Salt used to be a good thing — now it just raises our blood-pressure. Once packaged foods delighted in their saltiness — now they vie for the label “low Sodium.” Like “no fat” and “caffeine free” what we once sought out for pleasure, we now avoid for long life.
Salt used to be precious—Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt—their salary. Any of you who are on enforced low-salt diets know just how precious salt still is. Things need taste. We need to be saved from blandness. This, says the gospel, is our communal vocation —to give the world some flavor. But will this low-sodium world thank us for it? I doubt it. But, in fact, our ambivalent feelings about salt offers a good image of our ambiguous relationship to the nation we are part of. We—church—as we lend a little flavor, should also be sending the blood-pressure of the world soaring. The people of Oakland shouldn’t know what to do with us or without us.
Jesus’ message is that, like it or not, we carry the flavor of the reign of God. You cannot take away the taste of salt. Like it or not, the world tastes us, and through us tastes God. We cannot hide the way we taste. So how are we doing? How annoying are we? How salty?
Take this nation, America. The US sees itself as a beacon to the world, a place of freedom, hope, refuge. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That once meant something. America saw herself as a God-given experiment in holy politics. A City set on a hill. America is certainly that. There is no hiding America on the world stage. But how does that light shine? What do other nations think of this country? What about today’s immigrants? Do they see the Kingdom of God? Or Oakland’s poor and homeless? Do they taste the gospel?
Which brings me to ourselves? Are we salty enough to give taste to the American stew? Do we taste just the same as the rest of the dish. How does our taste stand out?
I want to mention three ways that come to mind this morning.
First off, take our gathering here. There is something very odd about spending a Sunday morning the way we do? When you could be sleeping in … Or going out … Or reading the papers. But we come here. With nothing in common, but the following of a common criminal, from a foreign land, and a distant time. We come and we pray together and we eat a frugal meal together and we do it rain or shine, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer. Those who study culture say that mainstream America has lost its middle: we yearn for intimacy in personal relationships and the imagined golden days when everyone knew each other and we were all friends and people were decent—and everything that isn’t private and personal has become political. They say that Americans don’t know any way of being together that isn’t at one extreme personal and at the other political. Gone is the whole middle ground of the public square. But we have it here. We have a genuine community of the middle. We are not all friends and we are not a political rally. We are a community of memory, searching together for a way of following Jesus. That’s why Renew, which starts again soon, is so important to us. The Renew small groups aren’t about making new friends or sharing sudden intimacies, nor are they about theory and organisation and action. These groups help each of us fill the middle ground between private and political. They help us, this larger community, to be a real community. They are another way to let Jesus search us out and surprise us.
My own group really helped me last fall, as I struggled with a decision I felt God was asking me to make—whether to ask my boss in Britain to let me come back here after my ordination in England—they let me talk about the excitement of that and the fear of it, so that it didn’t all stay private — so I didn’t have to carry it all alone. They listened when I fell out with God over it, and felt God’s presence disappear, and just gave me support and still trusted me enough to tell me about they’re own search for God and it’s ups and downs. During those six weeks I think we all deepened our flavor.
(As an aside, the decision I eventually and peacefully made before Christmas was to go ahead and ask. Yesterday morning I heard from England that I have been given permission to stay. So as the terminator said “I’ll be back”)
My Renew group helped me personally. If you haven’t signed up yet I urge you too. If not for its pleasures then out of duty. The duty to lend flavor. It probably doesn’t come naturally to you, but then that’s the whole point. (Pitch over!)
Now, in a few moments we are going to do something else that doesn’t come naturally in this culture. We are going to anoint the sick. Outside this space, the sick are shunned — The ideal American is fit, healthy, and buff. To be sick isn’t just a misfortune it’s a moral failure — it’s an embarrassment that cuts you out of the way of life which society values —until you get better. On top of the ordinary pain and despair of illness, our society adds loneliness, and exclusion. AIDS is the extreme example but we do the same with handicap, cancer, even age.
Anointing the sick isn’t an magical form of medicine, we are not a cheap HMO, and though we do pray for healing what is really going on here is much deeper — it is a prophetic anointing. We do not understand sickness, we would rather do without it, but here in this church we turn that fear and exclusion upside down. We bring the sick people of our community from the margins, from the fringe, and we place them at the centre. You, if you are ill or wounded in any way, are the broken heart of this community. If we have any saltiness left it is because of you. There is an invitation here, a vocation. Somewhere down the line sickness awaits us all, as does death. The joy of life only has any taste because it is seasoned with sorrow. But sorrow doesn’t exclude anyone from this community. We follow a wounded saviour and we do what the world at large can’t do, we carry our paradoxical sufferings together, and we carry them proudly. We are not ashamed of being human, we are not ashamed of being sick, we are not ashamed of each other. We are the salt of the earth — sick and all.