Please Pass the Salt

October 7, 2011

In this week’s Sermon on the Mount Bible class on Matthew 5:13-16, the discussion revolved around the uses of salt and the Christian calling Jesus was talking about when he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  It came down to two categories: salt is good as a flavor-enhancer, and salt is good as a decay inhibitor. One class participant is a fire fighter who cooks for his company and at home for his wife. He delighted us with a description of how salt makes another food taste more like itself. The point of salting, he said, was not to make the food taste salty (namely, draw attention to the salt) but to enhance the food’s natural flavor. So a beefsteak tastes more like beef if it is lightly salted. Or a tomato slice tastes more tomato-y if salted. You get the idea.

Salt as a decay inhibitor, or as a preservative, is less a part of our experience since the invention of refrigeration. But our ancestors packed meat in salt to cure it and preserve it for long sea voyages. The salt prevented bacteria from getting into the food and causing spoilage. After sharing my recipe for Gravlax (filleted salmon cured in salt and sugar), our attention finally moved in the direction of what this all means for the Christian life.

To be salt of the earth, we have a dual calling: to be life-enhancers and to be decay-inhibitors.

Life-enhancers celebrate and promote what is good, lawful, beautiful, constructive, and life-giving. Life-enhancers promote the arts, build relationships, are generous to the poor, fix problems before they become catastrophes, visit the lonely, or help the neighborhood plant a community garden. 

Decay-inhibitors, by their presence and activism in their communities, deter evil. They are the ones who stand against those forces that cause crime, dissension, ugliness, and cultural dead-ends. Decay-inhibitors paint over graffiti as soon as it appears, do not tolerate abandoned cars on their streets, provide anger management workshops, and establish a Neighborhood Watch program, for example.  

In the same way, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as in other denominations and congregations, being salt of the earth entails two distinct functions: to enhance the life and mission of Jesus Christ in the world and to stand up to those worldly forces that attempt to deconstruct the church’s identity and ministry. Both of these activities are “salty ministry,” and both are therefore valuable, even indispensible. The concern is that the church could lose its balance between “binding” and “loosing,” between truth and grace, by focusing on one side more than the other.  

It is fair to say it is more fun and fulfilling to be on the life-enhancing side of things: engaging in the creative process of making life better for folks, bringing some light into their situation, enabling trust to grow, introducing people to Jesus Christ. But this is where evangelical congregations I know are becoming dissatisfied: they feel that too much of their time and effort, in the current climate, is spent on inhibiting decay, working against the forces that are straining the identity and mission of the PCUSA. This activity might take the form of filing remedial cases, dissenting from the opinions of a committee one serves, or debating questionable ordinations in presbytery meetings. These efforts are not nearly as fun as directly leading people to Christ, and yet, they too are legitimate and necessary aspects of doing ministry together, if we are to be salt within this context.

Some might counter that every Presbyterian has a choice, and one does not have to stand against what they perceive to be error all the time, and that they can let things go if they don’t want to contest them anymore. But evangelicals believe that errant theology, inaccurate exegesis, and sloppy discipline are signs of decay in the church and want to prevent it from spoiling the whole denomination. The demands seem so daunting to some, they would rather leave than continue to fight the uphill battle that would keep peace, unity, and purity intact in the PCUSA. This is why churches seeking dismissal sometimes give as a rationale the desire to be missional, to be a positive force for Jesus among the unchurched, rather than fight the internal battles that seem to accomplish nothing positive.

As one who has done both kinds of ministries, and has seen the value of both enhancement and inhibiting efforts, I appreciate the dilemma Jesus puts on us. He is saying, if we are to be salt we are going to have to stay engaged both ways. It is why Calvin considered the marks of a true church to include faithful proclamation of the Gospel (flavor enhancing) and ecclesiastical discipline (decay inhibiting).  Let us not lose our saltiness by abandoning weights on either side of this delicate balance.  

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