Salt and Light
A sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2/5/17; Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20.
The Gospel reading we’ve just heard follows immediately on the heels of last week’s passage, what we’ve traditionally called the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and the pure in heart. And last week we looked at the way the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used for “blessed” also means “ripe” or “mature.” And so the qualities that he lifts up in these beatitudes—those who mourn, who are connected to the suffering of the world, those who are meek and humble, merciful and peacemaking—those with these qualities, they bear the qualities of human maturity. If human beings can ripen the way a piece of fruit ripens, this is what we look like when we’re ripe.
Well in Matthew’s Gospel, there’s no break between the beatitudes and the words we’ve heard this morning, “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.” So who then is the “you” that Jesus is referring to? Blessed, ripe, mature, are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers; you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
There’s no break in the text, and so this is not a universal, generic you; this you refers back to those who bear the qualities Jesus has just enumerated. It’s these emptied, gentled, compassionate souls who are the lights of the world in their time. And because these qualities represent the potential within all of us, yes we all can become the salt of the earth and the light of the world—but we’re not necessarily there yet.
So that’s our first bit of work as followers of Jesus—to cultivate the qualities laid out in the beatitudes. Then and only then does this “you” refer to us. And when this is us, Jesus says we are light and salt in the world. And the next move he makes here is of central importance for those on a Jesus path—that the light and salt we are is for the world, not for ourselves. When you become these things, when you have ripened and matured, you don’t then get to go into hiding—not on the Jesus path. You don’t become gentled and merciful so that you can forget about the problems of the world—which is how we sometimes want to use the spiritual path.
I once met a woman who loved praying so much that she literally lost her family because of it. She loved sitting in prayer and meditation so much that she stopped spending time with her husband and son. She just wanted to be alone with God. It took her years, and a divorce, to see that her spiritual life had actually become a way of disengaging from the world rather than a way of entering more fully into the world.
Now this is an extreme example, but that tendency exists in all of us. And it does not represent the Jesus-path. Jesus says, You don’t put a lamp under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. And if salt is not contributing flavor, well its thrown on the ground and trampled underfoot. No, you cultivate these qualities so that you can bring much needed light and flavor into the world, into your relationships. So that light and salt can spread and infuse more and more of creation. So that others can ripen in your light and become sources of light themselves.
And this does take prayer and practice, but it’s prayer that prepares you for and engages you with the world. Which brings us to another important point. Cultivating these qualities doesn’t necessarily make life easier. Sometimes, most of the time, it’s easier to stay asleep. It’s easier to not mourn, to not be merciful, to not be a peacemaker. Becoming these things can actually bring more challenge and discomfort into your life, not less. But somehow we get the idea that if we’re really spiritual we’ll just float through life with no problems or tensions at all.
Remember, that yes, salt can bring flavor. But salt rubbed into a wound can sting, salt can be abrasive. Light, yes, can brighten a room, but light can also be searing, blinding; light can make us uncomfortable, it can be shined on things we would rather keep hidden. The world, and the powers of the world, don’t necessarily want more salt and light.
And so when Jesus tells the ripe ones, the mature ones, to go be salt and light, he’s sending them out to do what can sometimes be abrasive and painful and threatening work. The Prophet Isaiah certainly gets that in this morning’s reading:
“Shout out, do not hold back!” God says through him. “Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness… Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…
“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, […] to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them [...]? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”
Searing, blinding light, from the Prophet; abrasive, stinging salt. Can we accept Jesus’ call to be that for the world? Yesterday I got called out online by someone who said that as a priest it was my job to be nice and to preach love and forgiveness, not to be divisive. Let me tell you right now, that it’s my job as a priest and your job as Christians, yes to teach love and forgiveness. But also to speak, stand, and act against hypocrisy, evil, and injustice. This person said to me that they were tired of all the negativity swirling around them today. Yeah, we’re all tired. Refugees are tired. Minorities fighting for their rights are tired. People working to protect our democracy are tired. The Prophet Isaiah was tired. Jesus was tired. And if the negativity and the divisiveness around us makes us uncomfortable, it’s because we should be uncomfortable.
Salt and light can sting and burn before they bring healing and clarity. That the Church would forget this and become a servant of the status quo is a sign of our times. And so I want to leave you with a dash of salt, a flash of light, from Brian McLaren, a popular pastor and author who some of you will know. He writes:
[W]hat is going wrong in much of the stagnant, tense, or hyped-up religiosity of churches in [our] own country? […T]he Christian religion continues to sing and preach and teach about Jesus, but in too many places (not all!) it has largely forgotten, misunderstood, or become distracted from Jesus’ […] message. When we drifted from understanding and living out his essential […] message of the kingdom, we became like flavorless salt or a blown-out lightbulb—so boring that people just walked away.
We may have talked about going to heaven after we die, but not about God’s will being done on earth before we die. We may have pressured people to be moral and good or correct and orthodox to avoid hell after death, but we didn’t inspire them with the possibility of becoming beautiful and fruitful to heal the earth in this life. We may have instructed them about how to be a good Baptist, Presbyterian, [or Episcopalian] on Sunday, but we didn’t train, challenge, and inspire them to live out the kingdom of God in their jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.
We may have tried to make people ‘nice’—quiet citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economies—but we didn’t fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God. […] Religion became our tranquilizer so we wouldn’t be so upset about injustice. Our religiosity thus aided and abetted people in power who wanted nothing more than to conserve and preserve the unjust status quo that was so profitable and comfortable for them.
This may be where much of the contemporary Church is today, but this is not the Church of Jesus Christ. That is not the path that we are called to. And so, friends, Christians—be salt and light in this world. Bring flavor and clarity, and when it’s called for, abrasiveness and searing critique. Yes, be merciful and pure in heart. Be peacemakers. But remember that peace made with injustice is no peace. And that salt such as this, salt that has lost its flavor, is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
I say these things to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.