Faith like a Country Ham

For the last fourteen years, I have lived south of the Mason Dixon Line.  More importantly, the last eleven years have been south of the Sweet Tea Line, thanks be to God.  I have come to love grits, especially when they are filled with smoked gouda and jalapeños. I can fry a turkey. I even like pork rinds, though you’ll never get me to try the microwavable kind I saw at a Dollar General in rural deep south Alabama one time.  Of all the southern specialties that I’ve learned to love over the past decade and half, it is smoked meats for which I am most grateful.  My first experience of the dipped pork shoulder at the Smokey Pig is something I will never forget. Driving past the Conecuh Sausage smokehouse on I-65 is truly a gift from God.  I own a smoker, and I very much enjoy what smoke and time can do to a turkey, chicken, beef, venison, pork, and even fish.  Despite all of these wonderful new flavor experiences, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I first experienced the cultural food oddity that is the country ham.

We were hosting the Diocese of Kentucky’s New Beginnings program here at Christ Church.  Clergy in new calls gather together to discuss the particular challenges of transition and to learn new skills.  As is the custom, Canon Jason ordered lunch from Cambridge Market.  There were a few vegetarian sandwiches, and then an even mix of boxes labeled turkey and “CTY” ham.  Being a good host, I took from the ham stack because it seemed to be the less popular option.  I didn’t pay much attention to the CTY prefix written on the box, but as I bit into that sandwich for the first time, I learned a few truths very quickly.  I learned that CTY meant country, not city, and for the first time ever, I began to understand what Jesus was talking about when he used the image of salt to talk about the life of faith.

The most common way to understand Jesus when he talks about salt is as a preserving agent.  As in the case of country hams, salt has been used to keep meat from spoiling for most of human history.  In the days before refrigeration, salt’s anti-microbial properties were used to keep meat fresh for long periods of time.  In Jesus’ time and place, salted fish would have been a common part of the diet, and so when Jesus talks about being salted with fire, his followers would have understood that he was calling on them to be purified, cleansed from sin.  Just as bacteria cannot live in a saline environment, sin cannot have an ongoing hold in the lives of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus.  Being covered by the Holy Spirit in prayer, Biblical study, and the ongoing support and accountability that comes in Christian community means that over time, those sins that have kept us from fully loving God and loving neighbor will be removed from our lives.

I’ve always understood the preserving image, but it wasn’t until that first bite into a Cambridge Market Country Ham sandwich that I really came to understand the second truth about salt and the life of faith – it should be noticeable.  “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”  As Christians who are preserved by the salt of the Spirit, when we go out into the world, we too should be conspicuous.  The world, as the 1960s hymn goes, should know that we are Christians by our love.  Our faith should be as obvious as the saltiness of a slice of country ham.  It should be noticeable in how we treat our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies.  It should be noticeable in how we care for one another through prayer, acts of loving service, and our respect for all of God’s children.  It should be noticeable in how we shop, how we vote, and how we care for the world around us.  Like the saltiness of that country ham sandwich, our faith should be evident to everyone we meet.

That ham sandwich taught me a lot about saltiness and faith – that we are preserved by the Spirit and that our faith should be obvious to the world around us – but I was still left scratching my head about that last sentence, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  Thankfully, the Lord provides when preaching on short notice, and I ran across a reflection on this passage by a UCC Pastor named Rachel Keefe.  She encouraged me to look in my spice cabinet to notice the wide variety of salts that are available.  There is the ubiquitous blue canister with a girl in a yellow rain coat filled with iodized table salt.  We use that in baking recipes that require careful measurement. There’s finely ground pickling salt that gets mixed into brines for poultry that goes on the smoker.  On the table is a grinder full of beautiful pink Himalayan salt.  Somewhere in my archives, there is even a small vessel of flavored salt that was mined from deep in the ground underneath Salzburg, Austria, a souvenir from a three-week trip with my High School German class.  Meanwhile, on the shelves at the store, there are seasoning salts, smoked salt, pretzel salt, black, pink, and grey sea salts.

Keefe wonders, “What if they all stopped being salty? Or what if all their distinct flavors became indistinct? What if they somehow became discontent with their job of sitting on my shelf [waiting to be called upon for their unique abilities], and they started to fight with each other? …

“Jesus wasn’t referring to my salt collection when he spoke to his disciples. But it’s what I picture when I read this text. I see the [membership of the] church as all the different kinds of salt. …  It doesn’t matter if you are the old blue canister of iodized salt or if you are regular sea salt or smoked salt or salt of a different color. You can’t shove one off the shelf or stop being salty. You are salt. I am salt. We have a job to do. To do it best we have to recognize our own saltiness and the saltiness of those who share the shelf.”[1] Only then, can we live at peace with one another.

In the end, none of us can change our God given flavor.  The gifts bestowed upon us in baptism are ours to use, and as a community, when we share those gifts with the wider world, we are blessed to come alongside God in the good work of preservation, adding our own unique flavor to the world, for the sake of the Gospel

Salt preserves.  Salt is noticeable.  Salt comes in many varieties.  There is much to learn from Jesus’ salty imagery.  I may never eat another country ham sandwich again, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of this oft-used image for the life of faith.  Have salt in yourselves, my friends, and be at peace with one another.  Amen.

[1] From “Sunday’s Coming” weekly email from The Christian Century, September 24, 2018.