As you probably know, at least subconsciously,
there are many images and maxims from Scripture
that have become part of our daily parlance,
specs of holy wisdom that have made their way
into our cultural discourse.
On the news and in the movies we hear about
“the blind leading the blind” (Matt 15:14),
escaping by the “skin of your teeth” (Job 19:20),
“casting our pears before swine” (Matt 7:6),
awareness that “a leopard cannot change its spots” (Jer 13:23),
and that there is “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).
Today we encounter another one of those cross-pollinating maxims:
that we are to be “salt of the earth.”
It is a rich concept that many have explored over the decades,
and not necessarily first and foremost by preachers.
Salt has been such a remarkable substance,
with such an enduring impact on human civilizations,
that its history, economics and social import
have long been explored by scholars
(e.g. Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History).
Most of us are pretty familiar with salt’s preservative powers,
but we may be less familiar with its other wide-ranging uses.
Salt, for example, was and is used as a purification substance.
In some ancient civilizations newborns were rubbed with salt,
even reported in the Bible (Ezekiel 16:4),
both as a strengthening and cleansing agent,
but also to ward off evil.
To this day sumo wrestlers follow the Shinto tradition
of throwing salt into an empty ring
to banish any lurking evil.
There is even evidence that a popular ancient Irish charm
used in suspected cases of being hexed by a fairy
included the use of the Lord’s Prayer and salt
to break the spell of the evil spirit.
We know salt was a prized spice,
sometimes even used for payment.
Notable the English word “salary” comes from the Latin for “salt” (sal),
as it was money that allowed Roman soldiers to buy salt.
Spilling salt was considered a bad omen,
classically enshrined in Leonardo Da Vinci’s fresco
of the Last Supper
in which Judas is depicted as spilling salt on the Jesus table.
One of the more surprising revelations to me
was that the natural appearance of salt in a landscape
sometimes contributed to the development of road systems,
since animals like bison wore deep trails to natural salt licks,
creating paths followed by hunters, then pioneers.
Because of its natural properties,
as well as the myths that developed around its potential
to heal both body and spirit,
salt also had a traditional place in our baptismal rituals.
Chances are that if you were baptized as an infant before 1969,
your baptism included a blessing and exorcism salt,
and then the placing of a pinch of salt in your mouth,
with the text “take this salt in sign of wisdom. May it be for you
a token that foreshadows everlasting life”
(The Roman Ritual, 1964, p. 47).
This mirrors ancient usage in the baptismal process of adults.
Thus salt was sometimes called “communion of catechumens.”
While the church is still 9 weeks away from the Easter vigil,
when the elect will be initiated into the Body of Christ,
and we are weeks beyond the Christmas season
that culminated in the feast of the Baptism of the Lord,
the readings of this ordinary Sunday
are yet saturated with baptismal imagery
that provide shocking wisdom for the already baptized
in this moment in our personal and societal journey.
Besides the salt, of course, there is the symbol of light
recalling the ritual presentation of light to each newly baptized.
Light imagery is pervasive in today’s texts,
appearing in the prophetic reading from Isaiah,
in the Psalm of the day,
in the verse before the Gospel,
and in the gospel itself.
While we might not think of these two common elements,
salt and light,
as important Christian resources
or powerful spiritual munitions,
yet individually and conjointly
they mask the terrible beauty of Christian living
and the sacrifice such living entails.
I have a three year old great niece
who is obsessed with the Disney movie “Frozen”
and would watch it incessantly if her parents allowed.
When she can’t, at the drop of a hat
she does her best impression of Idina Menzel
and belts out the hit song from that film, “Let it go.”
I can’t say her parents were terribly pleased
when the grandmother recently gave her
a karaoke machine with only one song on it.
You guessed it … the theme from Frozen.
Dad actually said to the grandmother,
“I thought you loved me!”
While I had heard the song before,
I did not know the story of Frozen
until three-year Sidney introduced me to it.
And it is best explained by a three year old,
since they are natural storytellers & theologians.
As you probably know,
the plot revolves around two sisters, Elsa and Anna;
Elsa’s stunning power to create ice and snow;
the freezing of a kingdom;
acts of greed and power mongering;
and ultimately the power of love to melt
the physical and metaphorical ice of land and hearts.
Happily these days we have not been in a meteorological deep freeze.
It has been, however, a season of deep gloom.
Chicago recently experienced its longest cloudy stretch in decades.
And places like Minnesota reported that last month
they recorded the least sunshine of any such period since 1963.
But then there seems to be that other polar vortex
that seems to be stalled
It’s as though Elsa has had personal interaction
with presidents who refuse to shake hands,
leaders who turn prayer breakfasts into moments
of blessed belittlement,
House speakers who tear up speeches,
and warring factions from every corner.
The epidemic that has hit this country is not the coronavirus,
but frozen-heart syndrome,
and frigid soul syndrome.
You can almost hear Idina Menzel humming in the background,
“Let it go, let it go, Turn away and slam the door,
I don’t care what they’re going to say,
let the storm rage on,
the cold never bothered me anyway.”
In the physical world,
two trusted catalysts for melting snow and ice
are salt and light.
Both have the potential to cause the molecules in ice crystals
to move more quickly,
breaking up the hydrogen bonds,
eventually reducing ice to liquid.
As people born of water and the spirit,
seasoned in Christ,
enlightened through the Only-Begotten,
Christians are spiritual catalysts for melting
frosty views of humanity that freeze out the other.
We did not enter the tomb of the baptism font
in learn to sing “Turn away and slam the door”
or “let the storm rage on,”
because as citizens of this world and the next (Gadium et spes no 43.)
this social or political cold should bothered us.
We were not initiated in frozen ponds,
but flowing waters that blazing with God’s own Holy Spirit,
caldrons of grace
intended to set the hearts of the baptized ablaze with love,
to bring God’s own warmth and light to this frigid world.
Not surprising there is an inevitable downside to the Christian life,
to becoming salt and light,
to be spiritual melting agents and luminosity in the darkness,
tossed into the arena of life to ward off lurking evil.
For in order to be effective,
salt expends its catalytic powers.
And in order to defeat the ice,
it depletes itself so that paths might be safe
and footing is secure.
Similarly light exhausts itself,
consuming its own fuel towards its impending extinction,
in order to overcome the darkness
in service of expelling doom.
Being salt and light is costly –
something I am guessing a Lt. Col. Vindman or Mitt Romney
knows too well these days.
The Christian life is also costly –
something Jesus knew too well
in his inevitable journey to Golgotha,
where his sacred life was snuffed out,
so that evil might be thwarted,
the world might be a more loving place …
and the chill and darkness
that so often numbs the human heart
would forever be banished.
In his letter to the Romans,
St. Paul encouraged that community
to “put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12),
something as difficult in his day as in our own.
But that is why we gather here,
so that we might season each other for the journey,
and in word and sacrament become the sacred salt
that makes the path safe,
that we might discover again the light given us at baptism
to illumine a gloomy world.
It is not an easy journey,
and so, with the poet we recognize:
longing for peace, our world is troubled,
longing for hope, many despair,
[but God’s] word alone has pow’r to save us,
And so we pray: Make us your living voice.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.
Through Christ our Lord.