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To Shake and To Shine

(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.

It’s personal.

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

 

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Living as Salt and Light

"Salt and Light," by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

“Salt and Light,” by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

(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

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in Epiphany, Jesus, Sermon

 

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