Saturday, February 8, 2014

Subterranean Salt? (Sermon - Matthew)

How many of you know that Cleveland is home to a huge salt mine?  Cargill owns a mine 1800 feet under Lake Erie and four miles out from downtown. This Cleveland mine and another out by Fairport Harbor combine to produce a huge portion of the salt mined in North America.

            And have any of you ever heard of the Salt Cathedral in Poland?  I wouldn’t know anything about this one [show image] but for my daughter having spent a college semester in the Czech Republic.  While she was there, she was able to travel quite a bit, and on a trip to Poland she learned about this enormous salt mine, now closed, in which the workers left quite the record of their presence, carving out rooms and sculptures and an entire chapel, which is often in use for weddings!  Imagine getting married in a salt mine!  Even those chandeliers are made of salt, salt that’s been treated until it is so fine that it looks like glass.  And the sculptures, like this one of The Last Supper [shpw], look like granite – but they, too, are salt.

            A salt mine, whether it remains in its original state, as the Cleveland mines do, or has been transformed by Polish miners, is a pretty spectacular sight.  Huge deposits of salt carved into rooms so that miners can reach their goal – huge deposits far underground, in places most of us don’t know exist.  Huge deposits of something we take completely for granted – I’m sure there are several salt shakers in your homes – but which, until about 100 years ago, was a product of great value, difficult and expensive to attain.

            I want you to think about the church for a moment.  Think about the church, this church, as salt.  At one time, it was a beacon of great value.  A tremendous amount of money, and energy, and time, went into the building of this church, starting with this Foster Hall as its first sanctuary.  Back in the 1960s, and in the 1860s, churches like ours were deemed to be of momentous importance.  They popped up in neighborhoods all over the place, and were filled with people who were called to flavor their communities with the salt of God’s love.

            Have we now reached the point where churches like ours, like salt, are taken for granted?  People expect to see them, and most of the time they walk right on by, just as we expect to find salt in our kitchens and on our tables without taking any notice of them.  When folks think they need a church, say for a funeral or for a wedding, they expect us to be here, just as we expect to find a salt shaker when we reach for one at the dinner table.

            What has happened to our sense that we are salt for the world?  Have we become more like underground deposits of salt than like salt scattered across the globe?

            Deposits of salt, by themselves, are not of much use to us.  They go unnoticed – until just a few years ago, I had no idea that Lake Erie’s waters covered salt mines – and even if they are transformed inside, as Poland’s salt mine was, very few people realize that they are there.  Salt has to be brought out into the open before it becomes a commodity useful in preserving and preparing food.   Useful in favoring the world.

            And once it’s in the open, salt plays amazing roles in human relationships.  Perhaps even in human relationships with God.  That’s what both history and the Bible tell us.

            There’s a wonderful book entitled SALT. The nonfiction story of SALT is a whirlwind tour through world history, through which the compound salt runs as a crucial, savory thread.  Salt lies at the bottom of major world events: exploration, trade, currency, revolution, warfare.  SALT could probably be turned into a smash hit television miniseries, filled with travel and adventure and danger and romance and royalty. 

            Salt, above ground and out in the open, creates transformation.  Mine salt, and people start looking for more, and start to discover new possibilities.  Sprinkle salt around, and revolutions start: people see that life can be different than it is. 

            What does that mean for us?  If we stay as we are, we are like a salt mine under the lake – no one knows that we are here.  If we create something beautiful here in our own church and keep it here, we’re like the Polish salt mine – an intriguing place for tourists and brides, but not an exciting force in the world.  BUT – if we mine our salt, if we dig deep into scripture and prayer and worship, we will start to discover possibilities that have never occurred to us.  And if we start salting our neighborhood, perhaps a revolution will begin, will begin with a vision of new life and energy on Lake Shore Boulevard. 

            Salt was a valuable commodity long before Jesus’ time, and a valuable commodity in Jesus’ time.  And it’s a commodity with a specifically Biblical history.  Did you know that in the Old Testament, in the Book of Numbers (18:19), God refers to temple sacrifices as a sign of God’s covenant with them, as a sign of the “salt covenant?”  And that in the Book of Leviticus (2:13), God instructs the people, through Moses, saying, “You shall not omit from your grain-offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Salt was from the earliest times of the life of the Hebrew people a sign of God’s promises to them and of their reverence for God; salt, that valuable and hard-won commodity, was a sign of the love of God and of relationship with God. 

            Those Biblical allusions would have been well known to the people to whom Jesus spoke, and the people to whom Matthew wrote. One of the important things to know about the writer whom we call Matthew is that he seems to have been a Jew intent upon convincing his largely Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed the messiah promised in scripture.  Matthew spends a great deal of time on Jewish customs and scriptural passages, making all sorts of connections between Jesus and earlier writings.  Some of these connections we might not recognize right away.  We know, for instance, that salt is important.  We know that while we take it for granted, not so long ago it could not be taken for granted at all.  But we may not realize that in Jewish life, salt was a  sign:  a sign of God’s covenantal relationship with God’s people, a sign of God’s presence and promise of love and care.  The word “salt” and all that it meant was probably obvious to those who listened to Jesus, and to those who listened to or read the words of Matthew, but we ourselves have to give it some thought.  

            And what is it Jesus says about salt?  In our reading today, he’s still up on the mountain, preaching the words we know as the Sermon on the Mount, and in The Message translation, which we read this morning, he says, “You’re here to be salt-seasoning.” Interestingly, in the NRSV, the translation we usually used, he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  You ARE.  Or, “you ARE here TO BE.”  Present tense.[1]  Not “you will be” or “you might be” or “you could be.”  But you ARE.  Already.

            Imagine what those words meant to Jesus’ listeners.  Matthew’s listeners.  They already knew what salt meant: God’s presence.  God’s covenant.  God’s love.  Now they know something else: They – we – are God’s presence and covenant and love to others.  We ARE the salt of the earth.

            Notice something else that Jesus tells them: “I come not to demolish the law or the prophets, but to complete them.”  More evidence that Jesus is paying attention to Jewish life – the law, those commandments God gave Moses on another mountain long before – but expanding that law.  Not throwing it out at all, but saying instead: You are the salt who will help the make the love which is the foundation of the law known.  And Jesus is paying attention to the prophets, those who proclaim God’s justice, those who clarify what we are to do: Jesus says: You are salt; bring out God-flavors in this world. 

            And how, I ask you again, will we do that?  Not by leaving God’s gift of love buried deep under the ground, like a salt mine is.  Not by allowing it to remain beautiful but hidden, like the Salt Cathedral in Poland.

            Not merely by saying, “we have all that’s needed, here in this underground church mine that we run.  We can store God’s love safely right here.”  Not by saying, “We’ve got something beautiful here, and we’ll wait for people to come and find out – as people traveling in Eastern Europe happen upon the Salt Cathedral.”

            No.  Instead, we’re going to start asking ourselves: Are we leaving the salt of God in a subterranean cavern today?  Are we forgetting that subterranean salt is for sharing with the world? 

 Our charge comes from the God who made salt a sign of promise ro God’s Old Testament people. Our charge comes from Jesus, who took that sign and said, “You are the ones!  You are the salt!”  Our charge comes from Matthew, who wrote a gospel so that Jesus’ words would echo across the centuries.  Our charge comes from the Spirit, who says to us:
 Mine the salt!  Bring it up to the surface and scatter it around a world in need of the taste of the Lord!  Remember that salt glistens with the presence and promise of God – and so do you.  For you ARE the salt of the earth and you ARE the light of the world.  Amen

[1] Amy Oden. “Preaching This Week.”, 2014.


  1. I love the paragraph when you say people expect the church to just be here...for a wedding or a funeral. It is so true and I think those in the congregation I serve are mostly worried that the church will be there for their funeral.


  2. I hope I remember this book and these illustrations when we next have the salt text appear. I like how you have fleshed this out for your community.