It was with some of this in mind that I prepared today's sermon; the salt of the earth, the light for the world.
|Old Lymington Salt Workings|
Lymington was built on salt. For centuries the production of salt brought it wealth. In one year alone in the 18th Century the tax paid on the town’s salt production was £40,000 – many millions in today’s money. Why was it so enormously valuable? This, remember, is before refrigeration. That was as true in first century Palestine as it was in 18th Century England. First it was a preservative, keeping food from decay. They could catch cod in the North Atlantic and salt it and it would still be edible six months later. If you go to Portugal, you will still find they value salt cod. You can see it stiff as a board in the shops, but after soaking it becomes almost as it was when freshly caught, and every Portuguese enjoys Bacalhau a bras. So when Jesus tells the disciples they are the salt of the earth, he is saying they are valuable and necessary - preservatives. That’s us too; or rather, it is what we are supposed to be. But Our Lord goes on to warn us. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s useless. Then it is fit for nothing except to be thrown out. This parable is about the Church’s place in Society.
We are meant to keep the world around us fresh and wholesome, to preserve it from decay. So when people begin to say “Every-thing is relative”, the salt of the Church’s teaching must protest. They will say, for instance, that some lives are more valuable than others. “The newly born baby must be protected and cherished; but the baby before birth is disposable, just a foetus which can be aborted if it suits us” Or at the other end of life they will argue that some old person has “no quality of life” – and therefore should be disposed of. Again, the salt of the gospel must be rubbed into Society to show it how it is going wrong. Now this won’t make you popular - and some Christians seem to think that their purpose is to be popular. It is not clear which Gospel they have been reading; certainly not the one which says “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you”. To teach a gospel of popularity, as they say ‘making the church relevant’, is to lose the Church’s saltness, its astringency.
You know that besides preserving meat, salt has been used medically. If you have had a tooth out saltwater can help the gap to heal. But it can be uncomfortable; the salt can sting as it heals – and that too is part of the Church’s task. No good though the Church prescribing how Society should behave unless she lives up to that teaching herself. This is where we have lost ground so disastrously in recent times, allowing priests to continue in office when they have been involved in terrible offences, even against young children. Our Lord's most severe judgment was against those who harmed one of those little ones; it were better for him to be drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.
With Pope Benedict the wrongs of previous generations began to be put right. Now in many parts of the world, not least in England, Child Protection in the Catholic Church is more careful and effective than almost anywhere else. That is increasingly true of the Church worldwide too. But still the failures and sins of the past are dredged up. Just last week a committee of the United Nations made a report which simply ignored all the Church has been doing for decades to protect children, and said things were as bad as ever; which is simply untrue. But then that same report went on to criticise the church over her teaching on contraception, and on abortion. They even blamed her for starvation in Africa. Yet thoughout the world education and medical care have done far more than abortion or mechanical means of contraception to stabilise the birth rate. We have to be ready to argue against nonsense even when it comes from a body like the United Nations. With all this we must take honest criticism of our past behaviour very seriously. There are people who have suffered, and the Church must seek their forgiveness and do what it can to help heal them; but the Church must certainly not lose her critical faculties. Treating human life as a mere commodity to be disposed of at will is wicked. In saying this the Church is the salt a healthy society needs, and all of us have a duty to understand the Church’s Teaching, and to tell other people what she really teaches. When people lie about her, we must be ready to stand up and face them, though it makes us unpopular. And all the while the Church is doing so much for education and medicine in the under-developed world which, if it were honest, the United Nations would celebrate, rather than constantly criticising past failings - without acknowledging that they have been and are being tackled energetically..
So we are to be salt, says Our Lord: helping the world discover where its priorities should be. He tells us too we are to be light, not hidden away but set like a city on a hill, or a beacon shining in the dark. As Pope Benedict told us,we are to be ready to enter the Political arena, the market place and debating room of the world. That world needs the witness and the teaching of the Church, uncomfortable though it might find it. We must be ready to shine out, to speak up, so that many may come to give praise not to us or the Church, but solely to our Father in heaven.