You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world.
– Matthew 5:13a, 14a
(Preached on Sunday, February 5, 2017)
Later today, just before their teams take the field for the biggest game of their lives, the two coaches of the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, will gather their teams in the locker rooms for one final talk. Each coach will be attempting to instill in their players the idea that they are World Champions. They will be telling them that they are the best; they are Super Bowl winners. They will not be saying that they are going to win, but they will be speaking to them in the present tense; addressing them as though the game were already over and they were the champions. They will be telling their players this because each coach understands that to a great extent the contest will be won or lost by the attitude of their players. If they go into the game with the attitude of champions, already believing themselves to be champions, they will have a much greater chance of achieving that goal, than if they enter the game with any doubts about whether they are the best team or not.
In a similar fashion, when Jesus declared to his followers “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world,” he was not urging them to be something they are not. They already are salt and light. Remember he said “You are;” “You are now.” Not you could be, or should be. Not tidy up your act, stiffen your will power, and commence trying. Not maybe in ten years time, if you work very hard, perhaps by the end of the year. Jesus did not say to his disciples “Now go off, learn these creeds, sign this mission statement, undertake these spiritual exercises, pray for two hours each day, read two chapters of the Bible each day, fast and meditate; then you will start to become salt and light. No, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.”
So, what does it mean that we are salt and light? Let’s examine salt first. We are now so careful about taking salt in our diets that we often forget that salt, some salt, is essential to life. In ancient Palestine they were much more aware of this essential nature of salt. In the dry desert, once cannot live for long without a supply of salt. Without some salt the body has trouble conserving its fluids and will soon dehydrate. Also, in ancient Palestine, without refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat and other food to keep it from spoiling. Finally, salt has been used, and is still used today, as a flavor enhancer. Without salt, many foods are very bland. But with just a pinch of salt, the flavor in the food itself seems to be unlocked and becomes more enjoyable.
By calling us the salt of the earth, Jesus is proclaiming that we have a special role in the salvation and preservation of the world. The world is to be saved by a particular kind of penetration. Just as salt was essential to the preservation of life, even so those who follow the teachings and way of life of Jesus are essential to the preservation of life. Just as salt can prevent the decay of food, even so Jesus’ followers can prevent the decay of the world. Just as salt can help food to taste better, even so Jesus’ followers can help bring out the best of life in the world.
Jesus is saying to us that what we do as the people of God, as his followers, really counts. Indeed, when people encounter us – as individuals and as a community of faith – they should see and sense more; they should feel hope, they should feel the possibility of a “different world.” (It really doesn’t take much. Pastor Dianne and I attended and each spoke briefly at an event to show support for the Muslim community in West Kendall. I simply brought the message of our extravagant welcome that we believe here in the UCC and how we seek to live love for neighbor. Our Muslim brothers and sisters greatly appreciated our presence and our words of support and welcome.)
The prophet Isaiah was speaking to the nation of Israel at a time when they were all caught up in the exterior trappings of religion, thinking that if they got those just right: said the right prayers, offered the right sacrifice, and did it all in just the right way that God would be pleased and God would hear their prayers and bless them. Just like the prophet Micah last week, Isaiah reminds the people that what God most desires is actions of justice and compassion and caring. God wants them to break the chains of injustice; to share their food with the hungry; to bring the homeless poor into their houses; to provide covering for the naked and to be available with care and love for their own families.
In the ancient Church, the seven marks of service were:
- To care for the orphans.
- To care for the widows.
- To care for the homeless poor.
- To visit the sick.
- To visit the prisoners.
- To extend the cup of cold water to the stranger.
- To bury the dead.
These were the activities for which the early church was known; what made its reputation. They were what it meant to be a serving people and what marked them as being different from the surrounding culture. In the urbanized-world of the ancient Roman Empire, the early followers of Jesus stood out because they offered compassionate care for the sick, the poor, the prisoners; they offered a place of welcome and hospitality and belonging for the stranger and others who had no families and no place to belong. They were not focused on caring for an institution; caring for buildings and properties; nurturing an organization. They were focused on caring for people and nurturing relationships. What would it mean today if we took more seriously a call to care for orphans and widows? What would it mean for us to seriously visit those who are sick or in prison? What would it mean if we sought to seriously share our food with the hungry; to bring the homeless poor into our houses; to provide cover to the naked? One thing it would mean is that we would stand out in the world. It would mean we would be the light of the world as well as the salt of the earth.
Jesus did not originate the images of people as “light of the world” and a “city set upon a hill.” Both of those are ancient images for speaking of the people of Israel, the people of God, and what they were called to be and do by God. Again, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that when the people engage in actions of justice, then their “lives will begin to glow in the darkness,” their “shadowed lives till be bathed in sunlight.”
In a brief essay, C.S. Lewis recounts an experience he had while standing in a dark tool shed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Light does not exist for its own sake, to draw attention to itself. Light shines forth to illuminate; to reveal what is hidden. Light serves as a beacon, guiding ships at sea through treacherous channels, guiding weary travelers home.
There is no doubt about the shadows and the darkness that we encounter in the world around us. There are a multitude of bewildered souls looking for some light. That is where we are supposed to come in. The love of God in Christ Jesus, the very Light of Light, is intended to shine in and through our daily affairs. You are the light of the world! Not physical light, but personal light; the light of faith, hope and love; the light of truth and compassion, justice and courage, sensitivity, mercy and forgiveness; the very light of God within you and radiating from you.
And that is the key. This sermon, and this proclamation by Jesus, was not intended as a harangue to kick-start you into freely doing more “Christ-like things.” But let us remember where we started: the fact that Jesus said “You are!” By trusting the unexpected, un-earnable, grace of God as it flows to you through Jesus’ words and deeds, you are now the light of the world. It is not our light but God’s light. Not by our strenuous efforts but by pure grace.
There is only one thing that can prevent the light of God from shining through us. That is if we choose to hide it. To be a secret follower of Jesus is not a valid option. If we cover up our light, like a bucket over a candle, then the starved light will decline to a flicker, then degenerate to acrid smoke, smolder a while and then grow cold. We must choose. For God’s sake, and for the sake of those around you, believe in the gift. Believe in yourself and in what God has created you to be. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are making a difference in the world around you.