(a sermon for February 9, 2020, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 5:13-20)
“You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.”
I’m not sure who researches these things, but here’s a fun fact: it has been said that that salt has more than 14,000 uses! Now, mostly when we think of salt we think about its use in cooking or to bring out the flavor in food; it’s also something that doctors warn us against using in excess! But it’s also used for the protection and preservation of food, it softens hard water, it helps to regulate boiling, and sometimes it’s even used as an ingredient in fertilizer. It’s salt that gets thrown on our doorsteps and walkways this time of year, which helps to melt the ice that’s frozen there and keeps us from slipping and falling; the same principle, by the way, that’s essential in the making of homemade ice cream!
Salt is also medicinal in nature, useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments: one of the very first things that doctors recommend in this perilous cold and flu season is, in fact, to gargle with salt and water; and it’s worth noting that our salty tears go a long way in soothing sore eyes (to say nothing of what it does for our saddened souls!). I even read something recently that said that the amniotic fluid that protects unborn children is slightly saline; that is to say, salty (!)… so in fact you and I actually come into this world protected and preserved, at least in part, by… salt!
Of course, this appreciation of all that salt can do is nothing new: in biblical times, salt was overwhelmingly viewed as a valuable resource. It’s mentioned time and time again throughout the Old Testament in connection with Israel’s covenant with God, specifically in regard to the purification and offering of sacrifices; salt was, symbolically at least, considered something of a sign and seal of that relationship between God and his people! So salt served a religious purpose, to be sure; but did you know that in Jesus’ day, salt was also often used as currency? That’s right; special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as salarium argentum, which the Latin forerunner of our English word “salary…” and in fact, it’s where we get the expression, to “be worth one’s salt!”
So… all of this to say that when, during his “sermon on the mount,” Jesus said to them, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was speaking of much more than simply something to add some flavor to an otherwise bland meal; Jesus was referring to that which was, and is, a necessary element of life… and of one’s relationship and life with God!
Which, as we’ve heard in our text for this morning, is why it makes sense that nearly in the same breath Jesus also says, “You are the light of the world.” Because, yes, light is essential to our lives as well: to begin with, light keeps us from stumbling around in the darkness and banging into furniture in the middle of the night(!); but we also know, especially in these long dark nights of wintertime, how essential light is to our physical and emotional well-being! Literally, figuratively and spiritually light does illuminate and brighten the dark places of our lives and shows us the way to go; light helps us find things, but also tends to reveal the true quality and character of what we find. And of course, biblically speaking our very existence has everything to with light, from the very first words God spoke at the time of creation (“Let there be light.” [Genesis 1:3]) to that moment in the fullness of time of the coming of Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone… coming into the world.” (John 1:9). From the very beginning, now and forevermore, it is light that gives us life!
And it’s with all of this in mind that Jesus says to them, “You are the light of the world.” And, “you are the salt of the earth.”
It’s arguably one of the most familiar and oft-quoted passages found in the gospels. In the words of Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, these two exhortations of Jesus represent the “great and holy attributes and promises of discipleship.” Jesus’ words offer us the flavor, if you will, of life as it is defined by the coming Kingdom of God! But here’s the thing, friends; and it’s what transforms this sweet and all too familiar bible teaching into a challenging reality in these days of confused situations.
Because you’ll notice here that Jesus is not talking about those who are poor in spirit, or meek, or pure in heart, as he does just prior to our reading this morning, nor has Jesus been telling the multitudes on that hillside that they ought to be like salt and light; in at least one sense, this is not a call toward a new kind of lifestyle that someday they might manage to achieve. No, that’s not what Jesus is saying; Jesus says, you are the salt of the earth… you are light – and not a mere sunbeam, mind you – but “the light of the world!” This is who you are already! Everything that is essential for life and that which brings it meaning and purpose and vitality – salt and light – is already right there inside of you, and always has been! It’s a gift of God’s truly amazing grace: a gift of life and love and mercy that exists within each and every one of us here; and it’s everything we need for the living of these days and as a child of God!
However… (!)that said, the real question is not whether or not we’re salt and light but rather what we’re going to do with that. You know the saying about how “with great power comes great responsibility?” Well, it is also true that this blessing of being salt and light comes with responsibility. Karoline Lewis writes, “It’s one thing to know and to claim your identity. It’s another thing entirely to live it.” And here’s Jesus to say we have to! And why? It’s “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven coming to pass here and now and not just in our future.”
In other words, our response to this gift of amazing grace that God has given must be to reflect that grace in the way we live and the way that relate to others. Otherwise, what is the point of the gift?
That’s what I love about this passage: in Jesus’ words there’s not a lot of wiggle room! You are the salt of the earth, he says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Now what’s interesting about that statement is that even in Jesus’ time, people understood that salt, in and of itself, does not lose its flavor; salt is always going to be, well, salty! So the effectiveness or value of salt essentially comes down to the one making use of it; and if we are salt, it follows that it would be you and I that brings forth its flavor and vitality! Otherwise; well, actually, The Message translation of this says it all: “If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?” It’s no accident that the Greek word used for salt having lost its taste is moronos; that’s right, where we get our word, “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes tasteless and useless, Jesus says, then it’s also foolish and if it’s foolish, then what good is it?
And the same standard applies to the ways that you and I are light: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, [where] it gives light to all in the house.” Light is not light unless it shines! To quote Karoline Lewis just one more time, in these verses, “Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist as simply knowledge… It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light.”
Or, if I might put it another way, as disciples we’re meant to shake and to shine. We are to shake and shine in a way that by our very actions fulfills the law of God; so that “[our] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” and assures our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s the sum and substance of the gospel for this morning, friends; and as I suggested before, Jesus doesn’t provide a whole lot of grey area where this is concerned. Every day and in every way, as Jesus’ disciples we are to shake and to shine.
And that’s great, except…I don’t know about you… but there are days – times and situations – when I just don’t feel like shaking or shining… at all.
Sometimes I’m having a lousy day (yup, even ministers have bad days from time to time!); maybe I’ve been hurt somehow, maybe I’m overwhelmed and stressed out with stuff going on in my life and I’m not feeling so inclined to offer flavor and brightness to those around me! Actually, I suspect that maybe you do understand this because you’ve been there; we’ve all been there! I mean, this week alone (!); all it’s taken is to see, hear or read anything on the news to make one want to completely withdraw from any kind of light-giving activity! Simply put, on a day like this, in times like these, given the way we’re feeling how can Jesus ever expect us to “let our light shine before others,” much less in a way that “give[s] glory to [our] Father in heaven?” Sometimes you just don’t want to be salt and light!
I remember once some years ago in a prior parish, I’d been asked if I might help out at our local soup kitchen; and while I had volunteered for that duty joyfully and eagerly, I must confess that when the morning arrived for me to do that, I was neither joyful or eager for the experience! Bottom line, for some reason I still cannot recall I was in a foul mood that morning, a situation made worse by the fact that our church had contributed this huge, heavy, hot, sloshing over pot of stew to that luncheon, which I had to carry the three blocks between the nearest place I could park my car and the soup kitchen three blocks away! Trust me here, for me there was absolutely no flavor or brightness about this particular act of discipleship! In fact, I’d decided that as soon as I’d dropped off this stew at the soup kitchen, I’d make up some excuse and get out of there fast! But of course, I couldn’t do that; the kitchen was short-handed and they needed people like me to wait tables… so me and my foul mood grabbed a coffee pot and started moving from table to table.
I’ve always said that one of the great things about working at a soup kitchen, be it the Friendly Kitchen or elsewhere, is what you don’t expect from the experience. I mean, you’re expecting to see the effects of poverty and homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness; you expect to be amazed and horrified about how rampant (and local!) hunger truly is. You expect and are unsurprised by the kind of “troubles” you witness in a place like that, and especially by how many children are there with the adults! But what you don’t expect, what ends up surprising you, is what a joyful setting a place like that can be: the kind of laughter and lively conversation that happens around those tables; the gratitude that’s expressed for simply another cup of coffee; the kindness of people who have absolutely nothing of value to offer except to ask you how you’re feeling on this random Saturday morning that you would have rather spent elsewhere.
Suffice to say that my mood changed rather quickly… and I left there humbled and very aware of my responsibility to be salt and light for the sake of the kingdom… to shake and to shine as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Shortly before he passed away, Eugene Peterson, the preacher and writer who wrote the paraphrase of scripture I draw from so often, The Message, was asked what he would preach on if he knew that it would be his very last sermon. He answered that he would probably just focus on what the people around him were already doing every day, and then try to help them to do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon,” Peterson said, “I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.’”
At the end of the day, beloved, it all comes down to being salt and light in this often difficult world where we live and with all the people we know and love… maybe even with a few we don’t (!)… but always letting our light so shine “so that they might see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”
So might it be… so might we shake and shine.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry