Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend on what we eat? A current best-seller tells us to eat more fat and protein and give up sugars and grains, because they cause dementia. Other experts tell us to eat low-fat diets, with lots of complex carbohydrates – whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. A growing number of Americans avoid foods they’re allergic to –gluten, peanuts, dairy, eggs. Others choose to eat less meat and fewer animal products because of the environmental cost of producing them. Most of us are pretty obsessed about what we eat, whether we crave a good steak or a veggie burger.
Isaiah’s words about fasting evoke another sort of diet. Giving up certain foods or eating less is a spiritual discipline that reminds us about what is most important. As Lent approaches, it’s good to remember that fasting is also an act of solidarity with those who live with hunger – whether it’s spiritual hunger or spiritual. In societies that had to wait for the first crops to mature, springtime fasting was a normal part of life. And until communities stopped holding food in common as a resource for everyone, if one person was hungry, everybody was. Isaiah is ranting about the kind of justice that comes from solidarity with every member of the community, especially when some people eat and others don’t.
Isaiah claims, and Jesus echoes it later, that the fast God chooses is about righting inequities and injustices everywhere. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, cover the naked, and don’t hide from your kin – love and care for them. The kicker is that we’re all kin. The fast we’re committed to as children of God is a solidarity fast with anyone in want.
This diocese has known a kind of hunger that wasn’t chosen by most of you. It was a rule-bound fast, and it kept this community turned inward to ensure that the fast was maintained in a particular way. Since the end of that fast five years ago you’ve practiced another diet, one that has become far more about solidarity with the wider community – a fast that opens people up to become vulnerable to the presence of God beyond these walls. You’ve exchanged that old fast for one that’s founded on the most fundamental law of all: love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The new diet has included a fast from vindictiveness. You’ve tried to fast from those words of doom: “we’ve never done it this way before.” Some have learned about the feast that’s possible in surprising surroundings – the non-traditional settings where some have met for worship and fellowship these last five years and in new acts of solidarity with others beyond this community. But in order to enjoy that feast, you’ve had to fast from the familiar and predictable. You’ve grown stronger as you’ve risked that justice fast.
Meals on the justice diet include a whole lot of salt. Salt is a sign of life. It’s still a basic symbol of hospitality in the Middle East and on the steppes of Asia. It’s presented to visitors, along with bread, as a way of saying, ‘your life is safe with us, and we recognize you as friend.’ As Jesus did – “I call you friend, no longer do I call you servant, but friend.”
Salt was an ancient medium of exchange, because it’s portable and essential to life. It’s valuable, and at some times and places you could exchange it, ounce for ounce, for gold.
The salty witness of blood, sweat, and tears is a reminder of the cost of life – and its preciousness. Jesus gave abundantly of all three, weeping at the death of a friend, sweating in the Garden of Gethsemane, and at the end giving up his blood along with his life. That salty output is part of our own costly living, if we are going to glorify God as human beings, who are fully alive. Blood, sweat, and tears are sacramental evidence of a compassionate heart, and a faithful image of the God of love.
That heart is what Jesus is asking his disciples for – a heart of flesh, fully alive, connected to other human beings and the whole of creation, able to feel with and respond to the pain and joy of others. That’s salt. Salty tears of compassion prompt you to fill backpacks with food for kids and families to eat over the weekend, and do all you can to keep kids in school. Sweaty labor builds houses here and around the globe. The blood of Jesus flows in our veins to give life to the world.
The value of salt led to ranking the guests at a dinner party by seating some “above the salt” and others below. Yet Jesus’ table is effectively round, and the salt is in the center, at the heart. All his friends are equally welcome to share his meal of abundant life, and having eaten, they turn outward to share the meal with others.
Salt comes in other forms – like a salty vocabulary, those earthy words our mothers discouraged us from using. That kind of salt gets attemntion, and it can be very useful when our audience is asleep. Prophets are fond of salty language: “you cows of Bashan, lolling around on ivory couches, while your neighbors are starving on your doorstep.” John Baptist and Jesus did, too: “you brood of vipers, you whitewashed tombs.” Salty words can indeed be divinely abrasive signs of God’s urgency – and ultimately life-giving.
Your letter to a member of Congress, or to the editor of the local paper, or the words you speak to a city council can be salt, when they challenge the complacent to pay attention to the needs of hungry children or the unemployed. That is the salt of compassion, when it irritates and wakens those who haven’t yet noticed their neighbors’ need.
Being salt of the earth generates light for the world. Salt is actually necessary to make light. The many kinds of salts are merely charged particles, ions that generate action and reaction. Whether it’s the fiery energy of the sun, the light from a battery or an electrical outlet, or even the light from a firefly, producing light depends on something salty.
Like all good gifts, salt can be overused – often with counterintuitive results. Salt is a very good preservative – we still use it to make ham and pickles. But too much in our food also pickles us – and leads to less of life, not more. We use old salt mines to entomb hazardous waste – as we might use a load of salt to shut down hate speech. It may have happened to Lot’s wife – and might be useful response to other kinds of violence.
Being light to the world means being appropriately salty. Discernment is essential in deciding where and how to apply salt. What’s cooking in this part of Texas? Who or what needs signs of life, and good news? And what life-denying reality needs to be isolated or defanged with dunes of salt? Where can we be some transformative, reactive, catalytic salt? A salty solidarity diet is needed anywhere there is deep hunger: for health care, dignified jobs, immigration reform, the groaning of creation, homeless teens on the street, people who are discarded in the maw of what we call a justice system. Salty transformation begins as we discover God already present with those who hunger and cry in the wilderness, and join that holy hunger for creative change.
Have you ever thrown those fireplace salts into a bonfire? The beautifully colored flames that leap up are an image of what’s possible when we partner with God’s holy and creative spirit. The fire is already lit – add your salt and marvel at the way light springs up…and life abounds – for all our kin. For then we will hunger and thirst no more, and the sun’s heat will not torment us, for our friend and shepherd will show us still waters and pastures of plenty for all.
So, my friends, go be salt shakers!