Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a rich man and his three daughters. One day, the rich man asked his daughters, “How much do you love me, my dears?”
“Why, Father,” said the first, “I love you as much as life itself.”
“Oh, Father,” said the second daughter, “I love you more than all the world.”
The rich man was very pleased. Then he turned to his youngest daughter and asked, “And how much do you love me, my little one?”
“I love you as much as salt, Father,” she replied, quietly.
This made the rich man very angry. “You don’t love me at all,” he exclaimed. “You will no longer live in my house or be my daughter!” he said and threw her out of the house.
The poor girl wandered across the land until she came to a large house where she was taken in by the cook and worked as a scullery maid. No one knew who she was for she had woven a cloak and hood of rushes to hide her beautiful clothes and cam to be known as Cap O’ Rushes.
To cut a long story short, the master’s son came to fall in love with Cap O’ Rushes and asked her to marry him. Soon the wedding was arranged and people from all over the land were invited to the feast including Cap O’ Rushes’ own father. Before the feast, Cap O’ Rushes went into the kitchen and told the cook tp put no salt in any of the dishes she prepared.
All the guests arrived and duly sat down to enjoy the sumptuous fare placed before them but as they started to eat they could not swallow a bite for the saltless food tasted so terrible. Suddenly, Cap O’ Rushes’ father burst out crying, “What is the matter?” asked the others. “I once had a daughter who said she loved me as much as salt,” he wept. “I didn’t understand what she meant, and threw her out of the house. Now, eating this food without salt, I realise she loved me very much.”
Then Cap O’ Rushes stood up and put her arms around her father. “Here I am Father,” she said. “Your very own daughter!” Her father was overjoyed to see her safe and sound.
I am sure that most of you will be familiar with the more complex and political version of that fairy tale as rendered by Shakespeare in his King Lear. But the original tale is a more simple, homely fable about the value of something as ordinary and everyday as salt. Salt, like love within a family, can all too often be taken for granted yet it is essential for the flavour and even the enjoyment of food. If it is taken away the food not just become less palatable but inedible.
It is not for nothing that Jesus describes those who believe in and follow him as being the salt of the earth. Whilst Jesus does not go on to explore the precise meaning or implication of this image, it is Paul, in his advice to the church in Ephesus, that the notion of being the salt of the earth is given practical expression and significance.
Paul has often been criticised in passages such as these for what appears to be reinforcing the status quo and thereby not only legitimising social injustice but also subverting the radical message of the gospel of Christ even before it has started. To a certain extent our second reading this evening seems to bear this criticism out as Paul addresses those members of the community who are in unequal relationships of power and tells them to uphold the societal norms. Children and servants are to obey their superiors and parents and masters are to act responsibly over those whom they have power and control. Paul is encouraging them to be like everyone else, to be an ordinary member of the society to which they belong and to adhere to its forms and conventions and yet within these very norms of everyday life he calls them to be essentially different, to be like divine salt.
Children are to obey their parents but because it is right, as laid out in the Ten Commandments. Fathers are not to upset their children and bring them to anger but to have the Lord as the model of fatherly care and authority. Servants are to obey and serve their masters but in so doing they serve Christ and masters must act knowing that they too are under authority, that of their Lord in heaven. In Paul’s eyes the life of a Christian is a normal life but what makes it different is this divine dimension which radically informs and alters how one sees oneself in society and as a result, how one acts and is. Like salt, it is this divine essence or orientation to God, that brings the flavour which savours the whole of life, making it in turn good, and true, and godly.
And yet, as Jesus says, it is all too easy for salt to lose its saltiness, it is all too easy to be distracted by the things of everyday life to forget our divine essence and the person from whom our strength and life comes. I remember once when I had been asked to lead the intercessions at a conference for London clergy telling a fellow curate how anxious I was about what all these eminent clergy were going to think of my prayers and of me. His salutary reply was that all I really needed to worry about was whether my prayers would offend God. All too often we can be caught up in ourselves and slowly lose our saltiness as we lose sight of our Maker and Redeemer.
Paul is ever ware, probably form his own experience, of our capacity to get it wrong and lose our way. As a result he tells his brothers and sisters in Christ to encase themselves in the protection of God. Putting on the armour of God, with its shield of faith, breastplate of righteousness, helmet of salvation and sword of the spirit, is not so much an act of aggression but one of intent, to be so enclosed within the nature of God that we can withstand the evil that afflicts us. For the choice to follow God or not is an ever present reality.
Peter Thompson Jones expressed this very powerfully in a programme he made recently called Extreme Pilgrim. In the last one in the series he followed the early desert fathers and went into the desert alone for three weeks. At one moment during that retreat he looks into his handheld camera and expresses all those old experiences of battles with demons when he says that every moment is a choice, to do good or to do evil. Our amour is to help us at every minute of the day to choose God, to choose life in all its flavoured fullness.
It has never been easy to be a follower of Christ. We may not, in this country, have to live with the fear of persecution but our own time and place brings its own concerns and trials. One of these is the sense that today slat is seen as something which is bad for you and must be eradicated from our lives. Of course too much salt can indeed be a bad thing. Fundamentalism, be it Muslim or Christian, wherever religion is used to separate people one from another and God, can only lead to a kind of sickness or even spiritual death. But if God were removed from our lives altogether, then as our fairy tale warns, life would become not just unpalatable but unbearable.
But it seems to me of more pressing concern not that there is a minority who wishes us to live in an unflavoured world but that the Christian gospel of love and virtue is so much part of our ordinary lives, that just like salt we are in danger of forgetting that it is there. I was reading an article the other day by Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, who was commenting on just how Christian Dr. Who is. Regardless of its strongly atheist writer and overt anti-religious comments, it is still a programme which shows the overcoming of evil by good by an incarnate and resurrected lord on behalf of humanity. So deeply had salt flavoured our thinking that all too often we do not notice it. But if, as in the fairy tale, we forget or underestimate it too much then we run the risk, like the rich landlord of casting our that very person who savours our lives by his love and goodness.
We who are the salt of the earth, who enable the flavour of God to savour the world, we are the reminder of who it is who loves us and makes life flavoursome. Though we are few, it only takes a pinch of salt to make God’s presence real, do not lose heart, wrap yourself in the being and nature of God, walk in his ways with confidence and trust and continue to be the salt of the earth and in particular of this college. Amen.
25th May 2008