A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 9 February 2020- 10:30am- 3rd Sunday before Lent
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 and Matthew 5: 13-20
“It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians”. This was the reaction of The Statesman, a prominent Indian newspaper, to Mahatma Ghandi’s decision, in Spring 1930, to organise a Salt March, a 24 day act of civil disobedience and non-violent protest in Colonial India against the British Raj which imposed very high taxes on salt on the Indian public. Gandhi’s colleagues on the Indian National Congress thought that no one would take a campaign involving salt, of all things, seriously, and suggested a land revenue boycott instead. Yet the Salt March to Dandi, and the beating by British police of hundreds of nonviolent protesters in Dharasana, gained worldwide attention and news coverage, establishing Gandhi’s civil disobedience as an effective way of challenging social and political injustice, and later influencing American activists such as Martin Luther King. Gandhi had correctly predicted that an item of daily use could resonate more with a wider range of social classes than an abstract demand for greater political rights. Representing 8.2% of the British Raj tax revenue, the salt tax hit the poorest Indians the hardest. As Gandhi himself put it, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”
Like Jesus, Gandhi knew the power of a simple image, an everyday commodity or object to command people’s attention. From October last year until October this year, celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth are taking place across India. In our Gospel today, Jesus also talks about salt. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says, in a series of sayings that are part of the Sermon on the Mount and come directly after the famous Beatitudes. “You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill.” The emphasis here was on the “you,” which is plural: Jesus, as we know, often used popular images in his teachings and parables to draw people into his meaning. Just as Ghandi, many centuries later, would focus his act of protest in a way that was meaningful to every Indian, reasoning that it would build unity between Hindus and Muslims by fighting a wrong that touched them equally, so Jesus, addressing the crowds, galvanised a people, drawing them together around images that could be easily understood- salt of the earth, light of the world- two images that were so powerful, so resonant, that they have become part of everyday speech.
Paul, in writing to the Christians in Corinth, says that he didn’t come using “lofty words”. These are not lofty words that Jesus uses; instead, they’re down to earth words, down to earth images that convey, as Paul went on to describe it, “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” but now made known.
And at that basic level of understanding, Jesus is exactly right. If salt loses its saltiness, loses its savour, what use is it? If a light is hidden, what use is it? You don’t light a lamp and put it under a basket; you wouldn’t use salt that couldn’t season your food.”
It’s easy to think of the salt image in the terms that we now use the phrase. “She’s the salt of the earth” means that she’s down to earth, helpful, friendly, an approachable person who’d do anything for anyone. But salt wasn’t ordinary in Jesus’ day any more than it was in Gandhi’s- it was valued and valuable, so important that Roman soldiers were paid some of their wages in salt- hence the saying someone being “worth their salt,” and it’s where our word salary comes from. Salt not only gave flavour, but it preserved the food- it was vital to life. You can’t live without the right amount of salt now- despite the frequent health warnings that we eat too much- and you certainly couldn’t then.
Just as light, that we see by, can blind or dazzle, so salt, like any powerful image, has its negative side. One of my favourite contemporary poets, David Harsent, in his collection Salt, observes rather bleakly that “we scatter salt/ over slugs to have them writhe in cleanliness, / just as we lavish salt on the flogged man’s back”. But salt is fundamental to our well-being. We taste it in our tears and in our sweat. Salt purifies and disinfects; it prevents wounds from festering. It preserves life and health, and in a hot climate like India or 1st century Palestine is an everyday vital part of a healthy and flourishing life. To be salt is to be thoroughly human, involved in the messy and bloody reality of life. To be salt is to prevent wounds from festering, to be a healing- and not a destructive- presence wherever and whenever we can.
We are living in a time of change and uncertainty. Much has been said, these last weeks and months, inside and outside the church, about the need for healing of Brexit divisions, and for reconciliation of our fierce divisions over a battle that has raged for the past three and a half years. Bishop Graham Tomlin, in a short book “Looking beyond Brexit,” compares it to the English Reformation 500 years ago, when Henry VIII broke away from Rome. From that point began the long and difficult task of bringing the country back together, of holding together the local and the international in creative tension. “The Reformation stands as both a warning and an invitation,” he writes: “we have seen what can happen if division is allowed to harden into hatred and violence; yet we are invited to do the slow, patient work of recognizing the value in different opinions”. Hard though it is, in an atmosphere of such hostility and suspicion, each side, he says, has got to admit that the other side has a point.
And in the Church, as we look to the Lambeth Conference later this year, a ten yearly gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, there is confidence yet also uncertainty as we hope that church can be reconciled, and not divided by disagreements over the issue of sexuality. Amid such uncertainty in church and in world, the images of “salt” and “light” are helpful; something distinctive that we can hold on to, of which we can be sure.
Later in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to the crowds, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. We tend, as Tomlin argues, to assume that loving our family member or neighbour is incompatible with loving our enemy- but one does not negate the other. As he writes: “Love is not a limited commodity… Love tends to grow the more it is practised”. It is love that makes us distinctive, part of our Christian vocation to be salt and light.
A few weeks ago, we marked Holocaust Memorial Day in Evensong, inviting members of the local Jewish community to participate by leading prayers for the dead. As they were leaving, one of them commented on how strange it felt to be attending worship in the Cathedral, yet she also said how surprised she was that so much of it was the same, with the singing of the Psalms being such a prominent part of the service. A week later, the composer, Roxanna Panufnik, a practising Catholic, visited and spoke about her strong interest in Middle Eastern music, and her mission through bringing together these different influences to build bridges between different faiths. To love the enemy or welcome the stranger isn’t to lose the distinctiveness of who we are as believers in Jesus, but to appreciate the riches of other traditions and to bring them into conversation with each other.
As one person remarked at the time of the unprecedented popular response to Gandhi’s Salt March, "it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released." Being salt means that we bring out the true taste of what it means to be a follower of Christ- the taste of justice and mercy, and of living in peaceful solidarity with our fellow humans, living in God’s ways. If we lose that, then we lose our savour; we lose who we are and we’re good for nothing. Being light means that we radiate Christ’s light, divine light. Jesus, who calls us salt, salts our life. Jesus, who is our light, calls us to be lights in the world. And Jesus who loves us, who ourselves once were far off, meets us with the flavour of the kingdom and gives himself to us at his table. You are the salt of the earth; you are lights in the world- salt and light in the places where you are. That’s who God has called us to be, and that is who we are and what Jesus wants us to do- with confidence.