09 February 2014

Being Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-20

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
9th February 2014

Salt and light.  So ordinary.  So simple.  So basic.  Life is impossible without them.  Too little of each and we die.  Too much and we die.  The balance has to be just right.  Salt and light. These commonplace, ubiquitous elements of everyday life become elemental in Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God here in the Sermon on Mount (Matthew 5-7).

            Last week we looked at the opening verses of Jesus’ sermon, known as the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are you when you’re persecuted for the sake of justice, for then you’ll know the joys of the kingdom (see Matthew 5:1-12).  When we are serving the ends of the kingdom, that it may be “on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10), we discover what it means to be blessed. 

            And last week I stressed a point that’s essential for hearing Jesus here on salt and light.  It might come as a surprise to many that being a Christian has little to do with acting or trying to be good.  The Christian life is more than an ethic; it’s more than an ideal that we strive after.  It has little to do with our desire or even capacity to be good.  It was the wise theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) who made this clear when he said, “Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principal, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.”[1]  In other words, to be Christian means that we are following in the steps of a person who gives us a particular vision of what it means to be human, who shows us what it means to be children of God, what it means to be alive in the kingdom of God.  Following Jesus, aligning our vision with his, walking in his steps, his steps in ours, will lead us to behave in ways that the rest of society might consider the opposite of good, as strange, even odd.  It was Bonhoeffer’s commitment to God’s kingdom that led him to reject the false Christianity practiced by Nazi Germany, which eventually led him to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, a role that cost Bonhoeffer his life. 

            To be clear, following Jesus will yield an ethic, a particular way of being in the world, but we don’t start there, we start with him.  In fact, for the Christian there is no ethic void of him; to have an ethic apart from Christ means we’re not following him. Trying to live Christ’s ethic without him will break us every time. The Sermon on the Mount and all its demands are designed to make us depend on God and one another.

            Salt: sodium chloride.  A mineral essential for life.  Homer (c. 8th century BC) referred to it as “divine salt.”  Salt, rock salt, was certainly a godsend this past week as we contended with that crippling ice storm.  In many religions salt is holy.  It was required in the sacrifice rituals found in the Hebrew Scriptures (See Exodus 30:35 and Ezekiel 16:4.). Salt has been associated with water in the Christian experience.  In the Roman Catholic Church, salt mixed with water might be the origin of Holy Water.  Holy Water, with salt, is used in the consecration of churches.  In baptism, in some rites, salt is placed on an infant’s tongue.

            Divine salt is a preserving agent, the preserver of life.  In Jesus’ time, salt was very valuable because of its preserving qualities.  The Romans had salt works throughout their empire.  Salt roads, Via Salaria, were built to convey this precious commodity from production sites to markets.  The Roman legions were given money to purchase salt, from which we get our word “salary.”  Salt preserves.  Salt adds flavor—actually it enhances the flavor, draws it out.  Too much salt can overwhelm flavor, just the right amount allows our taste buds to explode with ecstasy.

            Light: electromagnetic radiation, visible and invisible, highly illusive yet constant, both particle and wave, essential for human life, for the life of the planet. It, too, is considered holy in many religions. God was described in our opening hymn as “light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”[2]  It’s a metaphor of wisdom, knowledge, and learning.  The psalmist said, “For with you [O God] is the fountain of life and in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).  Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

            I can remember first learning the African-American spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”  It was in kindergarten at the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, NJ.  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”  I remember learning the stanza, “Hide it under a bushel.” And the response? “NO!...I’m gonna let it shine.”  Then we came up with more stanzas, suggesting different ways we could hide the light. I remember one was, “Put it in my pocket.  NO!  I’m gonna let it shine.” 

            It’s a fun song, easy tune. Inspired, no doubt, by this text in Matthew.  But it gets something wrong, something fundamental:  The light isn’t mine.  It doesn’t belong to me.  I don’t have it, the light.  The light has me. And the degree to which I live in the light, I share in the light, and I am the light.  That’s maybe too much for a five-year-old to grasp, but that’s what Jesus is saying here to his students.

            You don’t have salt to give.  You are salt. 
            You don’t have light to share.  You are light. 

            When you’re following him, walking in his steps, allowing him to walk in you and you in him, you are salt.  Not just part of you, your entire existence.  When you’re following me, Jesus says, walking in my steps, allowing me to walk in you and you in me, you are light. When we align ourselves with Christ’s vision and the values of God’s kingdom we discover that our lives draw out and enhance the flavors of the world, we season the world and give it life; and we discover that our lives in alignment with God’s vision bring God’s light to dark places, offering hope.  Our capacity to draw out and enhance the flavors of the world is entirely contingent upon our status as disciples, our relationship with Christ.  Our ability to offer hope, illuminating the dark places in the world, is entirely contingent upon our status as disciples, our relationship with Christ.  

            Unless we are grounded in Christ, we can’t be salt.  Unless we’re alive within him, we can’t be light.  Apart from him we, we can’t be salt.  When we’re with him we are.  Apart from him we can’t be light.  When we’re with him, when he’s with us, we are light—naturally.

            It’s, then, in this context that we’re to understand the reference to salt losing its taste.  Technically speaking, this isn’t correct. Salt cannot lose its taste or properties.  But that misses the point.  And the point is this: without a kingdom vision the Church loses its saltiness and it doesn’t have much light to offer either. And when this happens, when a Church loses its vision, forgets why it exists, and what it is—salt and light—when this happens, what, then, are we good for?  Nothing.  Thrown out…trampled under foot, Jesus says (Matthew 5:13). Useless.

            But when we align our sights with Jesus’ vision and the values of the kingdom, when this becomes our work, our life, our joy, our passion, being God’s salt, God’s light—stand back and be amazed by what the Church can do! Then the world will stand back in awe of what the Church can do.  When we live as salt, people will take notice, people will know, they will see it and feel it, they will benefit from the way our life in him is enhancing and drawing out the flavors of the world, in tangible, life-altering ways. They will see us, but hopefully they’ll see more than us, they’ll see the one who has called us into the kingdom.  When we live as light, people will see and know and feel its impact, they will benefit from the way our life is shining—or struggling to shine—in the darkest reaches of the human condition, offering hope.  For, there are dark places that need to know God’s light.  And it’s your responsibility as light to shine there!

            And since we are that light, Jesus says, you can’t hide even if you try. As Bonhoeffer once said, so simply and beautifully, “It is the property of light to shine.”[3] To shine.  It cannot be hid.  We are called to live the light, so that others may see, see our actions as Jesus’ followers in the world, know that we are people of faith, disciples of Christ.  Don’t deny your saltiness; don’t run from this truth: your life is light.  When people see your kindness, when they see the depth of your love, when they see your courage, when they see your compassion and joy, when they see your acts of radical mercy, your struggle for peace, your passion for justice—do they know to whom you belong?  To be salt, to be light means we are visible.  As Bonhoeffer insisted, for the followers of Jesus to flee into invisibility is to deny the call.  “A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.”[4] Perhaps you’re thinking that it doesn’t matter too much if others know this about you, that you’re salt and light, only you need to know it.  But it does matter because when they see what God is doing in you and me and through us in the world then they will give praise—not to us—but to God!

            This is true for all of us.  Not some of us. Not just for ministers or priests. It’s for everyone who bears the name of Christ.  But it might be particularly true for those who are called to leadership in the church—ruling elders, deacons, trustees, who will be ordained and installed this morning.  It’s good to remember that our capacity to be salt and light is always contingent upon our life in Christ, our faithfulness to him. Through shared leadership, the burden and weight of these offices, they, together, help equip all of us in the church to remember who we are. We’re salty saints.  We’re brilliant, shining lights illuminating God’s goodness, reflecting praise and glory back to God.  Salty saints.  Shining lights.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 61.
[2] Walter Chalmers Smith’s 1867 hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” set to the tune ST. DENIO.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 132.
[4] Bonhoeffer, 132.

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