Nothin' More Useful Than Salt and Light!
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I have to say I always like to visit places with mountains. Living in this part of Ontario, even small mountains can be a big deal, can’t they? It’s so flat here! I said last week that we should note when Jesus goes up a mountain in the Gospel of Matthew, something of significance is happening. Jesus goes up a mountain by the Sea of Galilee and I said too last week that if you’ve had or ever have the chance to visit the Northern District of Israel, you can really set yourself in the scene here. To speak to a large group of people, the group would be sitting above the speaker on the slopes of the hill, the terrain acting like a natural amphitheatre. No mics, no speakers. Just a speaker. The speaker. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, the disciples came to him, and he taught them, saying…” When Jesus goes up the mountain in the Gospel of Matthew, things happen.
The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7. One of the five discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Probably the most famous one. It is generally thought that this is not a sermon per se that Jesus gave one time - which would be a lot to throw at one if one were listening (and you thought I threw a lot at you!) – rather more of a collection of Jesus’ greatest hits if you like. A call to ethics, but not simply an ethic. A call to the church. Someone has said that the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic. This ethic is based on the one who’s sitting and speaking.
I must pause here too and say it’s been kind of cool to be sitting and preaching in these videos we’ve been making for all these months now. It’s the classic position of the 1st-century rabbi or teacher. It’s a sign that things are happening. “Then he began to speak” is how our NRSV puts it, but it’s more accurately translated “Then opening his mouth, he taught them, saying…” There’s a sense of anticipation here, a sense of expectancy.
There are things of the church that are expected. This is for the church. This is for those who have made the decision to follow Christ up the mountain. Christ’s disciples came to him, they have followed him up the mountain. There’s no reason to think that the crowd only contained followers of Christ. These words are heard by those who are interested to know what the Christ following life looks like. If you don’t count yourself as a follower of Christ this morning but want to know more you’re more than welcome – and the invitation is for you is to sit down with us and say “This is the one I want to follow.”
Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, takes pains to show that the Christ following life looks like something. It matters what we do. It matters to God what we do. For those who might say “This sounds like some sort of works-righteousness!” we answer that all of the social ethic which is the church is based on the grace of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection, and ascension and coming return of Jesus.
Lest we boast.
This ethic is not in and of ourselves. We cannot separate the message from the messenger. We said last week that Matthew didn’t call this writing “The Sayings of Jesus.” It’s the Gospel of Jesus. The good news of Jesus who has inaugurated a Kingdom that has come near, that is coming. We live in that in-between time as his followers. This Kingdom turns things upside down. The ones who think they are self-righteous are found to be not righteous and in fact, they lay heavy burdens on others. The ones who recognize their need for God and cry out for mercy receive mercy, not through any goodness of their own.
In the kingdom of heaven, the prevailing wisdom is turned upside down. Much of the generally accepted or prevailing wisdom of the day (and I suppose our day too) was about how to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Jesus begins and he talks to the crowd about who is blessed. It’s a hard word to translate – Makarios. Blessed. Happy. Living the good life. Someone has proposed the Australian expression “Good on you!”. Blessed are, happy are, living the good life are those who are poor in spirit, those who recognize their need for God, those who mourn how we turn away from God, those whose hunger and thirst is for righteousness, those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And if we’re still here listening after all that (particularly that last part), Jesus turns his speech directly toward us. “Blessed are you (Good on you) when people revile you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Second person plural – you. You all. Good on you all, things will be tough. This is like the warning. Know that you’re standing in a long line of prophets who were told to make God’s ways known. You’re standing in a long line of people who were called to make God’s ways known. A people to whom the promise was given to be a blessing to the nations.
Blessed to be a blessing. Church. This is who we are. Faith was never meant to be a private matter. It was never meant to be something solely between you and God. You all. It was never meant to be something that was kept for one day a week/month/year (or less). It was never meant to be something that we hold inwardly.
It can be rough. Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you. I don’t know half of it. God grant us the strength to stand firm should we know it. May that be our prayer for all of us. You’re blessed when this happens, says Jesus in this Kingdom of upside-downedness. Normally we associate this word with good things happening in our lives. Just type #blessed into your favourite social network platform and see what comes up. It can be rough but you’re standing in a long line of prophets who were persecuted for God’s sake who went before us.
That’s who we are in Christ.
Then Jesus turns to an affirmation of what we are in Christ.
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “Be the salt” or “Be the light.” I’ve seen well-meaning but misguided t-shirts that say this. Jesus doesn’t say “It would be nice if you were…” He doesn’t even say “You ought…”
Which is something I won’t say either. You can hear a lot of preaching and advice, in general, telling us who we ought to be, what we ought to do. We always come back to the one who is speaking and who he is. Who we are is based on him. What we do is based on him. We are called to bear fruit but we can only bear fruit because of our root.
We are only able to bear fruit because of the One in whom we are rooted.
But I’m mixing up metaphors here. Jesus is talking salt and light. You are the salt of the earth. It’s funny. I often ask about some of the images used for the church in the NT. I’m usually thinking things like the body of Christ or living stones. Here we have two dramatic images. The whole idea of salt of the earth can get watered down a little bit when we use it as it is often used – to describe someone of good moral standing. She’s a real salt of the earth type. He was a real salt of the earth type. It’s a call on all our lives. It’s a great image when we think of the uses to which salt was put in Jesus’ day. William Barclay in his commentary talks about a phrase that was used in those days – “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.” He describes it as a kind of jingle which I like. Nothing more useful than sun and salt. Nothing more useful than salt and light. It was used as a preservative. It was used to flavour things, which is still good today. If you find the image a little bland you can consider Christians as hot sauce – something that is meant to change or permeate the entire dish and change it for the better (depending on your view hot sauce I suppose). If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? How crazy! You don’t salt salt to make it salty again. It would like talking about water losing its wetness. If water loses its wetness, how shall it be made wet again? Having said that, people have wondered what Jesus is talking about here – how can salt lose its sodium chloride-ness? Apparently, a lot of the salt around Jesus’ time which came from marshes or places like the Dead Sea. Such salt could be impure and those impurities could cause it to lost its saltiness – at which point it’s good for nothing but being thrown out onto the street (which is where refuse tended to be thrown) and trampled under foot. Useless!
Live out your calling. This is who you are in me, says Jesus. You are the salt of the earth. Salt the dish. Make the dish spicy.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. We don’t see too many cities on hills around here, but we can think of coming into Toronto at night on an airplane. Looking down at all the lights. I suppose we could think of looking down at the city from a highrise or the CN Tower. It cannot be hid. Note that the image here is a collective light. It’s all our lights together. We’re going to sing about this little light of mine after this but really it’s about all our lights together. No one puts a light under a bushel basket – that would be crazy. You can almost hear the smile in Jesus’ voice here, the incipient laughter even. You don’t put a light under a basket, you put it on a lampstand so it gives light to the whole 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.” Not so we can look good. Not so we can virtue signal on our social networks. So that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. So that the ways of God may be made known by us salts and lights. By us wicks. I heard this analogy recently. We’re the wick. God’s the flame. Jesus is the flame. The Holy Spirit is the flame (which I seem to recall hearing somewhere). The wick doesn’t boast in being a wick. The wick is a receptive place for the flame to burn. And give light.
Neither salt nor light exists for its own sake. The scope is unimaginably wide. Salt of the earth. Light of the world. At the same time, it starts with those who are in front of us, or beside us. We’re blessed to be a blessing. We’re consoled to be consoling. Even in the middle of the grey zone. There’s a real temptation to turn in on ourselves, which will almost inevitably result in us turning against each other. “Turn out,” says Jesus. Remember what you are.
Almost a year ago I read an excerpt from a letter by a group of Christian leaders in BC. It talks about ways to be the salt and light we are. “Find neighbours who are alone or self-quarantining and offer to help. Assist the elderly, even if only to talk to them from their porch, through a window, or on the phone. (One thing about Toronto there are people all around us!) Assist others in need of extra encouragement, companionship, and help. (How are you doing? Is there something I can do to make something easier for you?) Do more of what brings you deep joy (do more of what brings you closer to God – those life-giving things we talked about two weeks ago) and share with family, friends, and the world. Donate to charities working on the frontlines. Be in touch with your nearest church or community organization and, if it is safe for you, offer to volunteer.”
I would encourage you all in your conversations with each other to share what God is doing in and through you; who God is calling you to be; what God is calling you to do. You’re not boasting in yourself, but in the grace of God (and we all know each other pretty well so there’s not much fear of boasting in ourselves being taken too seriously !). Jesus is describing a community of faith, a community of people not born into the community but there because they have turned in repentance to a merciful God. A group of people mixed in every way – ethnically, socio-economically, demographically in every way you can think of. A group called to a new way of life, salt and light. Someone has described it (us) and the message in Matthew 5-7 like this: “When he called his society together Jesus gave its members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders—by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence—by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money—by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership—by drawing upon the gift of every member, even the most humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society—by building a new order, not smashing the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationship between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person. He gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the “enemy nation.” That is the visibility that is at the heart of Jesus’s calling of the disciples…” It’s the heart of our calling. Salt and light! May each and every one of us be true to our calling. Amen.