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Salt and Light

Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20

  Will Willimon is today a retired Bishop of the United Methodist Church who has returned to Duke Divinity School where he teaches and writes.  But Will was born in the mid-1940’s in Greenville, South Carolina, where he grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s before leaving to go all the way to Spartanburg, South Carolina to attend Wofford College.  He is one of the most engaging, profoundly thoughtful, funniest human beings I have ever met, and his faith in Jesus Christ has never stopped growing.  He wrote a book on baptism once called, Remember Who You Are.  He then explained the title.  As a teenager, Will would be going out with friends, or going out on a date, and invariably, his mother would say, “Will Willimon, remember who you are!”  It was a reminder to him that he bore his family’s name, that he had to carry that name without doing something to harm it, or doing something stupid or careless to stain it.

 I love the phrase, and have been known as a parent to use it myself.  When Josh and Sarah were teens, I might say to them as they were heading out the door, “Remember who you are.”  Especially because it is so easy to forget.  It is easy to get so bogged down in the stuff of life, or trapped at the end of some dark emotional alley, or to find yourself in a place where it seems all the exits are closed.  And when it comes to the life we are called to live in this world, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or insignificant or cynical or outnumbered.  And often we are tempted to say, “What’s the use?  What difference can I make?  My life does not amount to a hill of beans!”  Sometimes our lives seem little more than paper baskets filled with wasted time.  To feel that way is altogether understandable and just as inexcusable.

 How dare we forget what the Bible tells us about ourselves!  The Bible proclaims that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that we are set “a little lower than the angels,” and that we bear the Imago Dei, or the “image of God,” in our very lives.  If God has created us and Jesus has lived and died for us, then each of us is utterly precious, unprecedented, irreplaceable to God.  We are each of us indispensable in the divine dispensation.

 So Jesus tells us, in effect, to “remember who you are.”  He says first, “You are the salt of the earth.”  We use that phrase of a person to say they are steady, dependable, maybe even a little boring.  But in first century Rome, salt had a very different meaning.  Mark Kurlansky wrote a book called, Salt: A World History.  A member of our church gave it to me a few years ago.  It is a really interesting read.  Salt was a necessary part of empire building for Rome.  You could not have cities without it, as it was the only means of preserving food.  It was a staple to Rome’s army.  You could not preserve food, and hence move armies over long, mountainous distances without it.  Roman soldiers were often paid in salt.  The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt, and we have that phrase that “a man is worth his salt.”  Kurlansky said that the Roman Empire once included over sixty salt works from Gaul to North Africa.  The Romans had a saying: “Nil utilus sole et sale.”  “Nothing is more useful than sun and salt.”  So to be declared by Jesus as “the salt of the earth” was to be called pure gold!  In the absence of ice, salt was the only preservative Rome had.  To be called “the salt of the earth” was to be the declared enemy of decay and death, which Christians always are called to be.

 Salt is also used as seasoning.  It lends flavor to everything it touches.  That we worry now about using too much of it is a measure of the fact that you have to go a long way to find a better seasoning.  Salt works best when you cook with just a pinch of it, so powerful is its impact, so pervasive its influence.  In the same way, we try to add zest and flavor to this world, and at our best, Christians through the Church have.  Western culture has been seasoned with the salty tang of Christian thought, the Jesus ethic, with Christian art and music.  Reinhold Niebuhr said that the Church was meant to function as “a moral leavening agent in society,” to lift the level of public discourse and public thought by saving us from greed and self-serving actions, by introducing the fact of sacrificial love and service into public life.  We do this by seeing life through the lens of the Gospel story, of God’s intent to redeem and reconcile all creation.

Salt adds flavor, and it spices things up.  Shame on us when we turn the zest and tastiness of Jesus into colorless, flavorless mediocrity!  That is what some have called “the bland leading the bland.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”  (Actually, I like many undertakers I have known more than certain clergy!)  I often return to the story of the great Baptist preacher in England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  Though he wrestled all his life with depression, he knew the Gospel was to be about joy and life.  One day at his preacher’s college he was talking about heaven and hell.  “When you preach on heaven, look radiant; let your face reflect the joy, the utter delight and light of eternity!”  “And when you speak about hell, well, most of your normal faces will do just fine.”

 No!  Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  You are the enemy of decay.  You are to be the world’s preservative, its seasoning, its zest and flavor is to be enlivened through you, through all of you, because Jesus uses the plural here for “you.”  In the Southern idiom, he was saying, “Ya’ll are the salt of the earth.”

 And light.  “You are the light of the world.”  This was, of course, the first work of creation in Genesis.  This was God’s first creative, explosive word: “Let there be light.”  I loved the lighting of the Olympic torch in Sochi!  Isn’t it interesting, though, how often secular events draw from Biblical practices when trying to offer something significant or add gravitas to an event?  Hebrews refers to the Torah as “the light of truth.”  And with that doubtless in mind, in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”  This was, of course, the calling of Israel, “to be a light to the nations,” to shed light “to the ends of the earth.”  But in Matthew, here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  He was stressing the brightness of light.  Light warns, it guides; light beckons and brightens.

 Of course, we have no light of our own to share.  Physicists tell us this.  Particles serve as prisms and reflectors of light that come from the sun.  I love how light diffuses our cross at the front of our sanctuary on a bright day!  Our architect who built this church with a tall, handsome steeple on the brow of Oak Hill, also placed windows, recessed windows, on either side of our cross to catch and to spread natural light, upon it.

 Some of us do this better than others.  We catch the light of Jesus and it comes out of us from deep inside.  That light can come out in kindness.  It can come out in warmth, in a twinkle of the eye, or in a smile.  We all have light to share.  Not all light is brilliant.  Some of us are neon lights or strobes.  But some of the best light is soft and glowing, or indirect lighting.

 Light and salt both share this trait – even a little bit of each can make a real difference.  Just a pinch of salt can make a huge difference in the flavor of a dish.  And one small light shining in the darkness can overcome it.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” said John of Jesus’ coming into the world.

 “Let your light so shine before others,” Jesus said, “So that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Don’t stand in your own light, Jesus was saying, or you will fight your own shadows forever.  And remember as well that it is both your light and it is not your light at all.  It is the light given to you by God, who is the source of all light and life.  It is wonderful how free you are to enjoy good things when you know you don’t have to take credit for them.  We do good works, we are kind and generous and hospitable so we can give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

 It only takes a pinch of salt to flavor a whole dish.  It takes only one ray of light, one candle flickering in the wind to pierce the darkness.  Had there been ten righteous people in Sodom, God would have saved that dark, evil city.  Eleven disciples were left to start the Christian Church after Good Friday and Easter.  Cicero called Rome “the light of the world,” and so it seemed.  But Rome went the way of all earthly empires.  For all its splendor, Rome is history.  Interesting, instructive history, but history nonetheless.  The light Jesus spoke of still “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  That same light shines in you.

So remember who you are!  “You are the salt of the earth.”  “You are the light of the world.”  I didn’t say it.  Jesus did.  But that is how I want to live.  How about you?



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