Stay Salty, My Friends

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.

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