“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”
Two simple sentences. What did they mean for those first disciples? What do they mean for you and me?
Along with the familiar Beatitudes that we heard last week, this morning’s Gospel makes up the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The words we heard today were not intended for the large crowds following him. No—Jesus has taken his disciples up on a hillside, away from those crowds. He takes the position a rabbi takes when teaching. He sits down and begins to teach his small band of disciples how to live. How to be salt and how to be light in the world they inhabited.
Did you notice that the Old Testament reading we heard from Isaiah picks up on the Gospel’s theme of being light? The book of Isaiah was written over a span of several hundred years and has three distinct “voices.” Our portion today comes from what biblical scholars call “Third Isaiah”—by now, the exiled people of Israel have returned to Jerusalem, but the temple is still in ruins and all is not well. Today, God speaks to them –and to us–through the prophet’s words. The take-away from this lesson—and the one from Micah that we heard last week—is that self-serving rituals and actions are not pleasing to God. We please God when we address injustice, help the oppressed, feed the hungry, and care for those living in poverty.
These two lessons heard within minutes of each other pack a powerful punch. What does it mean to be salt and light now in a world where injustice seems rampant…where bigotry and hatred seem somehow acceptable?
Salt was and is a valuable commodity— the word Salary comes from the Latin word salarium, which has the root sal, or “salt.” In ancient Rome, “salarium” specifically meant the amount of money allotted to a Roman soldier to buy salt–an expensive but essential commodity. In those days before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food. Cooks know that even a dash of salt “wakes up” the flavor of food. And even though some of us have to limit our intake, salt has healing qualities. When I was young, we spent summers visiting my grandmother who lived near the beach in New Hampshire. One summer, I had a terrible case of poison ivy. Mom sent me to the beach every day for a good swim in the cold salt water—the salt stung those oozing sores, but, within days, the ugly pustules had disappeared! I’m gargling with salt now to ease the symptoms of this nasty cold! Salt preserves, seasons and heals.
Light. We all know what light can do. Light shines in the darkness. Light reveals the darkness in our own souls as well as the darkness in the world. Even a single candle can light up a large room enough to show the way out. A whole community of people with their candles lit can shed lots of light!
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”
Do you notice that Jesus doesn’t say “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be…” or “You better be….” Or “Someday you will be….” Here, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing that you are salt and you are light.
This is who we are. As Jesus’ followers, we are the salty agents of healing and we reflect the light of God’s love. And, my friends, if ever there was a time when we need to be salt and light it’s right now. Check the headlines; listen to the news; glance over the social media pages – there is an unusually pervasive sense of dis-ease in our world and the divisions evident in our country are clear to each one of us.
Think over the last couple of weeks. When have you been salt and when have you been light? As I think back, it happened for me two weeks ago, when I went to Boston for the Women’s March. This was a first for me—in all of my nearly 70 years, I have never demonstrated, marched, or done anything more courageous than sign a few online petitions. I’m a certified chicken and I don’t like big crowds. But something deep inside said “Do it!” So I put my fears aside, bought my bus ticket and off I went. And I’m glad I did. There were well over 100,000 people there on Boston Common—women, men and children, old and young together—it was a peaceful, but passionate crowd, standing up and speaking out on behalf of others—and not just for women. The other day, I ran across a quote by the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass that spoke to me: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” For me, going to that March was a form of prayer—I prayed with my legs and that prayer changed me. It woke me up. And that’s my salty tale.
My way of being salt and light may look different than yours. You may even disapprove of marches and protests. That’s OK. You don’t have to agree with me. But let’s talk. This church is a safe place to have these difficult conversations—this year, as we’ve been exploring civil discourse, we’ve been looking at the importance of careful listening to those who may disagree with us—in doing so, we may learn something about them and about ourselves.
So, what will unite us across the political divide? Isaiah gives us a hint: If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Much later in Matthew, in chapter 25, just before his crucifixion on another hillside, Jesus will urge us to look for his presence among those who are without shelter, without adequate food and clothing, and who are imprisoned and lonely. These words from Jesus and Isaiah can shape our shared sense of calling and values even though we may continue to wrestle with how best to live out those values here and now.
This week, look deeply into your life. Think of the ways God has used you to be salt and light. Maybe it’s been words of comfort and encouragement to others. Maybe you’ve stood with a friend who’s being bullied. Maybe it’s been the volunteering you’ve done. Or work you’ve done faithfully and well. Or maybe you’ve called your elected representative. Or a quiet kindness. Or the prayers you’ve offered or the promises you’ve made and kept. Yes, any of these things may seem, in and of themselves, small. But don’t forget–it doesn’t take much salt to change the flavor of a good stew. Small is what God most often uses to change the world.
My friends, in the week ahead, know that you are beloved of God.
You are the salt of the earth. Be that salt!
You are the light of the world. Be that light!