Craving Salt in a Saltless Society


Mark: 9-49-50:  For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you restore its saltiness? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.


This is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in the Christian Scriptures to understand.  Theologians for literally hundreds of years have tried to ascertain what exactly did Jesus mean by these words. Salted with fire?  Salted with salt? Restore saltiness? Salt in yourselves? Be at peace?

I am sure that my words today will not unravel the mysterious meanings that others before me could not unravel.  But there are some things that others have explored that I believe, are important for us as Unitarian Universalists to grasp an understanding.

To put this passage in context, In the Mid-1800s German Theologians and later Methodist Theologians[i] recognized that this passage begins with the disciples arguing who is the greatest among them. Jesus’ response to them was whoever wants to be first must be last and servant to all.  Jesus uses the example of welcoming the child as one welcoming Jesus.  In other words, one was to give equal attention and affection to those without power as they might to someone, in authority, whose actions could benefit their standing in the world.  The passage continues with disciples telling Jesus that they stopped a stranger from exorcising demons in Jesus name, because the stranger was not a follower of Jesus.  Jesus said, whoever is not against us is for us.  In other words, just because a person does not look like us, does not mean they do not share the same values we share.  Jesus then goes into an exhortation of things that would lead a person to burn in hell: placing stumbling blocks in the way of those without power; Hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble. Would be better to chop off or pluck them out and enter the realm of heaven; than to have both hands, feet, and eyes and be thrown into hell where the fire is never quenched.

All of this context is placed directly before Jesus says, For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost is saltiness, how can you restore it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

The passage comes full circle referring to the beginning when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest.

Most conservative Christians believe this salt passage refers to the fires of hell and damnation. Fire is all consuming, it destroys. Salt preserves, therefore will be a protective from the fires of hell.  If you do not have salt, ie belief, then you will perish in hell. The difficulty with this interpretation is the use of the word Everyone or literally in the Greek, All. Which may have a larger connotation than just people.

Some Roman Catholic theologians have believed this passage refers to the concept of purgatory because it says “everyone will be salted with fire.” Fire also is used as a means of purification. We have the phrase refining fire to refer to this process of purification. Fire is used to purify ore to extract the metal from it.  But this is also a difficult reading because if the person has lost their saltiness, how can they be purified?

The phrase every sacrifice will be salted with salt, refers directly to the Mosaic Law of salting the sacrifices before they are presented to God.  Salt was used as a preservative against decay and corruption. The salt of sacrifice refers to the covenant that was created between the people of Israel and God. The covenant between Israel and God was also considered “incorruptible, undecaying, indissoluble.”

When they sacrificed animals and birds, they would salt the carcass to draw out the blood before it was burned on the altar. This ritual made the sacrifice holy to God.  This salt of sacrifice declared the covenant holy, declared the people holy in relationship with their god, who is holy.  Be holy for I am holy. Salt symbolized this holiness with its character to preserve from decay and corruption. It also denoted the ability of salt to cleanse, to purify.   Salt has been used to cleanse wounds.  And today, sterile saline solution is used to irrigate wounds and kill infesting bacteria at the wound site[ii].

Salt, in the Middle East, has long been a symbol of friendship, harmony, and of covenant agreement. We also have the idiom of saying someone is the salt of the earth, which implies a person of integrity, of sound character.

A few years ago, while I was visiting family in Florida, we visited a restaurant that placed on the table a variety of different dishes of salt.  They were of different colors and each had a distinctively different salt taste. There was a Hawaiian sea salt which is red, and Himalayan salt which is pink, a grey sea salt and Portuguese sea salt which is a very fine grain white salt. There were others that I do not remember. We were told that certain salts would enhance the flavor of certain foods.

The last 70 days or so, our nation has seen some major saltless changes. Our president has created a cabinet that is majority white male. The executive orders he has signed has ended services for the poor, removed anti-discrimination protections for transgender youth in schools; LGBTQ in government employment; rounded up non-criminal immigrants; removed water protectors from Sioux lands; ended student loan forgiveness programs; removed funding at healthcare centers for women, and repealed anti-pollution regulations allowing for coal ash to once again defile our water supplies.

This was going to be the bulk of my sermon.  I was going to spend most of this sermon on how returning to 1930s invisibility of the broad diversity of people hurts our society. How our palate is better when we can taste the diversity of humanity and find ways to respect our individual and collective stories.

Then an announcement of a Unitarian Universalist Association Southern Regional Lead hire was made and they were not moving into the region. Then it surfaced that there was a qualified person of color within the region who was not hired.  There was talk about “best fit” which has been seen by people of color over the decades as code for “people who look like us.” Stories started to surface about the decades long pattern of favoring whites over people of color. Our denomination had made a commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist organization and here was evidence that this was not happening.  There was a letter from our President, Peter Morales, a person of color, who used language in the letter that called those who were making the claim, hysterical. Again, terms that are traditionally used in a white supremacist culture.  People responded poorly to this letter.  And then on Thursday, Peter Morales, resigned from his office with only three months left to serve in his term.  He apologized for his insensitivity and stated that he no longer saw himself as the leader who could lead us forward through this process of reviewing hiring practices. You can find his letter on our congregation’s group Facebook page, as well as several other letters.

Everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.

With all that is happening on the national scene what happens in Boston might not seem like it is worth attention.  But it is precisely because of what is happening on the national scene that makes what is happening in our denomination take on a far more urgent status.  It is far more urgent because this congregation is a microcosm of the larger whole.  As Captain Obvious would say, this congregation is predominantly white.

As we see more and more people who had gained visibility and protections in our nation begin to lose those protections, what happens within our congregations becomes vital as a form of resistance. This nation is less safe today for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people than they were last year. How our denomination and our individual congregations responds to the national storm that is brewing is urgent.

As a congregation are we a safe place for people of color? We have a few people of color in this congregation but does that mean we are a safe place? There are people of color in our denomination who despite their vast accomplishments, despite their degrees, despite their standing in the community, despite their years as a Unitarian Universalist, still find their voices dismissed within their congregations. Members should not have to work at justifying their being one of us and valued for who they are. Their accomplishments, their degrees, their standing in the community, or their years as Unitarian Universalists should not even matter to their value to the congregation. Would we welcome a shift in culture if this congregation began to mirror the nation’s population?   Would they know they have a voice within these halls? Would their voice carry power? Or would they be met with a white centered culture and find their voice silenced and dismissed?

As a congregation are we a safe place for those who are struggling to make ends meet?  If they lose their federal or state assistance, SNAP, TANF, VA benefits, medical coverage, would they know they have a voice within these halls?  Would their voice carry power? Would they be able to invoke cultural change here to ensure that this place is safe for them? Or would we simply shake our heads and minimalize their experiences, their concerns dismissed, or worse tell them to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison in response to Rev. Peter Morales letter wrote:  We must be constantly vigilant that our culture and practices are consistent with our core values and not overshadowed or coopted by other forces that have great cultural power. White supremacy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, and other forms of power-over are constantly disguising themselves. Our movement is rooted in BOTH the ideals of religious freedom and justice AND the culture of privilege and supremacy. To assert that there is an unassailable core that is immune from critique is just plain wrong and flirts with dogmatism. There is no more important work than the careful cycle of work and reflection … We must all be open and willing to reflect on our mistakes and the ways we have become complicit with injustice. If we do not do this, we risk all credibility when we tell others that our values call us to counter oppression and injustice[iii].

To be a congregation where everyone truly feels safe will mean that we will need to create an even more inclusive culture.  A culture where no one “cultural, ethnic, or racial group dominates the church’s style of ministry[iv]” in music, structure, or activities. It would mean that whiteness is not in the cultural center but off to the side to allow Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people to rise as equal and strong pillars of the congregation. It will mean that we will need to examine where our stumbling blocks are that would hold others back from being fully embraced in community.  It will require more listening to others and holding their words, their experiences in our hearts and not responding with white fragility.  That uncomfortable feeling that somehow hearing about another’s experience is a personal affront that needs defending.

It is craving salt in a saltless society; the salt that each person uniquely and collectively brings to the table.  A desire to affirm the diversity and plurality of our many paths collectively. It is a reaffirmation of our covenantal faith, that we[v] walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

The salt of sacrifice is our willingness to uphold our covenants with one another as a sacred trust.  It is our striving to be holy as life is holy.  It is to have salt in ourselves so we may be healing balms to cleanse our wounded-ness and short comings, as preservatives of all that is just and right, and creating a covenant of relationship so that we may be at peace with one another.  May it be so. Blessed Be.

[i] The Methodist Quarterly Review, Volume 32; G. Lane and P.P. Sanford, 1850




[v] From UUCTuscaloosa’s Membership recognition service

Sermon: Love is the Doctrine

Sermon delivered at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church on 1 November 2009. 

Love is the Doctrine by Rev. Fred L Hammond 

We say this covenant every week.  “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.”  What does this mean to us as we close out the first decade of the 21st century?   What does this mean to us as we close out the first year of a new presidency?  What does this mean to us as we debate and argue over health care reform, equal rights for gays, the escalating war in Afghanistan, bailouts for the oligarchic financial system, and the dismantling of agencies that successfully advocate for the poor and the oppressed?  

What does this mean—indeed?   I read a lecture by one of the pillars of our faith, Alice Blair Wesley, and these two sentences popped out at me, “What ought the lay members of a liberal free church understand our kind of church to be about, now, in our time?” She answers, “Strong, effective lively liberal churches, sometimes capable of altering positively the direction of their whole society, will be those liberal churches whose lay members can say clearly, individually and collectively, what are their own most important loyalties, as church members.”[1] 

Their most important loyalties.  It is difficult to articulate this as church members.  We have so many different loyalties, even within a congregation of our number, our loyalties are varied.   And to then place it on a denominational level, what are our loyalties then?  It is hard to encompass the scope of it all.  And harder still to understand how we could be on opposite sides of an issue.  

Yet, we do not dictate or demand uniformity of belief in our congregations.  We do not say to a potential member, if you are not in 100% agreement with us on this or that issue, this or that doctrine, then you cannot be a member here.    We strive, sometimes successfully, to let those differences fade into the background as we seek to live our covenant. And that brings us back to the question, what are our loyalties as a church?  What do we serve when we come together on Sunday mornings?  To what ends are we serving when we go back to our weekly schedules?  

“Love is the Doctrine of this Church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.   To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.” 

If this covenant is indeed where our loyalties lie individually and collectively as a church, then how does this play out in our daily lives?   According to Random House Dictionary a sacrament is “a visible sign of an inward grace; something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance; an oath; a solemn pledge.”   So when we state that the quest of truth is its sacrament, it means that we visibly, solemnly seek truth as an act of love.  We recognize that this love has a mysterious significance to us, that truth might remain elusive to us or that we might only see glimpses of an unfolding reality.   But to seek truth as an act of love opens us up to the possibilities of transforming our ideas, our bigotries, and our biases for something more inclusive, something more embracing in the other.  

To love our neighbor as we love ourselves is not an easy task to do.  We do not always love ourselves in the fullness that love has to offer us.  We sometimes carry within our beings the scars of abuse; either familial or societal, or the scars of oppression; either internal or external phobias that hold us down from our potential.  And so it is hard to sometimes love someone else when we do not love ourselves very much.  And as we vow to seek truth as a sacrament of that love, it is sometimes difficult for us know how that love should manifest in our midst.  But that is what we seek to do as we honor and uphold Love as our doctrine. 

Service is its prayer; service is love’s prayer.  How are we in service to one another?  How is that a prayer?  Here prayer takes on a much larger meaning than just a desire for something to happen.  For example, it is more than just asking the powers of the universe to restore to health a friend who is ill.  It is asking and acting together.  It is thought and action combined.  Service is action.  Prayer is the desire for the difference to be made in love.  It is doing what is needed to help that friend recover their health, and what that may be is myriad of possibilities.  Service is relational.  It is transactional.  It is transformational.   

It is one thing to ask for equal rights for sexual minorities.  It is another to ask and to combine it with service.  Opening the doors of the church so that PFLAG can meet here to offer support to families of gay children is service as a prayer.  Opening the doors of the church so teens have a safe place to gather and express themselves in discussion, music, and poetry is service as a prayer.  The prayer is that gays would find acceptance in our community.  The prayer is that our teens will find avenues where they can develop into their full potential as loving compassionate adults. The answers to these prayers begin with the opening of our doors.  

The common goals of this questing for sacramental truth and service as prayer are to dwell in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need.  To dwell in peace does not mean silence.  Peace does not necessarily mean tranquility.  Peace is a state of being that is assured that all is well even when the earth is quaking beneath us. To dwell in peace is an assurance that regardless of what you or someone else is going through that you are not alone but in covenanted community.  

When the Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast were destroyed by the effects of Katrina, as devastating and heartbreaking as that was for them personally, there was peace that held them knowing that they were not abandoned by their denomination.  People from across the country came into their communities to help them rebuild and are continuing to help them rebuild is the proof of that assurance.  There is peace that they will survive. 

When the news of the Knoxville shooting at the Unitarian Universalist congregation occurred, as painful and heart wrenching as that event was, there was a peace that assured them they were not alone in their grief.  The community congregations regardless of doctrinal differences poured out their hearts to the members of this congregation.  And so did members of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, some by offering their skills in trauma counseling and others in their cards and notes and money for the surviving families.  

And here in Laurel when ICE agents raided Howard Industries and arrested 600 plus workers on suspect that they may have been undocumented. Some of them were some of them weren’t.  There was an assurance of peace to those families by members of this congregation by dropping off food supplies to the families that suddenly lost their income. And there was an offer of peace when I stood with them in prayerful vigil, the only local clergy person, when they sought for their personal affects and final paychecks.  I was moved at how grateful these families were that someone, who represented to them a loving presence of the church, was there to stand in witness of their plight. To dwell in peace does not always mean tranquility but it does mean assurance of a supporting presence.  

To seek knowledge in freedom.  It may seem to be an odd thing to have this as a goal of this covenant but it is essential, for without it we have coercion, manipulation and propaganda.   This is perhaps more important for us today.  We have in this country a movement that seeks to shape the knowledge that is available.  It will take congregations like ours to recommit to this ideal that knowledge needs to be sought in freedom to ensure that our nation remains free.  

There is a resurgence of McCarthyism in our nation. This is being defined as “the reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries”.  We are seeing it through the irresponsible journalism of the Fox network.  It is one thing for a newspaper or television to have a conservative slant but it is another when the newspaper or television begins to use their resources to create the news they wish to cover. When I was studying journalism in my undergraduate work, the number one rule in journalism was to report the news, not become the news.  Fox News has in its manipulation of information restricted the freedom needed to find knowledge and their efforts have made them the news. 

Fox news is a source and one of the primary sponsors for the tea party protests that have occurred this past year.  These protests are based in falsehoods and misinformation propagated by Fox News.  They have grossly overcovered these events to give the appearance that they were larger than they really were.  For example, they gave on site coverage for a protest that no one was still in attendance.  And when another protest march was taking place in Washington, the National Equality March, a group that Fox news does not support, Fox did not cover it themselves and downplayed the attendance to a mere 70K which was the number allegedly in attendance at their teaparty protest the week before. Every other news network reported that upwards  to over 200K people being in attendance.   

But in case I be accused of mud-slinging with bias, let me add that the other news networks are not innocent in their manipulation of the news or their hindering of conveying knowledge.  They have taken a back seat when misinformation is spouted on their networks.  They do not do the fact checking that is needed when someone with an agenda, be it liberal or conservative, spouts unsubstantiated figures as if they are factual.  All of the news networks have failed their mission in reporting accurate news and instead are reporting opinions about the news.  Opinons that have one purpose and one purpose only and that is to divert attention away from an open and honest debate to one that is simply divisive.  The health care reform debate is just one example where the news networks have failed in informing the American public the facts of what true reform will mean to the average American.  

These words in our covenant are not simply nice words to say.  They have meaning in today’s climate of retrograde politics.  And these words could potentially mean risking our freedoms to support them like they did in the McCarthy era. 

To serve the human need.  James Luther Adams once said the purpose of church was to practice being human.  Church should be a place where our humanity is held in the safety of the sheltering arms of the congregation.  It is also a place where we can begin to serve the human need.  In our congregations regardless of size there is someone who is in need of a hug, a listening ear, or a word of encouragement.   There is someone in our congregations that need to be seen for who they are and not who they are forced to be in the world outside these doors. 

Yes, the human need exists beyond these doors and we have already mentioned how we have made a difference and are going to be making difference in these lives.  But for this one moment, take a look around you and see who is here in this room right now.  This is where we begin to serve the human need.  Right here, right now.  

To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—

We affirm in our principles that we are all part of the interconnected web.  Many have come to believe that this means all of creation, not just humanity.  And so all souls has an expanded meaning of all creation growing into harmony with the Divine.  The Divine can be seen as not just a godforce but also as a lifeforce, a creative force that when we are in harmony with it  allows creation to fulfill its fullest potential.  

Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.  Thus do we promise, pledge, vow, to be our highest loyalty as individuals and collectively as members.  And when we fail, as surely we will, we will revisit these words and begin again to love, to seek truth as love’s sacrament, and service as love’s prayer.   Blessed Be.

[1] Alice Blair Wesley,  Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns LecturesLecture 1: Love is the Doctrine of this Church  2002  Meadville Lombard Press

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 6:36 pm  Comments Off on Sermon: Love is the Doctrine  
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From Cage to Cage

“This struggle [for congregational polity in the 16 /1700’s] was a revolutionary institutional struggle, a struggle against the cage of centralized power in church and state and economic order. … But during the past century our society has been moving in the opposite direction, in the direction of a new centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry, the fragmentation of responsibility, retreat into privatized religion–all of this in a world of massive poverty and hunger. …A major question today in a world of multinational corporations is how to achieve a separation of powers and consent of the governed, a self-governing society in the midst of corporate structures that are rapidly becoming a new cage. So we have moved from cage to cage.” —  James Luther Adams in “From Cage to Covenant” as found in the text The Prophethood of All Believers.

These words spoken by James Luther Adams in 1975, 34 years ago this month,  ring even truer today than they did then.  A lot has transpired in the past 34 years that make these words of Adams eerily prophetic in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew writings. 

Adams argues that in order to survive this new cage that we need  to develop new covenants that consider “communal responsibility in the economic sphere.”  He details five components of a covenant that he believes is essential for this age.   He posits that (1) humans “become human by making commitment, by making promises. ”   Realizing that this process includes the breaking of these promises with a renewal of making new promises.  He posits  (2) that “the covenant is a covenant of being.”   We covenant with that which is transforming in whatever way we might interpret the transforming.    (3) “The covenant is for the individual as well as for the collective.”  He states that “we are responsible not only for individual behavior but also for the character of the society…”   How we are known in the world is each of our responsibilities.   Perhaps the best way to describe this is to quote Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s famous quote, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  This displays the moral character of a nation. 

What is our character  if we are the country where a three month old child can be denied health insurance for being in the 95 percentile of weight for that age of a child?    Or where a person can lose health insurance coverage because the required treatment  is considered by the health company as too costly.  Or where the number one cause of bankruptcies  is due to medical costs.  This is an example of the  “centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry.”

Adams posits that (4) the “covenant responsiblity is especially directed toward the deprived.”  Who falls into the gap between the covenant and the system?  This is where our work lies to close the gap so that no one falls “from neglect or injustice.” And (5) the covenant follows a rule of law that is founded in faithfulness and love.  “What holds the world together, according to this dual covenant then, is trustworthiness, eros, love.  Ultimately the ground of faithfulness is the divine or human love that will not let us go.”   

We have our work cut out for ourselves since we did not act to stop the cage from being developed in 1975 to today.  We allowed government to deregulate the protections that have been linked to the financial collapse and resultant recession. The gaps between the working classes and the wealthy are wider than ever before in my lifetime.  The corporate giants of finance,  healthcare, oil, and industry have more of ahold on our lives than ever before stripping us of our endowed rights to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

This is where our congregations can be relevant to an age of individualism and capitalism gone awry.   We can be offering a different message than one that is found in the prosperity gospel driven congregations of our day.   Jesus may indeed want you rich but the richness is in how we relate to one another not in how much money we each have.   If there is a judgment day, it is the day when we are asked whether we have loved our neighbor as ourselves.  It is the day when we are asked if we truly were our brothers and sisters keeper.  How do you fare in this regard?  What are you willing to do differently to honor a new covenant of being?  Blessings,

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 7:00 pm  Comments Off on From Cage to Cage  
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