This sermon is from Sunday, September 26, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Mark 9:49-50. You can listen to the sermon here.

Rebecca and I started dating while we were freshmen in college. When it came time for us to celebrate our first dating anniversary, we wanted to do something special. We took a day trip to Macon, Georgia where we walked around historic downtown, we saw Three Blind Mice on stage at the theatre, and because we have always been lovers of great food, we went out to a fancy restaurant. 

These two 19 year olds, one far more mature than the other, went to Marco’s Ristorante Italiano for a romantic dinner. It was at Marco’s that I had a life-changing culinary experience. 

And you thought I was setting up a story about all the mushy, gushy stuff!

I ordered one of the house specials: the Baked Mediterranean Branzino. This wasn’t your normal dish: it was baked in a very thick layer of rock salt. For those not-in-the-know, crusting fish or meat in rock salt allows for a slower, more even cooking process. The meat is protected from the flames and so cannot be charred, burned, or scorched. 

My branzino was wheeled over the table on a cart. Then the production began. The waiter cracked through the thick layer of salt and revealed the fish contained within. The waiter then carefully filleted the fish, peeling back the skin and removing the bones, all done tableside. He then transferred the fish to my plate and then covered it in a sauce of white wine, capers, and shrimp. 

My mouth is salivating just talking about it. 

The drama of presenting and filleting the fish tableside, and then eating it has been lodged in my memory ever since. The key to the whole process was one of the most basic elements on earth: salt.

In her cookbook-turned-Netflix-documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat talks about the efficacy and essentiality of salt. She quotes the famous chef, James Beard–yes, of the James Beard Awards–with regard to salt. Beard once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” Nosrat answers the question: adrift in a sea of blandness.

Nosrat suggests that instead of using more, we need to use it better. Salt adds flavor to food, and it is better to add a little bit of salt at a time while cooking instead of adding a bunch at the table. Salt is a team player because in addition to having its own unique flavor, it also enhances the flavors of other ingredients.  

Salt can be used as a protective layer in baking temperamental meat because the salt creates a barrier which keeps flames out and allows meat to cook evenly and more slowly with the natural flavoring of its own juices. We only have to go back to the pre-refrigeration era when salt was used primarily as a preservative when salt was used to keep meats and foods longer, through either curing or pickling. It preserved the food because salt does not lose its saltiness or salinity. 

Even our bodies contain more salt than you may realize. Salt regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of our bodies, and it affects taste, smell, tactile functions, and our nervous systems. Our tears are salty. Basal tears and reflex tears have a higher salt content because they help keep our eyes healthy and free from debris, infection, and germs. 

You can use salt to draw out a stain from a carpet or shirt, you can place salt in your shoes to remove an odor (or so I’ve read online), and salt is used when creating bleach. Salt is used in fireworks because the energy which is created during burning emits different color lights. Salt is used by the Vatican in their chemical formula when smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel to announce the results of a papal election. 

Finally, salt doesn’t burn. At least not in ordinary circumstances. You have to reach such extreme temperatures of 1470 degrees fahrenheit in order to melt table salt, or 2575 degrees fahrenheit for it to boil. Salt might change the color of a flame–a chemical reaction having to do with energy–but once the fire is extinguished you will find the salt buried beneath the ashes. 

Salt flavors, enhances, purifies, and preserves.

Our gospel passage ended today with Jesus making some comments about salt in verses 49-50. Jesus concludes our pericope by saying: 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

These verses are going to take us on a saltiness journey today, a trek of salinity, and I hope by the end of it that you will all embrace living as a salty people…and no, I don’t mean salty in the insulting sense.

As one does, we need to move backward from Mark into the book of Leviticus. I promise I’m not trying to continually plug our new Bible Study series, but trust me when I tell you that Leviticus has everything to do with the Gospels. In Leviticus 1 and 2 where we find descriptions of the offerings that Israel is supposed to offer to YHWH. 

The Israelites are supposed to make a burnt offering to YHWH on the altar. The burnt offering was made daily during morning and evening prayer, while the Sabbath offering was once a week, the sin offering was presented as needed based on the sin, and the offering for the atonement of sins was made annually. Israelites could offer an animal from the herd, flock, or air and there were various provisions made for preparing the offering. 

Salt plays an essential role in the process of koshering meat. You’ll hear more about this in October during our Bible study, “Leviticus: The Hidden Gospel,” but here are the high points. Based on the Levitical code, Jews were prohibited from eating blood. The process for draining blood from animals was intense: “The meat or poultry is soaked in clean water for thirty minutes, then removed to drip dry. After a few minutes of dripping, the meat is salted and left to hang for sixty minutes to further draw out any remaining blood. After sixty minutes of salting, the meat is washed three times in cold, clean water to remove any remaining salt.” Salt helped to draw out the remaining blood from the animal to make it pure enough for eating or sacrificing. 

When describing the logistics of making the burnt offering from herd, flock, or air, YHWH repeats this phrase three times: 

An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

Salt was part of the purification process, but it was also part of the offering itself. If we skip to chapter 2 and read about grain offerings, we are told that, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

YHWH commands Israel to always include salt with all of the offerings presented on the altar. Salt is placed on the meat as it is being placed on the altar for burning, that it might be an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. The belief being that as the smoke and aroma rose to YHWH from the altar, he would be pleased with the offering. The quality of the offering was a mirror into the heart of the worshipper. 

The practical side of this is fairly easy to understand: salt brings out flavor and so adding salt to the burnt offering would produce a more pleasing aroma. The confusing part is the reference to the “salt of the covenant with your God.”

Don’t worry! I started you on this wild goose chase and I’m going to see you through it. Salt was used as part of covenants in the ANE because it represented perdurability and permanence, it had an eternal quality. Salt does not lose its saltiness because it is not adversely affected by time, water, or fire. It can neither be burned nor can it be drowned, and it does not weaken with the passage of time. This is why our ancestors started using salt as a preservative. 

The “salt covenant” in Leviticus 2:13 is mentioned two other times in Scripture: once in Numbers 18 and once in 2 Chronicles 13. In Numbers, YHWH references his salt covenant with Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood. In 2 Chronicles, YHWH references his salt covenant with David and the Davidic line. In both instances, the salt covenant is eternal. It is forever. 

Israel was not the only nation to include salt in their covenants. “Covenantal allies all ‘tasted the salt…’” “Loyalty to the Persian monarch is described as having tasted ‘the salt of the palace.’” “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants.” In short, “To add salt to the offering was a reminder that the worshipper was in an eternal covenant relationship with God.”

Salt, the great purifier and preserver, the element which cleans, endures, and flavors, also represents the eternal nature of a covenant. No wonder Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek forever and that he will reign on David’s throne, forever. 

Salt was a sign of promise, not judgment.
Salt was a sign of perdurability, perseverance, and endurance.
Salt was a sign of loyalty and fidelity.
Salt was a culinary depiction of Good News.

So as we come back to Jesus’ comments in Mark 9 we have to keep this in mind. Jesus has been issuing a warning to those who would cause little ones to stumble. He warns the disciples of being thrown into the fires of Gehenna where the flames are never quenched, but now he is bringing salt into the equation. It feels random and yet…

Our minds should immediately go back to the Levitical code where salt was required on all burnt offerings. 
We should remember the eternal salt covenants made with Israel, with Aaron, and with Moses.
We should remember that the salted burnt offerings offered an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Jesus’ comments aren’t all that confusing, then. When we read them in their levitical context we see that Jesus is reminding his listeners of YHWH’s eternal covenant with and his steadfast love for his people. The focus here ought not to be on the fire but on the salt. Going with fire first places the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

In the first instance, the reference to everyone being salted with fire, the salt means that the aroma will be pleasing to God and that the offering will endure. Paul will later play with this language in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our bodies are supposed to be living sacrifices, proverbially placed on the altar before God, metaphorically covered with salt, that is the enduring covenant because YHWH’s steadfast, covenantal love lasts forever.

The second comment from Jesus is an example of obvious hyperbole. He says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” This doesn’t make any sense because we know that salt does not lose its salinity…and I think that’s the point. Jesus is making such an outlandish statement to demonstrate just how useless salt would be if it lost its salinity. Salt is good but salt which is no longer salty is worthless…but the salt of God’s covenant is everlasting. 

The last phrase about peace is something also straight out of the Levitical Code and from the  cultures of the ANE. Peace offerings were made between individuals when one had slighted or offended another or when one needed an ally. A key component of such an agreement was either an offering with salt because the salt represented the enduring nature of the peace being made, or a meal included salt. As I mentioned earlier with the Persian monarch and acts of fealty, loyalty, or fidelity, salt was an outward expression of an inner truth: when salt was present it meant that the bond would endure. This is why Jesus can say, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Salt is the manifestation of the covenant and peace is the natural state of relationships for those who are in covenant with God.

This goes back to what I was talking about last week with perichoresis and being in communion. Our very existence is derived from our relationship with God. Our other relationships, therefore, must also be understood within the context of our relationship with God. Covenant and salt go hand in hand.

Jesus makes similar statements during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he tells the disciples and listening crowd that they are the “salt of the earth.” If salt was intended to flavor and enhance the burnt offering; if it was used as part of the purification process and as a preservative representing the eternal covenant, then Jesus’ suggestion that the people be salty is of the utmost importance.

You, my friends, are to be salty people.   

Let’s play this all the way out with the same characteristics of salt:

Enhance – Our pericope started because the disciples had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him. They acted territorial about mission in the Kingdom of God as though they had the corner on the ministry market. Sounds familiar to a lot of churches. 

If the disciples had been salty, they would have enhanced the ministry of others rather than trying to stop them. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is all we need to know: this individual was doing Kingdom work. We need to be happy about the fact that other churches in Cocoa Beach are doing legitimate Gospel ministry and support them; we need to support people at St. David’s who are doing ministry even if it’s in “our” field. Salt enhances!

Flavor – Our call as Christians and as the church is to add flavor to all that we do and to everything around us. It is good that we gather together faithfully on Sunday mornings for worship and prayer, but our mission field is where we need to be salty. Getting involved with the arts, with hands-on-outreach,

Purity and Purify – Salt was part of the koshering process as Israel sought to keep clean and pure while living in the world with others. Our call is the same. We are in the world but not of the world, set up as an alternative community, a community of the resurrection, over and against the consumerism and narcissism of the world. To be pure is to allow the Holy Spirit to form and transform our hearts and minds into Christlikeness. To purify is to set on a mission of blessing the world, setting apart people, places, and things for God’s glory, helping the to flourish. We accomplish this as being agents of reconciliation, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and inviting others into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Preserve – This is the big one. Salt is the sign of the covenant because it endures forever. God has promised us his never-ending, never-dying, stronger than death, steadfast love, and therefore we have been invited to endure, to persevere, and to be preserved. We must continue on in the faith, preserving the faith as handed down to us by the saints.

Stay salty, my friends.

Etching by Pietro del PoThe Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cure, ca. 1650.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 5, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

From the ages of 9-17, I attended a Christian summer camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” in Boswell, Pennsylvania. Like most Christian summer camps, the focus of the experience was on following Jesus couched in a plethora of outdoor activities, team events, sporting contests, and bonfires. 

It was at SB2W that I learned the “I’m Third Rule,”: God first, others second, and self third. It’s where I learned that we play for an audience of One. It’s where I learned this phrase: Attitude Check: Jesus is the Lord; Gratitude Check: Glory goes to God. 

It’s also where I repelled down a rock wall.

There was a small rocking climbing wall at a 45-degree incline for the littler kids. There was a much larger, flat-faced wall for the older kids, but the purest form of heroism was reserved for those who would ascend the stairs to the top of the climbing wall and repel down the other side. This wall was 50 feet tall, but it felt like Everest.

Imagine me, a scrawny and short 10-year old climbing to the top of this rock climbing tower. The camp counselor is telling me how to repel down the wall while tying my harness to the rope which will hopefully hold me steady. My knees are shaking, my palms are sweating, I am utterly terrified as he marches me, backward toward the edge of the precipice and begins to slowly tilt me back over the edge. 

Seeing that I’m nervous, the counselor asks: do you trust me?

Now, I know this was supposed to instill confidence in me, but I didn’t know this counselor. I didn’t know his track record of successfully belaying adolescents and pre-adolescents down the wall without dropping them to their bone-crushing doom. I believed that the harness was properly attached, I hoped that the rope would hold, and I wanted-to-believe that the counselor would do everything in his power to keep me safe.

I didn’t trust, though. 

The trip down, once I stepped off the edge, was one of my favorite memories that summer. All fear forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Trust is an interesting concept, isn’t it. It’s something that is hard to gain and easy to lose. Our money says, “In God We Trust”; some of us remember the slogan used for Jimmy Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s failed re-election bid: “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” 

But do we truly understand what trust is?

Our Collect this morning takes this abstract question and makes it an essential grappling point for us. The Collect begins: O God, to trust in you with all our hearts.  I would like to offer you a new working definition of trust as it pertains to God. Trust is firmly believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Noah trusted YHWH and he built an ark; Abram trusted YHWH and he left the land of his father and made a covenant with this monotheistic God; Moses trusted YHWH and he delivered God’s people from Egypt; David trusted YHWH and he was a man after God’s own heart; Mary trusted YHWH and said, “May it be unto me.” Time and time again, YHWH reveals himself to his people by telling them who he is: I am who I am, I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will be your God and you will be my people. Then he tells them what he will do: I will redeem you; I will rescue you; I will make a covenant with you; I will establish your throne forever; I will write my covenant on your hearts; I will be your God.

The Old Testament has been marching slowly and intentionally toward the day when God’s chosen one, his anointed Messiah, the faithful Israelite would come to redeem God’s people once and for all. For generations and centuries Israel walked by faith, not by sight because she trusted that God was who he said he was and that he would do all that he said he would do. The obvious caveat here is that Israel’s covenant fidelity waxed and waned like the moon, but she did still trust in YHWH even amid her sins.

So we enter the fray of Mark’s Gospel once more, this time beginning with Mark 7:24. Last Sunday we read about Jesus taking the religious leaders of Israel to task for their codes and laws of purity, and we now find ourselves immersed in a story that has long been a stumbling block for preachers. At first glance, the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman about dogs and scraps feels discordant with the gospel, and yet, once you understand it, it is the absolute most logical follow up to last week’s lesson. 

Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who have attempted to ambush him and he ends up in the region of Tyre. Here’s what you need to know about Tyre: Tyreans were not Jewish, they were Gentiles. Worse than that, Josephus describes the Tyreans as some of the Jews “bitterest enemies.” Jesus is once again behind enemy lines.

Jesus is trying to fly under the radar because the more publicity he gets the more the “powers that be” want to get rid of him. Quick recap: who are the powers that be who are upset with Jesus’ ministry?

Evil spirits, demons, and the satan
Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests
Rome

Jesus enters a Gentile house which would have made him unclean. A woman approaches him; she is a Gentile and therefore ritually unclean. Lastly, her daughter has an unclean spirit. 

Just so we’re clear: an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter comes to Jesus in an unclean Gentile house. Triple whammy (that’s a theological term).

There is absolutely no reason that Jesus should be talking to this Gentile…if you’re a Pharisee.

Remember, we have just heard about all of the codes, rules, commandments, and ordinances pertaining to ritual purity and Jesus has just broken a bunch of those rules by even being in a Tyrean house with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit.

Spoiler alert: that’s part of the beauty of this story!

The Syrophoenecian woman comes and bows down at his feet. Mark doesn’t give us her name but that’s not to make her less important to the story, it is done in order to highlight how much of an outsider she is presumably to the family of God. She prostrates herself before Jesus and while we could interpret this as an act of desperation, it is strikingly similar to the woman with bleeding whom Jesus healed earlier: this woman trusts who Jesus is based on the miracles he has already performed among the Jews and the Gentiles. And she trusts that he can do it again for her daughter.

Why else would she bow down at his feet? 

Jesus’ reaction, however, is surprising. Instead of saying yes immediately, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an odd response, right? We need to substitute some words then it will make more sense. “Children” refers to Israel; “food” or “bread” refers to the gospel; “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying, “Israel needs to be fed first, it isn’t fair to take Israel’s gospel and give it to the Gentiles.” This seems harsh. It seems out of character. It even feels a little bit racist to think of these words in Jesus’ mouth. 

There are a wide variety of interpretations to the meaning of this passage: some say that Jesus was being sarcastic, that he is giving her the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine as he says this. But nothing in the text references such body language. Others say that Jesus was in fact intending to NOT heal her daughter based on her lack of being Jewish but that she convinced him. This doesn’t sit well because Jesus has already been performing miracles in Gentile territory in Mark’s gospel. The most obvious answer, according to a theologian with whom I agree, Rebecca Taylor, is that Jesus isn’t being sarcastic or racist, he’s acting like a good rabbi, inviting the woman to participate in a dialogue. It’s as though Jesus is egging her on, encouraging her toward the right answer, the one he knows she already has. Further up and further in, as Lewis would say.

Think about it: Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her let alone being in the same space as her and yet he responds to her request and to her rebuttal. Jesus is treating this Gentile woman the same way that he has treated his male disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman who was bleeding.

His opening remark isn’t a barrier but an invitation. It is an invitation to explore faith and God.

This is one of those times the NRSV gets it wrong–can’t win them all–they start her response with “Sir,” but it is actually, “Lord.” This Gentile woman knows who Jesus is and she has the faith and trust to persist until he heals her daughter. The woman retorts that even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. As in, the food may have been intended for the Jews but the Gentiles are still eating it. This is consistent with salvation history–YHWH told Abram the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel; the Gentiles are always intended recipients of the Gospel.

You know how Jesus is constantly telling people, “Your faith has made you well”? The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith made her daughter well. It is the intersection of her faith and God’s mercy. Jesus is merciful to this unclean foreigner by engaging her, by elevating her, by treating her as an equal, and by responding to her faith with healing. This healing story of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter expands the reach of the Gospel very clearly into the Gentile world. All of our passages today expand the reach of the gospel because they expand the definition of neighbor

James addresses this question in his epistle when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently they were elevating the rich and further marginalizing the poor. They were judging people based on their wallets. Surely that doesn’t happen any more? Proverbs talks about the poor and how the LORD pleads their case

James goes further: when we break one part of the law we break the whole law. And this is the hard saying for us this morning: do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And I don’t mean the ones who vote the same way, who spend money the same way, who read the same books, who take the same paper, who support the same teams…I mean the ones who are entirely different from us: the ones who voted for our candidate’s opponent, the ones who aren’t from America, the ones who have no money, the ones who have different skin color, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones who do wear masks, the ones who believe there is no God. Do we love them? Because if we don’t then we are guilty of breaking one of the two great commandments.

Let’s hop back to Mark with the second part of the Collect in mind: so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Jesus moves on from Tyre into the region of the Decapolis. This is not the first time we have heard of this place. Meaning “ten cities,” it was mentioned earlier in Mark 5 when Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac. The man, now healed, wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him instead to go. Jesus says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Where does this man go? To the Decapolis, Gentile territory, proclaiming the good news, boasting of God’s mercy.

We should not be surprised that Jesus heals a deaf man. Everyone knows of this Jesus by this point! Despite Jesus’ attempts to stay secret, his miracles and mighty acts cannot be silenced, hidden, or ignored. Of course the actual healing is important, but it is the man’s response that is truly significant for us…

Jesus tells the observers to be quiet “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” They are boasting of God’s mercy.

Do you know what I did every day at camp after I successfully repelled down the wall with life and limb intact? I told every camper who would listen about the counselor who kept me safe. I was boasting about his talent.

Let me ask you some simple questions: 

How has God been present and merciful in your life?
When have you experienced God’s love? His protection? His provision?
When have you seen God act?
How has God revealed himself to you in  your life?

I know you are sifting through your life as you sit here and you are beginning to formulate thoughts about events and experiences of your life that cannot be described apart from God’s presence. Perhaps it was healing, perhaps it was comfort in the face of grief, perhaps it was provision and protection. Whatever it was…you know what I’m talking about.

Our invitation from Jesus this morning is the same one he issued to the Gerasene after healing him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Those who have experienced God’s mercy are encouraged to tell others about it. It’s one thing to say, “The Bible says,” but it’s entirely different to say, “This is how God has shown up in my life.” In AA we would call that sharing our experience, strength, and hope.

Think of the chain of events: Jesus heals the demoniac in Mark 5. He sends him on his way to the Decapolis to boast of God’s mercy. In Mark 7 we come back to the Decapolis where Jesus is now known, he heals again, and again they go out boasting of God’s mercy. This is how the Kingdom of God grows: God uses ordinary men and women, like you and me, who experience God’s mercy, to then enact God’s mercy and announce God’s mercy.

Friends, if we are going to get serious about sharing our faith, about inviting others to join us on God’s mission, then we need to enact and announce God’s mercy in action and in proclamation.

My prayer for St. David’s is this: That we would become a place where people meet Jesus. That St. David’s would be known as a holy ground where men and women encounter the Living God in the midst of their lives. That we would become a holy people who boast in God’s mercy by telling others what God has done for us. That we would be anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to show others who Jesus is.