SALT AND LIGHT AND YOU
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:13-20
“You are salt for the earth, O people; salt for the reign of God…You are a light on the hill, O people; light for the City of God.” In his lovely hymn, Marty Haugen has captured well for us what Jesus was saying to his first disciples, sitting on that hillside, two thousand years ago. As with the Beatitudes Jesus’ was speaking more descriptively than prescriptively. He is not saying we should become salt and light; he is saying we are salt and light as soon as we turn to following him. It is in the very nature of discipleship to be salt and light for a world in need of each.
As with the Beatitudes, in which he begins his instruction by giving his listeners a perspective on what the kingdom of heaven or realm of God is like, in these few following verses he affirms what those who are committed to that realm are like. Linking today’s text to the Beatitudes, Emerson Powery asks, “Who are 'salt' of the earth? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world. Who are 'light'? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right” (Emerson Powery, workingpreacher.org, 2/6/2011.) You don’t become salt and light in order to enter God’s realm, you become salt and light because you have committed yourself to that realm, you have given yourself to the work of turning the world right side up.
Many years ago a man named Hans-Ruedi Weber wrote a book called Salty Christians for the World Council of Churches. I don’t remember much about the book, long out of print, but I know my mentor, Walt Pulliam, thought it an excellent resource for claiming and living one’s Christian discipleship in the world. I’m sure he delighted in that crusty image and, truth be known, it was probably a good description of Walt. What would it mean for you or me to live out our lives as salty Christians? Would we savor the title?
The metaphor that Jesus uses here had multiple meanings for his hearers as it must for us. Salt is a powerful preservative. It is a common seasoning (concerns for blood pressure notwithstanding.) In ancient times it was used to seal covenants, was rubbed on infants and sprinkled on sacrifices, and it was used as a metaphor for wisdom. It also had the power to make a land infertile if it was sown into the soil by a conquering army. Jesus seems to be focused on the power of salt to bring out flavor and preserve food for the journey. As with the metaphor of Christians as the yeast that causes the loaf to rise, the salt that brings out the many flavors of the reign of God is strong and tasty image. It’s the right amount of salt in the dish that draws kudos for the chef. Perhaps Jesus is also saw salt as an image for the wisdom that his followers could bring to the world.
“You are the light of the world.” Wait a minute, how can that be? Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago that we were singing about “Jesus, the Light of the World?” How can we also carry that same attribution? Well, I suppose we could argue that as disciples we reflect the light that Jesus brings into the world. This is a time-honored way to consider the light spread by disciples. Indeed, it is not a bad image. Because we have known Jesus, the Christ, and bound ourselves to him, how could we not reflect the Christ-light, especially in proportion to our nearness to Christ at any given moment? But I think there may be more to this metaphor. I think Jesus is saying that, in some sense, each of us carries her or his own share of the Christ-light. As sisters and brothers in Christ, as children in the family of God, when we claim our discipleship and own those relationships, something begins to burn and glow deep inside us that cannot be hidden. The radiance of the light born in us cannot be hidden under a basket. We – and our witness – become like a city on top of hill. It really can’t be missed.
Now I would not be surprised to hear any number of us demure from claiming such identities for ourselves. “Well, yes I’ve heard someone say she was the salt of the earth. Yes, I know they say he lights up the room when he enters.” But is that you or me? Would you be willing to stand in front of your mirror and claim, “I am the salt of the earth; I am the light of the world”? It seems a little over the top doesn’t it? And yet this is what Jesus says of his followers. Take a minute. Do a little inventory. Do you know anyone you would call “salt of the earth” or “light for the world”? Would anyone like to share the person you thought of? What made or makes that person salt or light for you?
Our words of preparation today say, “The affirmation of Jesus that his followers are salt and light for the world is a timely reminder that such God-given beauty and dignity already exists in the human heart. It simply needs to be renewed and expressed, over and over again” (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, 2010-11, p. 111.) Do you believe this is so? One commentator I read suggested that we keep a “Salt and Light Log” in which we collect examples of where God has worked through us to be salt or light, to help someone else, to bring God’s reign a little closer, to turn the world a little closer to right side up. Would you be willing to do that? Every time we season the stew of life or light a dark corner, even when that gesture or witness is far from monumental or newsworthy, it makes a difference. If we had more faith that our daily witness as salt and light meant something, we might be more willing to spread the salt and shine the light. Even our everyday efforts enhance the presence of the reign of God in ways we can’t imagine. Who we are as salt of the earth, as light for the world, as the church of Jesus Christ matters, day by day and with each passing moment.
Let’s try one other little exercise this morning, if you will. Turn to those sitting near you, look them in the eye and say, “You are the salt of the earth.” Let the first recipient then respond by looking the other in the eye and saying, “You are the light of the world.” Could you try that and see how it feels? So, maybe it was a little awkward. Maybe you felt a little insincere. Admittedly it was an exercise. But maybe it wasn’t so easy because we just don’t get enough practice. Maybe if we say it to ourselves often enough, looking into the mirror, and record our experiences in our logs and occasionally even greet one another that way, how we feel about that claim for our Christian identity will shift and feel more right and real than we ever imagined it could.
Now I don’t want you to think that I am being glib or simplistic about these qualities of our discipleship. We have considered regularly the cost of discipleship. It is not easy to be salt for the earth or light for the world; it is a real challenge for us to be the church of Jesus Christ in our current setting. Thomas Long writes, "The church, for all of its vision, is overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked." Mostly we are "a small group trying with mixed results to live out an alternative life, set down in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands [us],” he says. He concludes, “The hardest part is not in being Christian for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears to be a losing cause" (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted in Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds, ucc.org.)
But, of course, that is the challenge, not to let who we appear to be to the world, define who we really are. Maybe we look like losers to a greedy, materialistic, power hungry, security driven, anxious world. What do we have to offer that is consonant with contemporary culture’s view of success, of influence, of meaning, of life? Our calling is not toward institutional survival; it is toward faithful witness as salt and light – and that my take many forms. It is true, we are not power brokers. We will never change life through coercion. We will not win the world with popularity. We are salt and we are light – simply, yet with a strange power to transform. What is that power? the power of love, the power that fulfills the law and ultimately turns the world right side up, the power that makes justice and compassion and humility the way of life for humankind.
Finally, Jan Richardson challenges us in this season of Epiphany “to ponder what it is that God desires to manifest through us, and to wrestle with what hinders this.” She says, “There is much, both within us and without, that works against savoring and shining.” Part of considering what it means for us to be salt and light also requires that we consider what gets in the way. She goes on, “Jesus’ words this week are meant to wake us, to remind us of what we carry in our bones: the living presence of the God who bids us be salt in this world in all our savory particularity; to be light in the way that only we can blaze” (Jan Richardson, "Blessing of Salt, Blessing of Light," paintedprayerbook.com.)
Salt and light and you and me. How can it be? How can it be real? How can it be real for us? Yet, here it is, laid out for us by the Lord of Life. Can you grasp it? Can you hold it, see it, taste it, live it? It may truly be a challenge to be salt for this earth on which we stand and light for this world in which we live, but the prospect also presents the promise of fulfilling, joyful life in the realm of God, even as we bring it into being.
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.