On Being Savory & Shining (Worship 2/6/11)

On Being Savory & Shining

Isaiah 58: 1-12 and Matthew 5: 13-20

Ever since I read Bread of Three Rivers last year, I have been curious about fleur de sel.  Flower of the sea.  It’s the first, frothy harvest of salt, considered the finest salt the world has to offer.

Salt harvested along the northwestern coast of France is collected from shallow pools of water, “raked out of the sea” by salt farmers, called paludiers (Bread of Three Rivers:  The Story of a French Loaf, Sara Mansfield Taber, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, p. 63).  I learned that this type of salt creation is “a process of condensation, evaporation, and crystallization” (p. 66).  It takes about 22 days to collect the salt that floats in from the sea, traveling – slowly – “through a series of interconnected, shallow evaporation pools, until it reaches [the final pool, called] the oeillet, where it finally crystallizes” (p. 66).  One of the paludiers in the book describes the process as gravitational, water moving “from pool to pool with only the aid of a very weak slope” (p. 66).

In the oeillets, “sudsy-looking clumps of white are floating on and just under the surface” of the water.  This is fleur de sel, “a salt that has rapidly crystallized under the effect of the wind.”  Paludier Monsieur Evain describes it, “This fleur de sel is fascinating because it is just at the limit of crystallization:  at the point when it passes from the liquid state to the solid state, but just!  As soon as you put it on a leaf of salad, poof! It disappears right away” (p. 75).

Sara Mansfield Taber is the writer who visits with Monsieur Evain and has her first taste of the flower of the sea.  Monsieur Evain, she says, “presents it to me with the flourish of a king offering a chunk of gold from one of his mines.  The fleur de sel is so moist and so fine – like the tiniest snow crystals – that it seems to disappear as I cup it in my hand.  It does melt, like snow, on my tongue, giving up a flash of silky liquid salt” (p. 76).

Snowy, silky, liquid salt.  Mmmm.  Aren’t you curious to know how that tastes?

I brought some fleur de sel and some other unusual salts for us to taste tonight.  I know we all know what salt tastes like but sometimes the everyday, ordinary elements – water, bread, wine, light, salt – need to be re-introduced in order for us to see, feel, and taste them again.  Sometimes we need a “sea flower” to remind us of the nuances of flavor and where it is sea salt comes from.  Sometimes we need Australian and Hawaiian salts to remind us to pay attention and taste again what’s on our table every day.  So I invite you to come on up as I continue to preach.  Gather around the altar table and taste as many of the salts as you like.  Feel their texture on your tongue.  See if you notice that silky flash of liquid from the fleur de sel.  Notice what they really taste like.  Come on up.

Salt is potent stuff.  Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5: 13).  Salt is good for so many things – cooking, curing meat, disinfecting, scrubbing – but only so long as it remains potent, retains its saltiness.  Otherwise it’s just a bunch of crystals without much to do.  When salt stops being salty, Jesus says, just dump it outside and move on.  (Same thing with light.  If you won’t let it do what light does – shine – it is not worth lighting it in the first place.  Why bother lighting the lamp if you’re planning to stash it under a basket where no one can see it or see by it?)

Last week, reading Micah, we listened in on the conflict between God and Israel.  The people were whining, thinking they’d offered all the right things to God but without having actually offered their lives.  What did God want?  What does God require?  “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6: 8).

This week Isaiah echoes that conversation.  The people moan to God, saying, Hey, we keep fasting and you don’t see.  Why do we bother with this, why humble ourselves, when you never notice all this hard work we are doing? (Isa. 58:3).  And God, for the umpteenth time when dealing with us hardheads, says, You are fasting to show what good fasters you are – don’t try and tell me that’s all for me.  Don’t bother fasting while you still oppress your workers.  The fast that I choose for you goes more like this:  loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free – break every yoke!  Go out and share your food with those who are hungry.  Bring in the homeless and share your home; give your clothes to the naked; and never shirk your responsibilities to family and community.  It’s your own behavior that yokes you and holds you back.  Stop pointing fingers at one another and speaking ill of one another and live like I’m telling you to (vv. 6-7; 9-10).

It’s pretty clear cut, isn’t it?  It’s not like God’s making us play Jeopardy and guess until we get it right.  There isn’t much room for interpretation.  Straightforward:  live a just and faithful life and do all you can to take care of people who need help, who needs things that you have to give, things that you have in abundance.  Live a just and righteous life, characterized by how you treat those who are less powerful than you, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised.

And if we do that, what does God promise will happen? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing will take hold.  When you call out you will hear me answer you.  When you manage this kind of life, your light shall rise in the darkness and even your gloomiest moment will be as bright as the day at noon (vv. 8-10).

It’s a strange calling we have, to be savory and shining.  To live right in the midst of the whole wide non-homogenous world and to offer our flavor.  To stand in truly dark places and let God’s light shine through us as a beacon.  Salt and light.  Both elements that change the flavor and texture of their environments.  Salt brings out the flavor in food; light reveals what otherwise can go unnoticed or unrecognized.

We’ve tasted some unusual salts, from sea and river and far away soil.  There is something essentially salty about each one, though their flavors are unique.  The Hawaiian salt is red from the clay in the land there.  The river silt in Australia turned that one pinkish.  The fleur de sel is still wet from the Atlantic where it laps the shores of France.  Salt in northwestern France takes 22 days and the right weather conditions; it takes patience and evaporation and crystallization.  In other places salt is mined from the earth.  You can taste where it comes from as it melts on your tongue.

How are you adding savor to the life of the world and the lives around you every day?  When people meet you how can they taste the One from whom you came?

Woody and I were talking about the Matthew passage this week and he had an interesting observation.  You know, Jesus says there that when salt is no longer salty all it’s good for is trampling underfoot.  But Woody observed that he has never known of salt that was so old it lost its flavor.  And I have to admit that I haven’t encountered this either.  Flour goes rancid.  Sugar gets hard and dry.  But salt?

All the more interesting that this is what Jesus chooses.

We are made – created – to live this way.  We are put here to take care of one another, to act justly and without reservation for the poor and powerless.  We are created to flavor our world with the taste of God’s kingdom.  It’s in our bones.

If we do not know of unsalty salt, perhaps Jesus is pointing out how much more natural it is to throw off the yoke, let our lights shine, and be our salty selves.  It isn’t about becoming a different sort of element, a different kind of person – it’s about discovering who we are made to be, in the image of the One who made us.

And when you live this way, savory and shining, Isaiah promises us: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (vv. 11-12).

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2011