Sarah Peterson – “As Salty As Possible”



As Quakers, we’ve historically understood ourselves as having a special call to being peacemakers.  And here is where our corporate practices stand us in good stead, if we can actually bear to practice them together-if we have that kind of patience and that kind of guts.   

If we listen deeply to one another with discerning hearts, and carefully sort the wheat from the chaff,

if we stay calm and centered and attentive to where the Spirit prompts us,

if we wait to make decisions until we feel grounded in the unity in God’s will,

if we use silence as a way to wait on God and to find clarity-



When I was young and my mother was still teaching at Whitworth College, one of her college students, a young man named Scott, invited our family over for dinner.  He was serving chili that he had made himself, and he seemed proud to have us all there.   

“It’s my mother’s recipe,” he told us, as we all sat down and he put the bowls in front of us.   

He added, “It might be a little salty.”   

Scott was a college student and I don’t know how much prior cooking experience he’d had, and possibly he wasn’t really clear on the difference between teaspoons and tablespoons and how that little difference in words could actually make a  BIG DIFFERENCE in cooking.  I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I do know that we all started eating and really soon, our spoons started moving more slowly, and all around the table, the expressions on people’s faces started to get tight and a little strained, and then a little more strained, and then Scott looked around and said, “You know what?  We don’t have to eat this.”  And he set his own bowl down on the table and he sort of pushed it away from him.   

That was the only time in my life I’ve encountered food that was so salty that it was inedible, but I still remember it-not just how it tasted, but how awkward the situation was.  The uncomfortable grimaces as Scott joked and apologized and we tried to assure him it was no big deal, it didn’t really taste that bad.  But when he started clearing away the bowls of soup, no one stopped him.   

So when I hear Matthew 5 and ask what it means to be salt to the world, this is one experience that, for me, informs what it might mean when Jesus talks about being salty.   

First, though, let’s look at the text itself:  That short section of 3 verses is part of the Sermon on the Mount.  The part about the salt and the light comes right in the middle of this very long section of teaching where Jesus is talking to a big crowd of people, telling them all about what it means to follow him.  Right before it is the Beatitudes-blessed are poor in spirit, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and so on.  And right after it is the part where Jesus says:   

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Mt 5:17-18, NRSV) 

Remember that part, about all of the Law and the Prophets.  We’ll get back to it later.   

The thing about being the salt and the light in the text is that it’s always taking place in the context of a relationship.  We are to be the salt of the earth, a light to the world, a city on a hill that everyone can see.  It always reaches outwards, beyond ourselves, to encounter someone else.  There’s someone who receives what the salt and the light have to offer, whether it’s four hundred people living in villages across the plain who look up to see the city shining on the hill, or four people living in a household who come home for dinner and eat the meal that has been well-seasoned.  One of the main reasons you do what you do is so the people around you can receive it.   

That’s one thing I really like about the Message translation of this passage.  This is what it says:   

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. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.  (Mt 5:13-16, The Message

“Be generous with your lives, open yourself up to others.” That language is really gentle and simple.  I don’t get a sense of having to advertise or promote yourself, or a sense that you have to try harder to be good and do good things-it’s just revealing what’s already there.  So when telling us about how to follow him faithfully, Jesus asks us to open up and be generous with ourselves.  Share who it is that God has created you to be.   

So, maybe, being salty is learning how to open up and share like this.  And that makes sense.  The only time I ever get a sense of someone being bland or flavorless is when I really don’t know them very well.  As soon as I start to get to know them better, the flavors and the nuances of their personality become much more distinct.   

But at the same time, opening ourselves up to others can be complex, and it doesn’t always make for harmony and pretty conversations.  That’s what made me think of the chili at Scott’s house.  That night at dinner, the salt was flavoring the food, just like salt is supposed to do, but it made us all very uncomfortable and made for a very memorable, very awkward situation.   

We have this idealized picture of community and relationship, where the closer you are, the happier everyone is-kind of like Cheers:  where everybody knows your name, and everybody’s glad you came, and it’s easy, and you feel safe and appreciated and happy.  And it’s not complicated.   

But the reality is the opposite.  I’m told it was Deborah Seuss, who used to be a pastor here some time ago, who first shared this bit of wisdom:  she said the closer you are-to an individual or to a community-the more times there are when it’s necessary to forgive one another, not less.  We offend and irritate one another and hurt each other’s feelings more often when we are a more tightly knit community, not less often.  It’s true for churches and communities just like it’s true for a relationship between two people.  Think about a marriage-for any of you who’ve been in one of those.  Think about what it’s like to fight with your spouse, compared to what it’s like to disagree with someone you don’t know well.   

So if we happen to be in a church community, for example, with really salty people, people who are doing a really good job of following Jesus’s command to be salt to the earth, we can start to find one another unpalatable.  And here’s where understanding another meaning of salt can be helpful.   

When we think about salt and saltiness the way Matthew describes it, we often think about how something tastes, or using salt as a seasoning to make something taste good.  But just as common in biblical times was using salt as a preservative and for medicinal purposes, like disinfecting wounds.  In a time when refrigeration didn’t exist, salt was used to preserve food and prevent decay.  Salt was used to cleanse wounds and promote healing.  In fact, salt was used to treat wounds, all the way up through the Civil War in the United States.  And [as I was talking about with the kids], salt in wounds, no matter how effective it is at disinfecting, hurts more than anything.   

Martin Luther, when he preached on this same passage from Matthew, said that salt bites.  And that’s not just the sharp taste of salt on your tongue-that’s how it feels to get salt into an open cut.  Actually, what Martin Luther said was that when the people in your congregation sin, you are to rub the salt into the wounds of their sins, which is some pretty strong language.  It sounds painful. 

Now I don’t quite agree with Luther-I don’t think it’s our job to go on some kind of righteous crusade, seeking out people’s wounds just so we can rub salt in them.  Instead, (and I don’t know if this is better or worse) I think getting salt in one another’s wounds just sort of happens naturally when we’re in community together.   

We get closer to one another, we follow Jesus’s calling to open up more, to show more of ourselves-and our wounds, the things we usually keep protected and hidden, are closer to the surface.  That’s why what Deborah said is true-that we have to forgive each other more the closer we are.  That’s just what being in relationship is like.   

I’ve noticed this in our meeting.  We deal with our fair share of conflict.  I hear about it in Monthly Meeting, or see it in the planning for worship services, or feel it in conversations I’m a part of, where people disagree with one another and I’m one of the people who disagrees.  It’s not that fun.   

But that doesn’t mean our community is dysfunctional.  In fact, it might be just the opposite.  It might mean that we’re doing a good job of being salty with one another.  We open ourselves up, we offer what we have to offer, we take the risk of being real and honest with one another, and the experience turns out to be a little too salty.  It stings.  Sometimes a lot.   

And if we’re connecting with one another in the deep places, in places where our deepest hurts and sins and places of brokenness lie, there’s potential for a lot of hurt to be brought out into the open.  That’s another thing to remember about salt-the salt isn’t what creates the wound, but it may make it hurt and make you aware of it in a way you never were before.  This cut on my thumb is pretty small.  The wounds that I carry with me in the deep places of my soul are, unfortunately, much deeper than this tiny cut.  So think of how much it might hurt, then, if I find myself in a community that’s really salty, that really takes seriously the message of Jesus about being the salt of the earth.  It could be tough.  It could be painful.   

If I thought I was the only person who had wounds inside, I’d feel pretty embarrassed mentioning this.  But I don’t think I am.  I think we all carry wounds like this.  Some wounds hurt more or bleed more or are more obvious at any given moment-and some fresh and raw while some are nearly healed up and only give us a twinge of pain once in a while-but we all have them.  And when we’re engaged in the communal, relational process of being salt and being light, we always run the risk of bumping up against them-our own or someone else’s.   

But the other important thing about salt, along with it making your wounds hurt, is that it also helps you heal.  That’s why soldiers carried around pouches of it on the battlefield.  As awful as that sounds-as awful as the process of dealing with our own wounds often is, especially in the company of other people-our saltiness with one another ultimately speeds the healing process and makes each of us more whole.   

But in the time before our wounds are perfectly healed, in the time where our community is still learning and still in process and we still sometimes get on one another’s nerves-in that time before the perfect has come, when the imperfect has not yet passed away-that’s the time that calls very strongly upon our vocation as peacemakers.   

In his instructions to his followers, Jesus said that peacemakers would be blessed, that they would be called the children of God.  He mentioned it immediately before today’s scripture, as you’ll recall.  Is it a coincidence, that these verses fall so closely together, and that they’re both in the instructions about how to be a follower of Jesus?  Perhaps not.   

As Quakers, we’ve historically understood ourselves as having a special call to being peacemakers.  And here is where our corporate practices stand us in good stead, if we can actually bear to practice them together-if we have that kind of patience and that kind of guts.   

If we listen deeply to one another with discerning hearts, and carefully sort the wheat from the chaff,

if we stay calm and centered and attentive to where the Spirit prompts us,

if we wait to make decisions until we feel grounded in the unity in God’s will,

if we use silence as a way to wait on God and to find clarity-

Those are all good things to do when a situation has gotten too salty.  They can help us remain peaceful among ourselves rather than falling apart into bickering.  And that’s not to say that falling apart into bickering is the end of the world.  It happens.  And as long as we remember it’s not the end of the world, we can let the dust settle, we can pray a little more, and we can pull ourselves back together and move forward.   

There’s another Quaker expression I like, and it’s to “season” something.  Let it season.  This means to wait when a decision isn’t ready to be made or when the meeting hasn’t come to unity.  There’s an element of active thinking and consideration in the process of seasoning, but an important part is just waiting, and letting God work, and trusting that something new and clear will emerge from a situation that seems confusing or unworkable.  A decision that’s made this way is “well-seasoned.”   

And the process of seasoning fits very well with the idea of saltiness.  Seasoning hints at the patience required for flavor to develop in some dishes, how time can let the salt seep through and balance out and blend together to make something delicious.  It’s like soup on the second day-it always tastes better.  Salt and seasonings take time to do their work.  You can’t judge the flavors of a dish immediately after you mix it up.  So our Quaker practices can be really useful in the time that it takes for the flavors of our community to mix together.  They teach us how to wait, how to listen, how to tolerate being around each other while the flavors have a chance to blend.  Like I said, it’s hard to do this, especially when our wounds are really stinging, but these practices can help us.   

Now I need to step back a little, and to give some background on this sermon and how I came to be giving it today.   

There was an important meeting this weekend, on Friday and Saturday, in Newberg, Oregon.  It was the mid-year meeting of Yearly Meeting representatives from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, the only gathering we have as a Yearly Meeting in between the annual sessions each July.  Prior to this weekend, leaders in Northwest Yearly Meeting asked all of us, all the evangelical Quaker meetings in this area,  

“How can we as local churches and individual believers respond to the national and global economic crisis which is adversely affecting many of our people?”  

And Leann, who’s a member of the Yearly Meeting’s Administrative Council, was very faithful in asking our meeting to consider that question.   

In those times that we gathered together to pray and listen and talk about this, I realized that I believe there’s a larger question here, larger than how do local churches and individual believers respond to the national and global economic crisis.  I think that question is 

      How do we as the Quaker community respond to the current economic crisis?   

As a community, Quakers had a response to American slavery.  Quakers had a response to prisons and to prison reform.  Quakers had a response to the question of how the social fabric of Europe would be rebuilt after World War II.  All of these are historical moments where Quakers played an important role.  So I don’t think I’m out of line in asking if there’s something Quakers have to contribute today, in this important historic moment.   

But apart from Quaker history and its involvement with these various justice issues, I think there’s a larger question even than that.  And that larger question is  

How are we as Christians and as followers of Jesus called to be the salt of the earth

right now, in this day, in these particular circumstances?   

What does it mean to open ourselves more and show more of ourselves and our witness to the world right now, in this time of economic turmoil?  How do we respond as a community to the economic crisis, and how do we do it in the saltiest way possible? What does it mean to be in it for the long haul, to stay engaged around this issue long enough to let the salt blend and let the answer we come up with be truly well-seasoned?   

Jesus in Matthew says we have a call to the whole world, the entire earth.  Our witness to the world should be so clear and shine so brightly that it can never be hidden, just like a city on the hill.  And I think that matters here and now, and it matters in questions about politics and the economy.   

Earlier, I asked you to remember what Jesus said about coming to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets.  He reminded his followers that “whoever breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19, NRSV).   

The law and the prophets that he speaks of are part of what we know as the Old Testament, all of those thousands of years worth of history that the Israelites had with God before the time of Jesus.  And the law, along with calling the Israelites to love and trust God and observe the right religious practices, also addressed questions of economics, politics, and public policy-in the law, God explains how we are to treat widows and orphans and immigrants and resident aliens who live among us, how we are to handle taxes and indentured servants and land and inheritances.   

So questions about the United States economy, here in 2009, matter to us because Jesus asks us to be concerned with the law and with all those questions of how we live together today, in this world, in justice and mercy.  And so we are obligated to ask the question, how does God call us to be salt to the world right now?   

I think if we do our discernment well and we listen deeply to God, the whole world can turn on that.  We know it can happen.  We’ve seen Quakers do it in the past.  And, of course, many, many other groups of God’s people, all throughout history, have also done the same.   

So I urge you to be in prayer for the discernment of the Yearly Meeting, and their work around the question of how to respond to the economic crisis.  And I urge you to remember that insofar as each of you are part of this meeting, you are also part of the Yearly Meeting and carry some responsibility for helping the Yearly Meeting hear God’s voice and reach the right decision.  That’s part of Jesus’s call to you to be salt to the world.   

There was one final use of salt in biblical times, and that was as part of religious offerings.   

In the Old Testament, in the books of the law, Leviticus 2:13 says “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (NRSV) 

Adding salt to an offering represents the lasting covenant between God and God’s people.  To put it more broadly, to add salt to something is a way to make it pure and worthy to be offered to God.  So when we follow Jesus’s call to be salt to the world, we don’t do it just to be irritating and painful, or even because salt sometimes tastes good.  We do it because adding our salt to the world is a way we help make the world more blessed and bring it closer to God.  Like it said in the Message translation:  “By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up to God, our generous Father in Heaven.”  (Mt 5:13, Msg) 

When we are committed to being salt for the earth, and we make the effort and take the risk to offer the deep things of ourselves, it’s a way of consecrating our living for God and making it holy.  When we add our saltiness, our unique flavor, to the character of a community, it makes a difference.  It blesses and enriches that relationship, and makes it sacred-whether that community is only our closest friends or our family at home, or whether it is our meeting here or the Yearly Meeting, or Quakers around the world-or the innumerable people who look up to see a city, shining brightly on a hill.   

Sarah Peterson

8 Feb 2009


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