A Grain of Salt
February 9, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
As we prepare our hearts for God’s word from the gospel today, I want to set it in context for us. We’ll be spending a lot of time in this gospel during Lent, but until then, this will be our last focus on the gospel until the first Sunday in March. Matthew’s gospel is written for a community that is Jewish at its heart, located probably in what is now Syria, during the last quarter of the first century. The Scriptures on which they rely are what we would call the “Old Testament” – for them, that is “The Bible.” But there are more Gentiles joining them, so they are, like us, living in the tensions of transition – fully rooted in the faith of the past, and looking toward the future. They are excited, but apprehensive, about what this new way of living will bring. They are followers of Jesus, ready to go but unsure of where they will be led. The author of the gospel of Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the law – the Torah – the full expression of God’s covenant. These verses are the epilogue to the Beatitudes – that series of “blessed are” verses. They are related in several ways, the main way is that they are, like the beatitudes, in the indicative voice. That is to say, when Jesus says, “You are salt” or “you are light,” he is not saying “try to be more savory” or “you should be a light to others.” He is metaphorically identifying the Christian community. Let’s listen for God’s word to our community today in Matthew 5:13-20
[Jesus said] “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. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In 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. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
A few days ago, I saw something in the Presbytery newsletter about confirmation retreats coming up at Stronghold. I checked out the website to see what the dates were, and was surprised to see that it said, “leading our retreat is the Reverend Christina Berry, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sterling.”
Ohhhhh……um……I am? I immediately contacted Stronghold. Am I?
Turns out it was a mistake. Sigh of relief.
I wonder if the disciples, listening to Jesus’ sermon, had the same reaction.
You are the salt of the earth …. You are the light of the world… Really? We ARE? Seriously? Yes. You are. Seriously.
To feel the full weight of this pronouncement, it’s worthwhile to consider the importance of salt in the world of the first century. We know the importance of light – to illuminate, to guide us, to wake us, to keep us healthy. There’s not much argument that light is a good thing.
But salt? Well, salt is just not as popular as it used to be. Salt is the former box office star that has now faded into oblivion, hanging around in the background. He used to be much sought-after, but now he’s only invited to the party because there are still a few people who remember his fame. He’s been discredited, too, as something not quite so desirable, and certainly we have to watch out for him. Don’t want to get too much salt. But back then, Salt was on the A-list. Everybody wanted salt. It was valued not only as a commodity for seasoning and preserving, it was also an antiseptic, and was used as a kind of money. Slaves could be purchased with salt. A ration of salt was as a part of a Roman soldier’s pay. Hence the term, “not worth his salt.” Salt was used with covenant offerings at the altar to God, and has been taxed, fought over, withheld, and given as gifts. The Roman word, “sal” is the basis of our words: salutary, salary, and salad, just to name a few.
So when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” those who heard him must have been a bit taken aback. It’s as if the farm hand, standing around at the back door to the barn, is told that he is now the CEO of a corporation.
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“I am? Me?”
“You are the light of the world.”
“Who? ME? No, Jesus, I’m not. Really. That’s an awful lot of responsibility, see?”
Because if we are the salt of the earth, if we are the light of the world, ohhhh, this is going to be a problem.
It reminds me of that old joke – you’ve heard it, I’m sure, about the two little boys at the breakfast table who were fighting over who would get the first pancake.
Kevin said “I should get the first one, because I’m five and I’m the oldest.”
Raymond said, “I should get the first one, because I’m the littlest.”
Their mother, seeing a teachable moment said, “Boys, if Jesus were sitting here, he’d say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.”
Kevin turned to his little brother and said, “Raymond, you be Jesus!”
But here Jesus is, saying you ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world.
Whether you like it or not.
Then he makes the responsibility even more explicit: “Therefore, 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.” Misleading others – still in the kingdom, but not on the A list. Teaching others – great in the kingdom of heaven.
Salt and light. Not for ourselves, but for others.
Archbishop William Temple is frequently quoted as having said, “The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”
That’s a prickly kind of saying – the church – this church – our church, does not exist for itself, but for the benefit of those who are NOT its members. If we are salt and light, it is not for our own personal advantage or gain. It is for others. You are the salt of the earth.
You know something I left out of that list of the attributes of salt? It makes people thirsty. Salted popcorn at the movies is the best ever. But it makes me willing to pay three dollars and fifty cents for a soda pop. Salted nuts at the bar, complimentary, are there to make you thirsty.
We are the salt of the earth,
and something about us ought to make people thirsty for the living water of the gospel.
We are the light of the world,
and something about us ought to illuminate a path out of darkness for people who are trying to find their way.
I don’t know what those traits might be for you. You are all of you good, nice people. All of you. Maybe you volunteer in one of the many fine social service programs that our community offers to those less fortunate. Maybe you take special care to show kindness to everyone you meet. Maybe you go out of your way to look out for a neighbor. Maybe you are unable to pitch in yourself, so you pitch in financial support. Maybe you are salt and light in the way you pray for others. These are all fine things to do.
Do others see your good works, then, and give glory to your Father in heaven?
Because your wonderful kindness, our excellent work in the community, your generosity and my ministry of presence are all for that purpose – to give glory to God. To make people thirsty for the living water that keeps you going, to light a path to faith for those who feel lost. And sometimes, it can be a good thing to say, out loud, in words, what it is that moves you to do these acts of ministry and mercy. Because I love God. Because I’m a Jesus-follower. Because Jesus loves me when I don’t even deserve it, and I try to share that love with others, so they can feel it, too. Being salt and light, to bring glory to God.
As if that weren’t difficult enough, Jesus has to go and add “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And therein lies the good news. Yes, it is good news!
Because our identity as salt and light are not mistakes. This is not a scripture “to be taken with a grain of salt.” On the contrary, Jesus identifies us as salt and light because he is naming a new reality. He is not pointing out our excellent potential to become nicer. He is not challenging us to try harder to be someone better. He is telling us to BE WHO WE ARE and thereby bring glory to God in heaven.
Who we are is salt – to preserve, to purify, to season and add savor, to make others thirsty for the good news. Who we are is light – to brighten and illuminate, to waken and guide, to show others a path to the living water, where their thirst can be slaked. Who we are is salt and light. We are God’s beloved and precious children. We are disciples, people who have encountered grace and promised to follow its source, people who have glimpsed that light of the world, and now reflect and refract it into a world of shadows.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Maybe each one of us is just a little grain of salt, but we are salt.
Maybe each one of us is just a tiny flickering candle, but we are light.
Jesus said it: Let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Or, like the little boy said, until he comes again, “you be Jesus.”