The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

Sermon - 30th September 2012


Scripture - Mark 9:38-50

Rev Andy Braunston


{Ask re salt – what do we think of it? Worried by too much, like salty food etc}

We all have an interesting relationship with salt. It is one of the most basic things we can taste and one of the taste buds on our tongue is configured to recognise the taste of it. We use it to flavour our food, we’re often worried that we have too much of it in our diet, we’re aware that it can raise blood pressure and that, in large quantities it can kill us. If we smoke we may use quite a bit of salt in order to bring out the flavour of food as smoking can affect our taste buds. Unless we are really into preserving we’re not as aware as our grandparents of how salt can be used to keep food edible, but if we’re eating fish and chips then we like to shower our food with the stuff! We may not be aware of how much salt features in religious life.

{Ask re how it’s used in religion or mentioned in the Bible}

Salt is mentioned in the Old Testament 35 times – the most famous mention is when Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back at Sodom as it was destroyed. One of the Judges – people raised up as ad hoc leaders of Israel before the monarchy was established – sowed salt into the ground of a city he’d conquered so as to make it infertile. In the New Testament we have today’s reading and St Matthew’s version of it where Jesus tells his followers to be salt for the earth. Muhammad is reputed to have said that God sent four blessings to the earth – fire, iron, water and salt.

Salt is still mixed with holy water used in Catholic churches – presumably as both an antiseptic and as a symbol of the preservation of life. It’s also used in the rite to consecrate a church. Salt is eaten at the Sabbath meal and in the Passover meal salt water is used in a ritual way to remind people of the tears of slavery. Ghandi led a very effective boycott of the main suppliers of salt (who had to pay tax to the British) encouraging everyone to make their own by boiling sea water.

What Is Salt ~ Why is it Used?

So salt, this very simple substance has a long history and is full of rich symbolic meaning. Before the advent of refrigeration it was used to preserve fish and meat. If you put salt on meat or fish it draws out the moisture and so stops it from rotting. Bacteria need water in order to grow, the salt takes the water out meaning that fish and meat could be kept for long periods of time. If you’ve made bread you will know that you need to add sugar to feed the yeast but also some salt as this inhibits the yeast meaning that it works at a steady uniform rate. In a pre-scientific age these properties of salt must have seemed miraculous and people associated deep magic with it. Maybe this fed into its use in Holy Water – the idea of cleansing and miracles are both central to Christian faith. It seems that salt was, and is, used to preserve, to clean and to add flavour. It is, perhaps, these things that Jesus had in mind in today’s passage.

What Did Jesus Mean?

I think salt does three things – it preserves, it cleans and it flavours. So Jesus’ metaphor must include these three things. Jesus words also follow on from a rather odd opening phrase where the disciples are suspicious of someone who was working in Jesus name but wasn’t part of their group. Jesus addresses this concern, goes on to give some teaching on Hell and then tells the disciples to have the “salt of friendship” amongst them.

It’s easy to understand why the disciples were threatened by the man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but wasn’t known to them. We are often suspicious of those who are outsiders as we find strength, and identity, within the various communities we are part of.

Recently I was reflecting a bit on MCC with one of my tutors at Luther King House as we discussed my next piece of work. I told him that MCC was a place which is part of my own history and identity – through MCC I completed my coming out journey as a gay man, within MCC I discovered a political understanding of my sexuality and it is where much of my social identity – as a priest, as a gay man, and as something of an activist were all forged. It is and has been an incredibly important part of my journey – even though at times I can be quite critical of the denomination as it is now.

So whilst it is good to see other churches become more open and understanding of lgbt folks I am always tempted to be a bit superior – after all we’ve been doing this for years in MCC! It’s great to see other churches become more inclusive, and frustrating to see how so many struggle with this but I do feel a bit smug when I see Anglicans battle over gay bishops. I’m not so different from those disciples who want to stop the stranger acting in Jesus name as they don’t know him. I find it easy to forget that Jesus is at work in other churches, even in the CofE, to help make it closer to the church that he is the head of – just as he is at work within MCC changing and challenging us to be always more than we are.

When we have such a close knit church like MCC it’s easy to want to protect it, to admit newcomers slowly, to check them out and see if they will “fit in” with us. It’s as if we want to control the grace that’s being showered upon us; we want to control the good things that God has for us. It’s a natural part of any group and there is a fine balance between the God-given discernment that we need and the all too human need to control and protect a safe place that we’ve found. Here, I think, Jesus’ words on salt are useful.

We may use salt on our food – we may not. If we smoke we may use a bit more than those who don’t. But generally we only need a little salt on the food to give it flavour. Jesus’ words on the salt of friendship are interesting here. Some churches don’t have this “salt of friendship” and going to worship is simply the joining together of a mass of individuals seeking to do the same thing but with no real connection with each other. These can be very large churches – Cathedrals, for instance, are very popular as they don’t make too many demands on worshippers and you can be anonymous. But it’s like there is no salt of friendship – people can be distant – after all they’ve not gone there for friendship.

At the other extreme there are churches where the friendship groups are strong, and people are so involved with each other’s lives that they know everything about the other. Much free time is spent in each other’s homes and there is a feeling of love and inclusion. I spent a few years in a church like this in my teens and it was, on the surface, very attractive. It was also very cliquey and if you didn’t fit in then the friendship groups didn’t open or there was subtle pressure to conform.

I remember a church council discussion about publicity and the priest wanted to use a post card with a cartoon of different types of people going to church with the slogan “all are welcome”. In the cartoon one of the people going in was a punk. The church council were outraged – of course they dressed up their outrage in suitably religious overtones! They had too much of the salt of friendship in their diet and no one who differed from their own social expectations would be allowed in.

A church needs the “salt of friendship” to preserve what is good about it. We preserve the bonds between us as they reflect the bond we have with God. We preserve the idea of loving – which is different from liking – each other and seeking the best for and with each other. We seek the best for each other and, through our membership vows, life together and shared values, seek to help each other grow and develop into being mature disciples.

A church needs the “salt of friendship” to clean and act as an antiseptic. It’s easy in any social group for bitterness, gossip, dissension, and nastiness to come in. It’s a particular challenge in groups within our community where back-stabbing, gossip, and dramatic behaviour are often seen as normal forms of behaviour. Here the salt of friendship Jesus talks about acts as an anti-septic and we get good at saying “we don’t do that here” when we fall out of line or if someone tries to change our values by their behaviour which falls below that which God calls us to.

We need the “salt of friendship” to give flavour to our church life. We come for worship, to praise God, to offer our weeks to God, to spend time in stillness and prayer, to receive the Lord through communion, to life our hearts in song, to reflect on the reading and sermon. We come to give of our time, our talents and our treasure. All these things are good central component parts of worship. Yet they are better when flavoured with a little salt of friendship. We learn to love and trust each other, to encourage and be encouraged, to meet people who are different to us and we are stretched to be ever more inclusive.

And So….

How much “salt of friendship” do you need here in this place?
How much “salt of friendship” are you prepared to give?
How much “salt of friendship” are you prepared to receive?

How willing are you to speak to, and get to know, someone you don’t yet know? How willing are you to reach out beyond your own social group to chat to someone who is different to you? How willing are you to see Christ in the stranger here? Are you willing to be salt for the earth and to let that saltiness start here?


(Andy Braunston)

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