Salt and Light

February 9, 2020               Epiphany 5

Matthew 5:(1-12)13-20

What better way to begin our Annual Meeting season than with these words of Jesus, calling us to our true vocation as his followers:

“You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.”

These are powerful images of the Christian calling. They are everyday images: the salt we use in our daily food, the lamp we turn on in our house. Like many of Jesus’s parables, they have a richness of association that is deeply rooted in the simple things of life. Salt gives flavour to our food; it brings an otherwise bland dish to life; it is a preservative. Light brings clarity, understanding, joy, safety, warmth; it makes a home a home. These images penetrate deep into our minds; they find familiar echos, memories, associations.

Familiar though these images may be, they become strange, challenging, even a bit disturbing the way Jesus uses them. Because he is not inviting us to meditate on salt and light in the abstract; he is not saying, as he often does, “the kingdom of heaven is like salt, like light”. What he says is: “You are salt . . . You are light.” Suddenly it is getting personal: he is talking about us. And even that would be okay, if he kept things to our scale: “You are the light of your home; you are the salt in your family.” That’s nice; we would simply feel a bit flattered, and inspired to keep up the good work.

But that’s not what Jesus says. What he says, of course, is “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.” That we are somehow supposed to be salt and light for the whole world. And that seems so out of all proportion. How are we supposed to be salt or light or anything, really, for the world? We live our lives in smaller circles. Salt and light for the world – that sounds like a heroic task, and most of us don’t think of ourselves as heroes. We’re just ordinary folk, thank you very much. Light of the world – Jesus is clearly talking to somebody else.

Well, let’s look at who Jesus was speaking to. These words come from the Sermon on the Mount, which comes right near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. He has gathered around him his disciples, stepping up a hill to get some distance from the large crowds who are following him. He is speaking to Peter and Andrew and James and John, who just days or weeks ago were ordinary fishermen; perhaps a few others, none of whom had been following him for long. And frankly, even at the end of his time with them, when they had been following him for some time, these are no superheroes of the faith. They bumble, they quarrel, they get it wrong most of the time. Because that is who Jesus calls. Not the brilliant and heroic, not those voted most likely to change the world.

As St. Paul put it in the passage we heard last week: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” God calls ordinary folk, that’s who God calls, not heroes.

So I’m afraid there is no mistake. If Jesus is directing these words at the rag-tag bunch he has just collected as disciples, he is directing them at us as well. He is telling us that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world. And yes, that is scary and we want to think it is an absurd mistake. But if we can think any further than that, we realize what an incredible honour and responsibility that is.

Let’s just try for a moment to really hear that. Can we close our eyes and place ourselves in our imagination on that hillside, or it doesn’t matter where, but picture in our imagination Jesus sitting right before us. He is looking at us, steadily and kindly. Can we raise our eyes and meet his gaze, hold that gaze that sees us so clearly and with such love. And looking into those eyes, hear his voice: “I have chosen you to make a difference in this world. You are salt for the earth, you are light for the world.”

And we may not know what that even means, may not be able to imagine what that looks like. But maybe the first and most important thing is to hear that voice, hear Jesus speaking to our inmost selves, and know that he means us. And maybe it is not something we have to worry about making happen; the important thing is that Jesus has chosen and named us to be salt and light – and when Jesus has spoken, it is true. The first thing is to accept that.

Okay. But what could that look like, being salt and light for the world?

The lectionary is not helpful here. Because it has divided up the Sermon on the Mount, and separated these words from their context. What comes immediately before is the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn.” And I think that Jesus’s words about salt and light belong together with them, and make sense only when we hear them together.

Jesus has gathered his disciples around him, and he begins speaking. He begins speaking about others; those on whom God’s blessing rests are not first of all the disciples, not the church, but others out there.
• Blessed are the poor in spirit – or, as one Latin American theologian translates it, blessed are those who share in the spirit of the poor.
• Blessed are those who mourn – God knows there are so many in this world struggling with heartbreak and loss.
• Blessed are the meek – those who are not assertive or aggressive enough, those who are always taken advantage of.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
• Blessed are the merciful – we need more kindness and mercy in this dog-eat-dog world.
• Blessed are the pure in heart.
• Blessed are the peacemakers.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – the so many in our world who stand up for what is right: for justice, for fairness, for the weak and oppressed, for those without a voice, for God’s beautiful and exploited creation.

All these, Jesus teaches us, are blessed, and they are all around us. God’s Spirit is at work in all of humankind, moving people to kindness, gentleness, a passion for justice, a heartbroken love and compassion for all the suffering in the world. Sometimes when we look at the world – if we watch the news too much, for example – we can be left with the impression that the way of the world is greed and ambition and bullying and the thirst for power. Certainly that is what the powers-that-be want us to believe.

But Jesus says: “Look around. There is a whole underground resistance at work in the world, in the ordinary, decent folk whom the powers-that-be despise, in the poor, the heartbroken, the meek, those with a hunger for justice.” This is the kingdom of God he came to talk about, the power of God at work in the world, hidden in plain sight.

And then, in the last Beatitude, there is a sudden shift. So far he has been talking about God’s people out there, but now, suddenly, it is “Blessed are you . . .” There’s that word again, “you”, the word that makes it personal, that brings it home to us. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted on my account; blessed are you when you follow my example of compassion and caring and solidarity with all who suffer – even if it brings you suffering as well.”

This is our invitation. The resistance to the cruelty and vanity and greed of this world is already underway. The kingdom of God has come near – we don’t need to start it or lead it or make it happen. It is already happening in millions of ordinary, decent, brave, caring people the world over. This is our invitation to get on board as well, to join the resistance. Jesus invites us to follow him on his path, as he draws near to the suffering and downtrodden with compassion and love. It is a path that will bring us pain: the more deeply Jesus teaches us to care, the more our hearts will ache. But it is worth it – this is what it means to be blessed by God.

And this is the point at which Jesus makes that amazing promise, at which he gives us those terrifying and wonderful new names: Salt-of-the-Earth, Light-of-the-World. As we live our lives as Christians, gathering here to hear and celebrate his deeds, going forth to live his words, we are salt: our lives have a flavour that distinguishes us from the way of the world; we have joined the resistance to business as usual, to a culture obsessed with clawing its way to the top of the heap; we are living an alternative vision, and the flavour and tang of our distinctive lives will attract and challenge others.

We are the light of the world; our faith burns like a candle in the darkness, weak perhaps and vulnerable, but nonetheless a warm glow that can give hope and illumination to others.

As we enter annual meeting season, it is perhaps a time when we find ourselves reflecting on ourselves as a church. Sometimes we can get discouraged – we see the problems, the dwindling resources, the fact that we are getting older and fewer. And, hopefully, we will also see this as a time to rejoice in what we have here, in this fellowship of friends, in the privilege of heartfelt worship, in the many ministries that go on in this parish.

Whatever else we think we may be or ought to be as a church, let us never forget what Jesus tells us we are: the salt of the earth, the light of the world. He does not tell us that this is what we have to become, that we have to work harder until it comes true, and otherwise we are failures. He tells us this is what we are. Of course there is hard work involved, as we learn to live out ever more fully our calling. But salt and light is what we already are, signs of God’s presence and power in this community, alongside all the other hurting and passionate and caring people who God call blessed.