal fire. Fr. T.J. said, don’t worry, there’s a really simple way to do this. Watch this Youtube video and you will see how to make the fire with just two things: rubbing alcohol and coarse salt. And it’s true! Those two ingredients, when ignited, create a beautiful, bright fire. My struggle to actually get the thing lit is a story for another time, but if you were at the Easter Vigil this past year, you saw the fire blazing out on the labyrinth, and you saw how it sparked the Paschal candle and how it sparked our Easter joy. Just some fuel and some salt for the flames to dance upon.
That’s the amazing thing about salt: sort of like the burning bush that Moses encounters, or the three young men who survive the fire in the Book of Daniel, salt can burn and burn and not be consumed. It is a catalytic agent, which, chemically speaking, means that it affects the rate at which the fuel is consumed. The salt is stable and strong, and so it allows the flame to burn long and hot and steady rather than just flaring up and disappearing in a moment.
This is very useful for Paschal fires, but also for other things. You see, in 1st century Middle Eastern cultures, among other places, this same principle was employed in the earthen ovens used to make bread: salt would be placed on the bottom, topped by fuel (which in that time was usually dried animal dung) and then lit to produce an intense, consistent heat for baking.
And it’s true that salt was also used for preserving food, but in a society that had very little access to meat, it was actually this use as a catlytic agent in the earthen oven that was the most prevalent in the daily lives of common people. Over time, if the salt became mixed with dirt or other materials that decreased its ability to help the fire burn, it would be discarded for a fresh supply.
And so now, I invite you to listen again to that moment when Jesus says, You are the salt of the earth; but 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.
The first time I learned about the connection between salt and the earthen oven, it was like hearing that famous passage from the Gospel for the first time. Especially when you realize that the Greek word for “earth” that Matthew uses here is drawn from a Hebrew word that elsewhere in the Bible means not just the earth, the ground, the land but literally the earthen oven, the furnace.
And so some Biblical scholars who have made this connection argue that a more accurate rendering of the passage could be:
You are the salt of the earthen oven; but if salt has lost its saltiness, (that is, its ability to catalyze), how can it be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
In other words: in your place and time, here and now, you, the disciples of Jesus, are the catalysts of the flame of God’s Spirit. This is what you are. This is what God made you to be: salt to bear the heat, salt to sustain the fire of love, to allow it to burn in you and through you with the Divine promise that it will not consume you and it will not destroy you, for to bear this flame of love is your God-given purpose on this earth.
You are the salt of the earthen oven. And the world will be warmed and fed and illuminated by the holy fire you carry, by the brightness of God’s light that encircles you.
And I know that there are other symbolic layers to the image of salt, too, but if we take this interpretation to heart, then it suggests that being salt, being light, being disciples of Jesus, is not so much about preservation—which is, in essence, the slowing down of transformation—but about sustaining the transformative process: giving ourselves over to that ever-emerging fire, that blazing brightness we refer to as God’s Kingdom.
We are salt when we let our selves and souls and bodies nourish the flame of love and help it to burn long and slow and steady down through the ages. We are salt when we turn our insitutions and our societies, like that earthen oven, into places where there is food and warmth and safety for everyone; where the lonely and the lost and the hungry gather in around the hearth; where our daily bread is found until that day when the true feast that God is preparing for us–the bread of heaven, the bread of life–is ready at last.
And so if we strive to follow our Lord’s counsel, if we long to be the salt and light he tells us that we are, then we must ask ourselves: when and where do I feel on fire with purpose and joy? What thing have I been given to do, big or small, that stirs up a sense of warmth and light within me and around me?
Or, if we’re not quite sure of that yet, then ask, what inspires me in the lives of others, those in my life or in the history of our faith, who have clearly been set ablaze with God’s love? Whatever it is—a creative pursuit, an act of service, a cause for justice and peace, a conversation with a neighbor, a small gift offered in love, a dedication to prayer—focus on these things, make note of them, and consider deepening your practice of them as we begin to approach our season of Lenten reflection and devotion.
Even now, in the deep chill of winter, long before the salt and fuel are mixed and the Paschal flame is lit anew, we can still light up the world. We can still be the source of brightness and the providers of nourishment.
For if we are the salt of the oven, scattered gently down upon the earth by our Creator, baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit, then we have but one mission: to keep the flame burning for as long as we can; to nourish the world with our love; and to let our Alleluias and our Amens rise up like ember and smoke and the scent of baking bread: the spark of eternity, the scent of heaven, the taste of home.
For more on the scholarship behind this sermon, visit: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/hts/article/view/70848/59805