(a sermon for February 5, 2017, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 5:13-20)
I try very, very hard these days not to get caught up in other people’s conversations on social media, but this week there was one comment made that jumped right out at me. And I quote: “If I’d wanted to be ‘preached at,’ I would have gone to church!”
Oy veh! Now, granted those words were written in the context of a rather heated political debate (as is nearly everything on social media about now!), but I must confess they hit me right where I live! “Preached at?” Really? Couldn’t you at least have said, “preached to,” or better yet, “if I’d wanted to hear a strong and eloquent proclamation of the eternal truth of God’s Holy Word (followed by a time of refreshment in the Fellowship Hall!)…” but “preached at?” That makes what I’m doing here sound like I’m in this pulpit brandishing some kind of weapon! Moreover, it buys into this false, stereotypical image of the church as nothing but a critical, judgmental and even oppressive institution; you know, the notion that all we do here is obsess on the “thou shalt nots!” It’s the kind of assessment that, as a church pastor and preacher, just makes me want to cringe… and yet…
…we’d be less than honest if we didn’t also confess that so much of what happens when we come here to church – what I say, how you respond, what we profess together as a people of God – is in the imperative; that is, we do speak a great deal here about what we ought to be, what we must do, and what we should be thinking. And understand this is not inconsistent with our interpretation of God’s Word; at the center of our faith is this truth that the Christian life does stand in contrast and opposition to human wisdom and worldly ways and means! So there is an imperative on our lives as people of God; there is a message to be preached (maybe not preached at, but preached nonetheless!) to choose the divine pathway!
The problem with all this, of course, is that in this world and life as we know it it’s not always, if ever, an easy pathway to follow! There are high expectations attached to these imperatives of faith; and lest we think that our coming to church this morning might soften those requirements even a little bit, here comes Jesus in our text this morning making sure that we understand that “whoever breaks one of [even] the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” So there is indeed much for us to live up to here; and so many ways that we have fallen short of the mark – and the glory – of God.
This is what makes it all the more interesting that as Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount,” he’s decidedly not talking about all that we ought to be as his followers; or should be, or must be, or perhaps can be if only we’d get our act together. No; instead Jesus talks here about what we are. And what we are, says Jesus, is salt… salt and light.
“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus, “…you are the light of the world.” Understand that in the Greek language a pronoun like “you” before a verb is not generally used unless it’s done for emphasis; so according to Matthew, what Jesus makes clear is not that you ought to be salt or you should be light, but that you already are salt and that you already are light! And that makes all the difference: because now it’s no longer an imperative, but an affirmation! Jesus here has affirmed something real and powerful about you and about me; truly, it’s the good news of the gospel personified by our very being! By the grace and love of God, you are salt and you are light; even if you don’t know it, even if you don’t believe it, even if you struggle with how that’s made real in your life and living, you are salt and you are light; and that means everything when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven!
Of course, it would be understandable if we were somewhat skeptical about this; after all, for Jesus us to put us on the same level as something as seemingly insignificant as salt, or as fleeting and unnoticed as a passing ray of light does give the impression of our being utterly inconsequential in the scheme of things! But then again, consider what salt and light enables by virtue of its presence: for instance, any cook “worth their salt” (sorry, couldn’t resist!) will tell you that so often the difference between a culinary delight and a hot mess will be just that careful sprinkling of salt; when properly and creatively used, salt has a way of sharpening flavors and aromas to create something wonderful. Moreover, salt controls the ripening of cheese, it strengthens the gluten in bread, and it preserves meat; salt is, in a word, indispensable by what it enables!
Likewise with light: a single hurricane candle or one small, $5.99 Eveready Flashlight may seem to hold little value in the scheme of things; that is, until the power has gone out and they provide light in a completely darkened room! You don’t stare at lightbulbs expecting any kind of revelation – in fact, you shouldn’t (!) – but when those lightbulbs are lit, there’s plenty else you’re enabled to see; and depending on the level of its luminescence and its place in the spectrum of color, you will see these things from an entirely different perspective!
And that’s who Jesus says that we are, friends! When Jesus says to you and me as his followers, “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world,” he’s telling us that we are meant to be the reflectors of the light that God brought into the world; and that our lives are intended to exude the unique flavor of everything that’s been given to us. We are to be the proclaimers of that which is good and truthful about life, love, faith and eternity; and we can do this because it is in fact already within us; this is who we are!
The challenge for us, then, is to let our identity come forth; to not hide our light “under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand,” where it “gives light to all in the house.” Our imperative, if you will, is to embrace our God affirmed identity and to live our lives faithfully; or perhaps, more accurately, “salt-fully,” lest that which is unique about our lives be lost. To quote one of the many wonderful songs from the musical Godspell, “If salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor,” or “if that light is under a bushel, it’s lost something kinda crucial!” You see, we are meant to live as salt and light, precisely so that people will see our good works and give thanksgiving and glory to God; and I would dare say that if there’s ever been a time when the world needs that salt and light that we in the church can offer, it’s now!
Actually, here’s something interesting: it turns out that chemically speaking sodium chloride, or salt, is a highly stable compound and technically cannot lose its flavor! So, really, the only way for salt not to be salty is for it to be somehow diluted by water, blown about by the wind or so otherwise blended with other things that you can’t taste the salt anymore! “Once diluted, diminished, dispersed or destroyed, salt cannot get its flavor back,” (Tyler Boyer) and then, as Jesus says it, “it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” In truth, much the same can be said of light; once it’s been hidden or obscured by everything else surrounding it, it will ultimately fail to do its first job, which is to illumine the way ahead!
Simply put, we are the salt of the earth; and so, we need to bring a full measure of who we are to a world in need of flavor. We are the light of the world; and so we need to, yes, “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” We have been blessed by our own God-given identity; and so our actions must always bear witness to God’s grace and mercy so that others might come to faith. Indeed, we are called to a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” but that begins simply in living out of what we already are! We are followers of Jesus; and in these days of confused situations, it should never be said of us what the 19th century philosopher and skeptic Frederick Nietzche said of the church in his own time: “These Christians must sing better songs,” he wrote, “ere I learn belief in their savior. They must act like they are redeemed before I will believe in their redeemer.”
Some of us here are old enough to remember clearly the big “Blizzard of ’78.” I was a student at the University of Maine at the time (maybe it was my Aroostook County constitution, but I don’t remember it being all that bad!), but here in New Hampshire and especially down towards Boston it was a very bad storm indeed; it’s remembered to this day as one of the worst in the city’s history. Not only was there the storm itself, but also much of Boston lost power for several days; there were several deaths related to the storm and the lack of electricity and heat; and made bold by the darkness, vandals broke into homes and stores and looted whatever merchandise they could. But here’s the thing: after the storm had passed and power was restored, it was revealed that the electric company actually had sufficient power to meet all the needs of the city. The problem was that there was one simple transformer and a few transmission lines in the main plant that had gone bad; so the power was there, you see, but the light could not shine because there was nothing there to transmit it.
Well, God has a light that he sent into the world and our lives through Jesus Christ; but Christ needs you and me for that light to shine. Pretty amazing, isn’t it, that you and I in this place here today are the light of the world? That you and I are even now empowered and emboldened by Christ himself to turn the whole world upside down and inside out, “flavoring” lives and institutions for the sake of his kingdom?
Beloved, every single time you offer up a word of love and encouragement in Christ’s name; every single time you give of yourself for the sake of someone who has suffered one of life’s crushing blows; or when you’ve stood up for a cause that’s good, and loving, and faithful, you’ve done something that when seen through the perspective of our Lord is full of power! In that moment, you are salt and light! You’ve become that substance which gives life its true flavor; you are the light that shines on the darkest of pathways…
…and the good news in all of this? It’s that in that flavor, in that light, that some might just have come to experience the kingdom of God!
Thanks be to God who makes us salt and light, and who calls us to both shake and to shine.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry