Do you know that expression? In days of old, salt was a precious and valuable commodity. (The word salary comes from the Roman practice of paying soldiers in salt...and to be worth one's salt is a complement even today!) At major feasts and celebrations, a cellar of salt was often placed on the tables as a demarcation between those guests of import and those of, well, less import. To sit above the salt was an honor. To sit below was to be reminded of your place in the feast. There are still those demarcations today, though we have replaced that platter of salt with things like "velvet ropes" and "sky lounges" and "first-and premier-class passenger checkins." The old idea applies, our importance is defined by where we sit in relation to other people. Senior members of legislative bodies sit toward the front of the chamber. Even the Church engages in these practices: in one Diocese I served, the Bishop insisted at large gatherings that the clergy always process in order of seniority-by date of ordination. Easy enough for some, harder for others depending on your generation and tenure as a priest...and it always chewed up time until the order was set. It was important that we figure out who stood where...but the justification, beyond the Bishop's whim, still evades me. Clergy are clergy. People are people. God did not create one human being better than another, that is something that we have engineered over time.
So, today I am working on my sermon relating to a salty story from the Bible. Not salacious (another salt-related word!), but rather something alluding to that all too human ideal of knowing your place on the ladder of social importance. In the 14th chapter of Luke, Jesus is attending a feast at the house of a prominent Pharisee and leader in the community. As a guest of honor and a holy man of some repute, people have their eye on him as he takes his place. What will he say? What will he do? Will there be some tragic faux pas? Will he be witty, wise or provocative? Better yet, what juicy scandal will he cause by saying something-as he is wont to do-about the social and religious mores of the day?
He simply notes that some people enter the feast expecting to go to the head table, to a place above the salt. His teaching is pointed and he tells them this story of what one should do as a guest: Don't take a seat you think you deserve. Take one lower down the ladder of rank and prestige. Be humble and don't expect respect you think you are due. Instead, accept the grace of being invited to a place further up the table...even above the salt, and be thankful and gracious to all around you. Moreover, when YOU hold a feast, he says, don't just invite your family, friends and neighbors. DON'T give a feast expecting to be feted in return! Perhaps, he says, you might consider remembering the poor and the hungry? Those in need?
In other words, instead of taking or claiming honor, give it away!
When I was a young man, I lived in a small college town in rural Ohio. It was a pretty place, but far from the pastoral idyll that many would suppose. This little island of progressive learning was surrounded by smaller communities racked by real, Appalachian-style poverty. There are still places out there that don't have electricity or clean, running water. Great wealth, considerable education and great poverty and lack of the latter were woven into every daily interaction. You never could REALLY know who was the most important person in the room by their dress, their apparent wealth or their level of education. Being humble and choosing to sit "below the salt" was a virtue...and a life lesson I always have continued to struggle to embrace.
I was taken even deeper into this reverie by this morning's reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (11: 1-18). Peter has returned from his visit to Cornelius the Centurion, a Gentile convert to the Way of Jesus Christ. Some of the circumcised challenge him in taking up with those who do not bear the mark of Abraham or keep the law as it was given to Moses and interpreted by the elders of the tribes of Israel. His response was simple: Jesus was baptized by John, and then gave us the same spirit by which he knew he was the Son, even as we now know it. These people expressed the same spirit. Can we do any less that to recognize and celebrate that reality in them, even as Christ chose to in acting through us?
I am startlingly aware that our society, and most of our churches, have forgotten what it means to give honor to God and to the Other in our midst. On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, a group of conservative, mostly white and upper class, people are preparing for a rally in which they plan to "reclaim Honor." Taking honor never did anyone any good. What made the Civil Rights movement transformative was that the people involved sought to give and extend honor to those who for generations had experienced disenfranchisement and dishonor at the hands of a class of people for whom a romantic sense of honor is legendary. Time to look at things as Jesus does? I think so.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu quotes another Archbishop, Temple, when he has preached that the Church should be the one human institution is in existence for those who have not yet become its members. Too often we forget that. We forget it when it matters more what the line order is in procession than the desire to enter a space and be together in counsel and prayer. We forget it when we resent a newcomer who comes in to the Church and sits in "our" pew, forcing us to sit somewhere else in the church. We forget it when we refuse to see the hungry, halt, lame, addicted or homeless as the ones first needing attention. We forget it when we get angry at a baby singing in church, wishing their parents would "do something with that child."
Jesus reminds us again and again that our primary focus and mission in life as the Church is to work for those in need...and to remind the humblest among us that in the Kingdom of God, their place is at the right hand of the author and host of that heavenly feast. Next time you start to feel that you matter more than another, take some time to invite that other to a place above the salt...and prove that you-in the loving eyes of your Creator-are worth your salt in turn....