Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth.” And, day after day, in my kitchen, I can’t quite get over the everyday magic of salt. Let’s say I’m making some soup, maybe vegetable minestrone. I sauté garlic and onions – the house smells incredible. I add whatever veggies I’ve got, and liquids – water, tomatoes with their juice, a bit of wine, an extra splash of olive oil. I simmer it all up, carefully, keeping the veggies kind of crisp. I throw in some other spices—maybe oregano, thyme, basil. The moment arrives to taste. I take a sip, and guess what: despite the alluring smells, the vibrant colors and interesting textures, the soup is completely bland. All the lovely spices and juices and oils are simply lost in the shuffle. So I add the salt. Not too much. Just enough to bring out the flavors. Just enough to tie all the elements of the soup together into a unified whole.
In the early Christian church, and then as part of later Catholic ritual, blessed salt was placed on the mouth of an infant being baptized. Adults who were in the process preparing for baptism periodically received a salt blessing – the sign of the cross in salt on the forehead and a taste for the tongue. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blessed_salt_in_Christianity) It makes perfect sense that salt is linked to baptism. In baptism, we learn that we are God’s beloved, and that we are called into new life, life as ministry in Christ’s name, life that embodies the word and the way of Jesus. In short, a salty life. Jesus’ pithy statement, “You are the salt of the earth,” sums it all up. Salt does not exist for itself. Like the community of disciples, salt fulfills its purpose only through contact with the world around it.
I love the way that Eugene Peterson interprets today’s passage, in his Message translation of the Bible:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives.”
Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, explores some of the difficult vocabulary in the Christian faith. In her chapter on evangelism she writes: “Going up to people at a picnic and asking, ‘Do you know the Lord?’ [is] a good way to get yourself stuck with a barbeque fork. And you would deserve it.” And yet, as Eugene Peterson puts it, God is NOT a secret to be kept! We—the community of Jesus’ disciples—are salt and light. We provoke flavor and bring out color in the world. We are public messengers, public witnesses. We are… yes, we are…evangelists.
When Norris returned to church after a long absence she noted that
“The people in the congregation did evangelize in another sense, by saying and doing things they probably don’t remember. Most likely they didn’t think of it as ‘evangelizing’—the name of Jesus, for example, may not have come up—but little things they said or did revealed their faith in healthy and appealing ways. Something about the way they lived their faith—or even failed to live it, failings I could recognize in myself—convinced me to throw in my lot with them and join the church. Once I could recognize evangelism not as a matter of talking about the faith but of living it, I could happily connect it with Ezra Pound’s great admonishment to poets: ‘Do not describe, present.’ In writing, it means allowing the reader an experience of their own rather than attempting to control the response…. In evangelism, it means living in such a way that others may be attracted to you and your values, but not taking this as a license to preach to them.” (p. 301-302)
I will be the first to say that the concept of evangelism needs some serious reinterpretation within the church and the larger culture. I read and study the Bible every week as part of my sermon preparation, and truly love doing so. Still, one of my cardinal rules is: never, ever read the Bible on an airplane! Unless, of course, it can be adequately disguised. Inevitably someone sees that leather cover with the gold edges and takes it as an invitation: to debate, confess, preach, or ask probing questions about my life. Fortunately, evangelism does not need to be done on airplanes! It does not need to be combative or obnoxious or weird. Each of us can to find our own unique ways to be evangelists, ways that feel authentic, safe, and life-giving for us and for others.
One of my 2014 goals is to help First Church increase worship attendance by 10%. The council has endorsed this goal. Will you also be part of this work? Worship attendance provides a way for us to measure progress, but my deeper hope is that we will grow in our saltiness, in our engagement with the world around us. Please read my February Chimes Newsletter article. That article lays out some plans to increase contact with the church’s immediate neighborhood. Another important avenue for our growth is for each of us to consider reaching out to our particular networks of friends, families, co-workers and acquaintances.
Here are a few evangelism ideas to consider, take what you like, leave the rest:
- If you have an outgoing personality and enjoy meeting new people, get in touch with Francie Domstrand about being a Sunday morning “welcomer” or hosting a dinner or other event for those new to the church. We also need people who can play the role of greeter/ First Church ambassador during events which intentionally invite the neighborhood.
- If you are a Facebook user, “like” our page. When we create a post that you appreciate, whether it is a photo of a church activity, a sermon, a prayer, or a request for social justice action, share it on your page. It’s that simple to let your friends know about the church and to (very subtly) invite them to come and see for themselves.
- Invite a friend to a non-worship event that you enjoy at First Church, and let it serve as a low-key introduction to the church—our volunteer work at CES or Lexington Commons. Mardi Gras Mini Golf on March 4.
- If a friend is going through a tough time, and you are praying, don’t be afraid to let him her or know that. And, when a prayer or sermon or conversation at church naturally connects to your daily life, and it seems appropriate, go ahead and mention it.
Jesus’ words urging the community of disciples to be salt and light follow on the heels of his strange blessings, known as the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the peacemakers, the merciful, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Salt, with its contradictory qualities, resonates with the beatitudes. In Jesus’ day, salt was valuable, a sign of prosperity and abundance. And yet, the precious nature of salt had a shadow side; it was dangerous and difficult to mine. It was extracted by slaves and prisoners. So salt is a sign of life and a source of zest, but it is also a reminder of suffering and inequality. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill, the law and the prophets of his tradition. Fulfill—as in interpret and embody for his time. The theme of the whole sermon of the mount is the vision of the kin-dom of righteousness, of justice, as the fulfillment of Israel’s relationship with God. Marcia Riggs says: “Jesus’ followers are both commanded and enabled by Jesus to surpass conventional and institutional practices of righteousness.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 334)
Our evangelism, as a community of disciples grounded in Jesus’ unconventional interpretation of righteousness and justice, Jesus’ upside down sense of blessing, may take surprising, unpredictable forms. Just after the New Year, the Minnesota Council of Churches contacted us, and some other Christian congregations in the area. Would we consider providing a temporary home for Dar Al-Hijrah, the mosque that is next door to the apartment building that burned to the ground in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood? I replied and said yes, of course, as did other pastors. Though we did not end up hosting the mosque, members of the community and the press were clearly moved, and I guess surprised, by the willingness of several churches to open our doors. And this gesture must be making the rounds on the grapevine, because, in the weeks since these events, many people have said to me, “Oh, I heard that your church offered its space to a mosque. That’s so great!” Evangelism, in the way of Jesus, is not about converting people with different religious identities. It is about relationship across boundaries, relationship that honors our diversity as well as our common humanity.
Let us continue to be evangelists of Jesus’ salty ways. Our role, as a community of Jesus’ disciples, is to bring out the God-flavors and colors in our world. We are to be messengers of God’s good news, God’s blessing. Let us corrode oppression and irritate the status quo; preserve and release the flavors of justice; heal wounds and stimulate the wholeness of life and relationship that is God’s vision for all creation.