By Canon Dr. Alan Billings
One of the things I very much enjoy doing is cooking. What my wife calls messing about in the kitchen. Which is why I particularly like to watch those television programmes where chefs show you just how easy it is to prepare something wonderful – as long as you have oodles of patience, which I haven’t got, and one crucial ingredient, which I usually haven’t got either - and neither has the Co-Op at Crookes. So I improvise. As my wife says, I mess about in the kitchen. Guilty as charged.
But as I cook, I always hear in my head those professional chefs saying – as they always do – don’t forget to season well. Season well. And they sprinkle sea salt with a great flourish and from a great height over the ingredients. Strangely, even though we all know the importance of seasoning well, time and again, in those cooking programmes that are competitive, one of the aspiring chefs will often fail, because he or she has forgotten to season.
The professional chefs are quite right, of course, if you season well, the meal is transformed. You bring out the flavours. On the other hand, if you over do it, if you add too much salt, it’s a disaster.
So I sat up and took note of today’s gospel when Jesus said, ‘Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
I find those words very instructive. We are to be salt. If salt enhances the flavour of the meal, our role, as followers of his, is to do something similar in our lives - in the places where we live and work. It is to enhance what is already there, to bring out the best in our families, our circle of friends, our workplaces, our communities. We are to be like salt. If we don’t bring out the best, we are like salt that has lost its saltiness.
We are to bring out the best in what is already there. This is why when the disciples come along and say, ‘We saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us’, Jesus is not pleased. Don’t forbid it. Be glad. Welcome this. Because they are doing what the Father wants. They are beating back whatever is evil and promoting whatever is good. If they are not against us and the things we think matter, then they must be on our side, on the side of good. So support them. Help others bring out the best in our communities. Act like salt.
And if you follow this thought through even further, this idea of us being like salt gets even more interesting.
It means first, that we don’t have to get up tight about the numbers of people who are Christians or members of the Church. We are not trying to make everyone salt. Our task, whatever our numbers, is to help bring out the best in others.
And second, the point about salt is that it is the one ingredient that mustn’t draw too much attention to itself. It works its work unobtrusively. If the salt were to dominate, it would in fact ruin everything.
I remember once trying to get the plastic top off one of those round canisters of Cerebos table salt after it had jammed. I finally put a knife between the round plastic top and the cardboard side of the carton and yanked hard. And I did it while standing over the stove. Great mistake. The result was inevitable, half the carton of salt finished up in the lamb tagine. It was ruined.
We should take all this to heart.
If our task as Christian people is to be like salt in the meal, enhancing what is already there, already good, then that is not about dominating or pushing ourselves forward. It’s not to say, Look at me. Perhaps note even, Listen to me. We are salt. Our job is to enhance the good in the human groups we belong to. To praise the generosity of others. To support the good works, the charity of others. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. On the contrary. The vocation is not to be the meal, but the seasoning. Not a noisy vocation but rather a quiet one. Not calling attention to ourselves but rather drawing attention to what is good, and lovely, and true, and worthwhile already in the groups we belong to.
That is what the Church is for. That is the vocation of the disciple. And that, it seems to me, is something that Christians in parish churches, at their best, understand and do rather well.