Presiding Bishop Preaches at Church 75th Anniversary

St. Philip in the Hills, Tucson, Arizona
February 6, 2011

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but sometimes on a quiet evening in the desert, you can walk outside and smell salt. It’s a whiff of what it smells like at the ocean, not as strong, but definitely salty. There has to be a little moisture in the air, but not too much. What you smell is a result of the rocks around here getting worn down and the rain dissolving the minerals out of that ground-up rock. That’s ultimately where all the salts in the ocean come from, and it is also what produces dry alkali lakebeds in the desert. The process depends on sunlight as well – through the heat engine that drives the wind and erosion and evaporates the water.

The particular kind of salt that we eat and cook with has also long been associated with healing. It’s a sign of hospitality in the Middle East and on the steppes of Asia – bread and salt are offered when a guest arrives, as a way of saying, “welcome, you will be treated as a friend here.”

Salt is essential to human life. A lack of salt, over a long period of time, is debilitating and even deadly. Wounds won’t heal if a person is salt-deprived. People who exercise or work in the heat must replace the salt lost in sweat, or they die. A lack of iodine (usually absorbed as an iodine salt) causes both thyroid problems and mental retardation – and a third of the world’s people don’t get enough.

Salt is life, and salt is also a preservative. Salt cod and salted beef, and even pickles depend on salt’s ability to stop the growth of bacteria, mostly by drying out the food so much that nothing can grow on it. Salt’s preservative powers make salt mines a good place to keep things safe, whether it’s intrinsically dangerous stuff like nuclear waste, or precious, like old and delicate photographic films.

Salts of all sorts are active and reactive in the presence of water – and that’s a good part of what Jesus likely means by saying, “you are the salt of the world.” Salts can also play an important part in producing light. Think about a battery – or a firefly. Through the interaction of salts in solution, they’re both ways of producing light.

When living water and the salt of the earth get together, they light up the world, and do some healing. That’s not a bad description of motivated human beings loving their neighbors, both friends and strangers. That’s even reflected in baptism in some places, where salt is added to the water of the font, or in some traditions, where a bit of salt is placed on the tongue of the newly baptized.

The same heat engine that draws salts out of the mountains around here produces the seasonal vagaries of our weather – the heat of summer and the cold of winter. On Tuesday, the same arctic blast that froze pipes around here was pushing the temperature toward 30 below in Casper, Wyoming, and somebody alerted to the fact that the homeless people in and around town were not likely to survive a night in that kind of cold. The local Episcopal church opened its doors, advertised that on Facebook, mobilized its members and many others in the community to bring clothing, bedding, and food, to stay the night and offer hospitality to all comers. Radio stations advertised the emergency warming shelter and community members answered. One local business person who’d never been to the church before showed up, took over the kitchen, and started churning out soup, muffins, and cookies. Volunteers with clothing and food went out looking for people under bridges. One man who doesn’t have a permanent home came to volunteer at the church and ended up directing others where to look for others who might be shivering in cold apartments or out in the open. Those who came to volunteer met people in need and others who wanted to help. Plans for a regular cold-weather shelter are growing out of this experience, and a new community has begun to form. That’s an example of the kind of salt and light that Jesus is talking about.

It’s also what Isaiah is quite literally talking about: sharing bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless into your house. Do that, says the prophet, and your light will shine forth like the dawn, and healing will spring up quickly.

St. Philip’s knows something about salt and light, and the after-school program you have is a great example. The kids who come here get fed physically and spiritually, in ways that help them become light sources for others – through their singing and music-making, and through the harmony they bring into their relationships far beyond this place. Healing grows and spreads from your salt and light.

There are other kinds of salts that we don’t often think about so positively, like iron oxide or rust. Consider how its ability to eat away the metal of prison bars or destroy instruments of war might help to create more light in this world. The corrosive power of salt is not always destructive. There’s a reflection of that reality in the sense of salty words, or palabras saladas, those words that can stop conversations, or the ones our mothers tried to stop with a bar of soap. They’re connected to the challenging words of the prophets, and Jesus’ insistence that he’s not going to let go of those words. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, “loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, break all the yokes that keep people in thrall, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into your house, cover the naked, care for your own kin in need. Do that, and your light will shine out like the dawn.”

What sort of salty work or words are needed around here? I’ve heard the lament about guns and violence everywhere I’ve been in the last couple of days. That wound is raw and open, and it needs deep and penetrating balm. It’s going to take the abrasive salt of challenge to power structures that keep on saying, ‘guns don’t kill people, people do.’ Well, fewer people die if guns aren’t readily available in every other purse or glove box. Reducing their availability is going to take entire communities working together, and it isn’t going to happen in instant. Change is going to take something like the persistent work of rust.

The work of healing from this violence is going to be like that heat engine, slowly eroding salt from the mountains and dissolving it in raindrops, and it will need many kinds of salts – like afterschool programs that love kids into healthier adults. Healing will need a greater investment in the health of our neighbors, and the willingness to intervene when someone is deathly ill, whether it’s the likelihood of freezing to death or acute mental illness. Healing will come from nurturing communities of light to challenge the violence of words that assume that some people aren’t worth knowing or listening to. Every member of every human community is of immense value – so break those bonds, even if it takes the rust of years to do it.

You have abundant resources of salt around here, and the blood and tears of the last few weeks are only the start. Healing will come, and it will come from sweat and rusty persistence. More tears will likely be shed along the way. May they become tears of joy, as the light begins to shine more brightly. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world – let it shine.