SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:13-16 – 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. 15 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. 16 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.
Leading the Way
October 1, 2017
Is the world a ruder place these days? It sure seems like it to me. When we lived in Chicago I thought the general rudeness I experienced was a consequence of cramming that many people in one geographical area and then dumping a ton of snow on them. But I’ve noticed a spike in rudeness even in the friendly town of Lexington over the years here. It must be the case all over the country, because the evidence backs it up. A recent telephone poll by the research group Public Agenda found that 79 percent of the people surveyed said that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem today. The pollers said the other 21 percent of callers hung up on them before they could even ask the question.
Some of this increased rudeness is intentional. You can see it in the way people treat service workers like servers and hotel staff. Some of it is even perpetrated by Christians. Friday I was driving on New Circle Road and I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Honk if you love Jesus.” I was able to read it so well because the person driving had just cut in front of me without using their turn signal. I bet they think I really, really love Jesus.
But some of our rudeness is unintentional. We don’t mean to be rude, but our focus is in other places. As I was going into the drugstore this week, I held the door open for a lady who was chatting away on her cell phone. She didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge my act of chivalry. No big deal. But I watched as she made her way into the store, went up and down several aisles, picked up a few items, took them to the counter, paid for them, got her change and left the store – all while still talking on her cell phone. Was she intentionally disregarding the human beings around her? No, I don’t think so. Was her behavior rude? You bet.
I think this human behavior is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd listening to him that they were salt and light. These passages come near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Jesus has just given the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the world’s underdogs, and he’s about to launch into a reinterpretation the laws of Moses for this new era – “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”. But in between, he wants to remind the people listening that they have been put here on earth for a specific purpose, and he uses two very interesting metaphors to do it. As we kick off our Stewardship Campaign today, these metaphors can be instructive as we consider how we can lead the way in being God’s people in our world.
First, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” In modern times, that phrase has come to mean someone who is decent, dependable, unpretentious, and uses their turn signal. While that’s an admirable way to be known, that’s not what Jesus meant. In Jesus’ time, salt had several important uses, and by calling his followers “salt,” Jesus was drawing on the meaning of those utilitarian functions.
First, salt was a purifier. We soak wounds in salt water because, while it burns, it also cleans and refines. The presence of salt has cleansing, purifying power. As salt, we are called to do the same. As one writer said, we are called to have an antiseptic influence on those around us. The word antiseptic literally means “against infection.” Something that is antiseptic is free of destructive or disease-causing bacteria. As salt, we are called not to be infected by the diseases around us – the diseases of greed, hatred, judgment. We are called to be the healing agent in the world around us. In a world of horn-honking and cell-phone-induced apathy and Twitter rants, we are called to be different.
Salt was also used as a preservative. When stored with food, it would prevent bacteria from causing the food to decay. Because there was no such thing as freezers or shrink wrap, salt was crucial to helping provide food for people over a long period of time. Similarly, we pledge our faith to a story that is 2000 years old. Not many things that are 2000 years old are still relevant today. And even this story could die off if we let it. So we are called to preserve it, not only by telling it each Sunday, but by living it each Monday. We are salt when our faith is active, alive, relevant, informing everything we do or say, preserving the living gospel that is each one of us. One of the things our monetary gifts accomplish is they ensure this story continues to be told.
The last use of salt that Jesus draws upon here is as a flavor additive. When added to food, salt draws out its natural flavors and enhances the dining experience. By calling us salt, Jesus is saying that our job is to enhance the living experience by drawing out the divine in the world around us, or as one writer said, “We are to serve as kingdom seasoning.” We bring out the God flavors wherever we go.
One important thing to note about salt as a seasoning: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Have you ever been to a meal and heard someone say, “Wow, that’s some good salt! What brand of salt is this? I’ve never tasted something so…salty! We’ve got to get this salt recipe!” If salt is doing its job, no one notices it, but instead, notices the flavors it evokes. If we are doing our job, we are not drawing attention to ourselves, but to the love and mercy of God in us. As the salt of the earth, we are to purify, to preserve, and to provide flavor. How are we making God known around us? How are we using our gifts to draw out the God flavors in this world?
Jesus then goes on to call us the light of the world, a light we have by virtue of being God’s children. He says since we have this light within us, the last thing we want to do is hide it. That highlights one of the dichotomies of this metaphor. Jesus warns about hiding a light under a basket, but if you do that, one of two things is going to happen: either the light gets extinguished, or the basket catches on fire. Neither are desirable results! A light can’t help but shine. It’s what a light is supposed to do. Jesus doesn’t say, “Try really hard to be the light of the world,” or “Here’s how you become the light of the world.” He says, “You are the light of the world.”
We lose the nuance in the English translation, but in the original Greek, the emphasis in this sentence isn’t on the word “light” or “world”; it’s on the word, “You.” Jesus isn’t whispering this like he’s sharing a secret. He’s shouting it like he’s making an announcement. “YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.” He’s probably doing this because he’s speaking to a group of outsiders and outcasts who struggled to believe they had any value, much less the power to be salt and light.
“YOU are the light of the world.” You already have the gift you need to shine. It’s not a question of if you have it, but if you choose to use it. If we are to live the light that is within us, it should shine everywhere and in everything we do: in the way we treat the clerk at the counter, in the way we drive our cars, in the language we use, and in the way we spend and share our money. We should not only be Christian in the church, but also in the store, the schoolroom, the kitchen and even – gasp! – on the golf course, in Rupp Arena, and on Facebook. This Christian stuff is not always easy, is it?
And yet, even as we are called to let our lights shine so that others may see it, the end goal is not to draw people to us, because it’s not our light. No one kindles their own light. This light we bear is not ours; instead, it is a reflection of the Christ within us. We are not the source of the light, we are the windows through which the light is seen. Just as salt doesn’t draw attention to itself, so the light inside of us isn’t meant to be used as a spotlight shining on ourselves, but as a flashlight guiding the path to Jesus. “Let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
“Before others.” Notice also that Jesus didn’t say, “You are the salt of the church” or “You are the light of the congregation.” The nouns he uses – “earth” and “world” – imply that our mission field extends as far as the east is from the west. There is no place we go, no place too remote or routine or secular, where we are not called to be salt and light.
Sure, there will be times when we don’t live up to this calling. There will be times when we’re feeling particularly unsalty or lightless. We may excuse our behavior by saying, “I was having a bad day when I said that. It was just a little thing.” But little things add up, don’t they? The little things we do and say add up to who we are. And if we strive to be salt and light in the little things, then we are prepared to be salt and light in the big things.
Today, we are asking you to begin contemplating what your pledge will be for 2018. Your monetary gifts are what make the ministries of this church possible. Your generosity allows us to be salt and light as we build homes for Habitat for Humanity, as we provide space for Alcoholics Anonymous and Parkinson’s support groups, as we educate our youngest and care for our oldest, and as we provide worship space for all. How will your pledge add seasoning to our ministries? How will the gift you give light the way for someone else to connect with God?
The point is that it doesn’t matter whether how strongly we believe or how faithful we are. You are salt and light. Whether you’re a life-long Christian, a seeker, an agnostic, a fence-sitter, a new believer…doesn’t matter. You are salt and light. The decision isn’t whether or not you want to be. The decision is what you’re going to do about it.
The next time you have a chance to help someone, will you be salt and light? The next time someone starts to tell an offensive story, will you be salt and light? The next time someone wrongs you and asks forgiveness, or even doesn’t ask for it, will you be salt and light? The next opportunity you have to bring out the Kingdom seasoning and reflect the love of Christ, will you be salt and light? Before you write that post, before you share that rumor, before you make that hand gesture, stop and remember…YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world. With our words, with our actions, with our pledges, let’s lead the way in being salt and light to others.