Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 6, 2011

2011.02.06 “Be These: Salt and Light” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Be These: Salt and Light”

Matthew 5: 13 – 16

February 6, 2011

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.  You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

–      Matthew 5: 13 – 16, Common English Version

       How appropriate is it, that after the 3rd worst snowstorm in Chicago history, today Jesus calls us to be salt and light? 

        This raises some interesting possibilities. I would like half of you to be salt, and go outside and fling yourself into a snowbank. I would like the other half of you to be light, and go stand by the snow pile of your choice and radiate! I’d also appreciate it if you some of you could come back after dark and illumine the darkness, so that we could save on our electric bill.

        Yes, I know – as much fun as it might be – I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind, when he called us to be salt and light.  Context is everything.

But to be salt and light in the world is what Jesus indeed calls us to do today, in the second sermon of five from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

 Jesus’ charge for his followers to be salt and light immediately follows that section which we looked at last week (see the church website, www.skokiecentralumc.org to review the sermon) known as the Beatitudes.  These are so-called because in it Jesus names representatives groups of people who in the kingdom of God are especially favored (“Blessed,” Beatitude = a state of “blessedness”). 

        As we learned last week, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus asked us as Christians to imagine what life might be like if shaped by God’s reign. In God’s kingdom, those whom God favors most highly, those whom Jesus calls “blessed,” are those we might least suspect, who in fact least honored in an imperial society based upon power and wealth, whether theirs (Roman) or ours (American): the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Sometimes we are those people and sometimes we are not.  When we are, says Jesus, we are blest; even when we are not, but when by our actions we honor such people – those whom God honors – God is honored by our actions.

        Today’s text expands upon what we learned last week. In effect, it answers two fundamental questions of life: Who are we?  What are we to do?

        To answer this question, Jesus uses two metaphors to describe and prescribe who his followers are to be and what they are to do in and for the world.  He says: “Be this: salt and light.

        Again – as last week – we may be faced with the temptation to hear Jesus’ words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning.  Take note: Jesus doesn’t say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this….” Or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this from you….” Rather, he says simply and directly, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning. (David Lose, “Salt and Light,” www.workingpreacher.org, 1/30/2011)  Let’s look at each more closely.

        “You are the salt of the earth, said Jesus.”  In the ancient world, salt was used as a preservative, and also – as in our world – to alter or enhance the taste of food.  (Whether it was used to melt snow, given their temperate climate, I can’t say).  As with all metaphors, where something stands for something else, the meanings are multiple. For example, are Christians to function as a preservative in society, to prevent social decay and deterioration, by standing up for justice, mercy, and compassion? Isn’t the world a better place because courageous prophets have stood up for right, as we heard in our reading from Isaiah the prophet today?  Isn’t our world a better place for the work and words of contemporary prophets, who brought child labor laws, the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and women’s rights, only to name a few?

Or what if we saw our function as “salt in the world” to be a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, to be “zesty.” Wouldn’t that be a novel idea: Christians as zesty people, adding character and color and creativity to society, rather than being the last people to give up on the status quo. (How many Trustees does it take to change a light bulb? Nine: one to change the bulb and eight to reminisce about how great the old bulb was.)  I think of that characterization of Christianity given by the Victorian poet Algernon C. Swinburne, in his Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith): “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.”  I think of the way surveys show many of the younger generation think of Christianity today: as too political, too hypocritical, too judgmental, too anti-science and anti-gay.  As those of you engaging in the “When Christians Get It Wrong” study are learning.

        Or what if we functioned as salt, not only in the world, but among each other?  As Charles James Cook points out (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 334), for at least the past thirty years pastoral ministry as practiced by ordained and lay professionals has been influenced by the therapeutic model, defined almost exclusively as supporting and affirming one another.  As Cook says, support and affirmation have their place, but there are times when our best response needs to be challenging, even confrontational. That includes both in our congregations and in our lives, often stagnating for lack of challenge.  There are times when, as the old phrase says, we may need to throw a little salt in the wound.

        And, in fact, Jesus goes on immediately to caution: “But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.” Apart from the minor chemical question of how “salt could lose it saltiness,” as a metaphor we know from what we have just admitted, this is a constant danger for disciples. The danger is that we may lose this capacity by forgetting that we are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what we believe.  Such work – functioning as salt in the world – gives our church motto – Keeping God Central – whole new layers of meaning, doesn’t it?

        Let’s look at the second metaphor: “You are the light of the world.”  The wonderful benefits of light – especially in winter – we know: light enables us to see, gives things color, helps vegetation to grow, provides solar power for energy, and can even be focused, like a laser. I know all of us have had occasions to appreciate the power of light.

        For example, last Tuesday night at 11:30, in the height of the blizzard, I saw the bathroom light go on in the Log Cabin.  I can’t say in church what I said, but I called the police.  Now in my previous life as a fireman I had reason to collect flashlights, so I took my MagLite rechargeable out to meet the cops, and to search the Log Cabin. When we went in (guns drawn: them, not me), we found a radio playing, shoes on the floor, and a backpack on the counter. While they searched the million nooks and crannies of the Log Cabin with their powerful LED flashlights, I stood by the door and watch my Maglite – after too many rechargings – fade away.  Turns out, it was our custodian Joe Hayes, who had come in unannounced to spend the night, to get an early start on the snow the next morning.  I told him the next day he was lucky he didn’t get shot.  (Oh and Michele, did I tell you I need another flashlight?)

        The point is that Jesus tells us his followers that we are to be light in the world, and that this light should not be hidden but be seen.  Often, we interpret this to mean that we are not to hide our gifts and talents by placing them under a bucket (this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine). We have used this to encourage each other to step forward, to relinquish shyness, to come out of hiding.  But there is another reason, because there is darkness in life, both external and internal.

        And so Jesus encourages his followers to bring light to a dark and broken world, to shine the light of the good news in all its nooks and crannies, to draw all people to its warmth and radiance.  It was in this sense that the late great Archbishop William Temple once said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

        But in order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, like the Log Cabin on a dark night during a snowstorm.  Annie Dillard wrote, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark.  If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, p. 43)  We must go into the dark places, being and bearing the Light of Christ.  Where are the dark places in our community?

        Where are the dark places in our lives? Because authentic discipleship also involves looking at the darkness within ourselves, experiencing the “dark night of the soul.” Parker Palmer refers to this process as “looking or reading our inner landscape.” (Parker Palmer, “Leading From Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership,” quoted by Charles James Cook in (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 336). While this is never easy, it is essential, because we cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own soul. Jesus talks more about this later in the Sermon on the Mount.

        So there you have it:  Jesus calls us his followers to be salt and light in the world.  There is one remaining question:  How do I do it?

        In addition to the hymn I did pick (“Bring Forth the Kingdom”), there is a hymn in The Faith We Sing hymnal that I almost chose, because it answers this well. It is number 2185, and it’s called, “For One Great Peace.”  The words of this hymn, by one of our best contemporary hymn writers, Shirley Erena Murray, tell us how we can function as salt and light in the world:

                This thread I weave, this step I dance,

                this stone I carve, this ball I bounce,

                this nail I drive, this pearl I string,

                this flag I wave, this note I sing,

                this pot I shape, this fire I light,

                this fence I leap, this bone I knit,

                this seed I nurse, this rift I mend,

                this child I raise, this earth I tend,

                this check I write, this march I join,

                this faith I state, this truth I sign,

                this is small part, in one small place,

                of one heart’s beat for one great Peace.

(Words by Shirley Erena Murray (1992 Hope Publishing Co.);

        Go forth, followers of Jesus, to be what Jesus has called us:  salt and light in the world. Add zest; illuminate the dark.  Amen.

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