Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Today’s lesson from Matthew, like the beatitudes we heard last week, comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s the largest chunk of Jesus’ teaching that is all together in one place – just lesson after lesson from Jesus, preached to crowds of people. Most of the Semron on the Mount you’re probably pretty familiar with, even if you didn’t know it where it was from. Today’s text starts with two images – salt and light. “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.” We use a salt a little differently today than in biblical times. Today, although salt is something that might be tasty, we tend to think of sodium and how we get too much of salt! But in Jesus’ day, salt was an additive acting as both a spice and as a preservative. Salt gave things flavor, and made them last. Still, though, the power of salt endures. You might have noticed that many cookie recipes call for just a quarter teaspoon salt. A quarter teaspoon in an entire batch of cookies – you might wonder why you’d bother? But just that little bit can help hold the cookies together better, help with flavor, and work with baking soda to help the cookies rises properly. Either way though, past or present, the puzzling thing about Jesus’ statement is this: salt doesn’t actually ever lose its flavor. Salt doesn’t expire. You can ruin salt by getting it wet – moisture can ruin salt – but it doesn’t go bad. It doesn’t lose its taste. Salt by definition just is salty. So what does Jesus mean by talking about salt losing its flavor and throwing it out and trampling on it? Salt is salty. That’s just what it is.
Jesus’ second image is like the first. First salt. Then light. “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 God. Have you ever tried to block out the light? For a while, my mom worked the midnight shift at the hospital, and would sleep during the day. We taped up poster board over her windows and covered the skylight and did all manner of things to try to block out the light so she could sleep during the day. But nothing really worked. At my apartment in Fayetteville, it would be almost completely dark in my room –but the light from the streetlight out front always seemed to hit my eyes as I would try to go to bed. And when I took my teeny tiny flashlight to read with at the young clergy retreat I attended earlier this week, it was still bright enough to be quite noticeable to my roommates. It often takes only one tiny nightlight to make the darkness seem less overwhelming for a child – or adult – my brother Todd insists on a nightlight too. One flashlight, one candle, one light – even the blinking light on your smoke detector, or the light from your laptop computer – one light makes the darkness significantly less dark, significantly more bearable. Light, the tiniest light – is extremely powerful.
Salt and light. What we might miss when we hear this passage is the significance of who is the salt and light, and how they’re the salt and light. This can be confusing, sure, because elsewhere, in John’s gospel for example, Jesus says clearly, “I am the light of the world.” But here, in this sermon, to the crowds, to us, hear what Jesus says: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You, you, you. Not someone else, not just Jesus. You. And not you will be. Not you-should-try-to—strive-to-become. But you are. And not just for some small corner, for your church, your family, some small-scale setting. For the earth. For the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You.
So? So – we heard that light is powerful and even a little bit can overcome darkness. We heard that salt preserves and flavors and holds things together and makes them rise – a little bit can make a big difference. And not only that, but salt can’t stop being salt. And light can’t not shine. You are salt. You are light. And you can throw salt out. And you can hide your lamp under a basket. But why would you? Why would you keep salt and light from doing what they were meant to do? And why would you not be and do what you are created for? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time talking about my goals for my ministry and for you, for us, as a congregation. But I have one goal that underlies everything. And goal isn’t even the right word – it’s deeper than that. I have a passion, a desire, that I could help you, as I seek the same for my own life, help you let your faith be the driving energy in your life, let following Jesus be the thing that shapes everything else, let your love of God fill your hearts and shape your souls and spill over into love for one another that inspires you to change your lives and change the world. Maybe that sounds like a lot. And it is – in some ways, it is everything! But it’s also nothing more, I think, than just having the full life that God wants for us. It’s just living life as it is really meant to be lived. And when we do anything less, when we give anything less, when we expect anything less, when we strive for anything less – well, it’s like salt trying to be something other than salt. Light trying not to shine.
Everything we do that takes us from God, that distances us from God, that distances us from the love we are meant to share with one another – it’s like trampling perfectly good salt under your feet, or hiding your bright lamp under a basket. Doesn’t make sense. Who would do something so foolish? And why would we want anything less than what God says we can have? Why would we want any less love in our lives, in the world, than God offers us? What’s it all about? Accepting and using the gift God gives us. Being what we already are. Living as we’re made to live. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Amen.