Lectionary Texts: 1 Corinthians 2: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, February 5, 2017
- What Is Your Job Description?
So, you apply for a new job. You get the job and you are then handed a job description, a very detailed list of what your role is and what responsibilities you have. At the top, it has your title. Basically, it tells you who you are, right? And then you have a list of responsibilities. So, the job description answers two very basic questions that are probably pretty fundamental questions of life: “Who are we?” and “What are we to do?” It sounds so easy, so straightforward. All you have to do is follow the list of responsibilities and you will be what it says at the top of the page (or at least some semblance of it).
But what if you didn’t really apply for that job? What if you didn’t mean at all to be given that job? What if, without any real warning, you are handed a shiny new nametag and a job description that describes what you should do when you weren’t even sure that that’s what you wanted to be. That’s a little bit like what it may feel like when you first read today’s Gospel passage.
I mean, straight out of the blue. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” I’m sorry, you said I’m what? But, Jesus, really, we just wanted to be followers. We just wanted to follow you to eternity, to stand here and bask in your goodness and your mercy and begin to feel like it was all going to turn out alright. We wanted to you to lead us, show us where to go. You know, sort of like that shepherd and sheep metaphor that you kept using. THAT’S what we signed up to do. So, what does it mean to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, exactly? That’s very unclear from this passage.
But see, these lectionary readings are not meant to be stand alone little stories and sayings. So, maybe we need to back up a little bit. What leads into this grand statement of our new job? Ugh oh! It’s what we read last week. HERE are the responsibilities—being poor in spirit, meek, mournful, hungering and thirsting, being merciful, being a peacemaker. Well, that just clears it right up, doesn’t it? We just do everything on that job description and we will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I don’t know, I may have to think about this a little bit more. I may need to look around at some other options. I’ll give you a better answer tomorrow. I mean, I thought I was following you and now it turns out that I’m becoming something completely different.
- Worth Our Salt
So, who are we? And what are we to do? Those questions are always there, sort of hidden in the back parts of our minds as we walk this faith journey. I mean, we read the Scriptures over and over and we talk about them and we listen to sermons and we sing words from them. But, it seems that the more we know, the harder and more complicated the journey becomes.
It was no different for those that first heard this so long ago. They lived in a time of theological, social, and political tension. (Sound familiar?) They were trying to figure out what it meant to be Jewish, what it meant to be who they were in a changing world, what it meant to be part of this new Jesus movement, what it meant to actually be a disciple of Christ. And they were trying to figure out what they were being called to do in the face of a world that was so different from the one to which they were accustomed and certainly different from the words of Jesus.
So, the Gospel writer begins, “You are the salt of the earth.” In Judaism, salt was a symbol of covenant. Salt symbolized the enduring nature of the relationship. Salt binds the promise. On the other hand, spilled salt, thanks to the story of Judas Iscariot, represents treachery and lies. That’s where the superstition came about that says that if you spill salt, you throw a pinch over your shoulder to blind the evil or bad luck that is waiting there to pounce given the chance. Did you know that? Even in pre-Reformation Baptism, salt was used with the water as a symbol of covenant and promise.
But think about it. Salt has a multitude of meanings—it purifies, it seasons, it preserves. It is an essential nutrient that the body needs but cannot produce. (Now that’s interesting—so we can’t do this by ourselves!) It’s also an antiseptic. There’s a healing quality to it. It can remove stains (or purify) and it also adds support and buoyancy. (Remember that ships float higher in salt water than in fresh water.) If any of you have swam in the Dead Sea in Israel, you know that you just float on top without any effort.
So, what does it mean to be called to be salt, to be called the salt of the earth, as the Scripture says? I mean, as we’ve said, salt has many uses. So maybe we are called to be multi-faceted, to not just walk one road toward that Presence of God that we think we have identified and nailed down in our lives, but to rather open ourselves to the notion that God appears when we least expect it. And we are called to be ready, to be open, to do whatever it is that God calls us to do in that moment. In all of life, we are called to be salt—purifying, seasoning, preserving.
That’s still odd to us. Salt? But we need to think about this the way those in the ancient world would have. The Greeks actually called salt divine. There were times when Roman soldiers would even receive their salaries in salt. In fact, the Latin word for “salt” is the root for “salary.” For the ancients, the two most important things in life were “sol” and “sal”, sun and salt. Wars were fought and even won or lost over who had the greatest stores of salt.
Even today in Africa, workers often receive a portion of their pay in salt. When one is presented to a chief, it is expected that you would bring a gift of salt. Nelson Mandela once said, “Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.” So, to really understand this passage, we need to have an African view of salt. Up until about a hundred years ago, useable salt was scarce. So, when we are told that we are salt, we are told that we are of great use and value in society. We are something, as the saying goes, “worth our salt”. We must add flavor to everything we touch.
The mention about salt losing its taste is interesting. I mean, salt is salt. It doesn’t really lose its taste. It only becomes useless when it is not used in the way it should be. Or maybe not…In this Scripture, the salt referred to is the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus. Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were used to light an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. (“trampled under foot”). In other words, when one is salt, there is always something that one can do. Salt only loses its value when it is not used.
And yet, we all know that there is often something to be said for too much of a good thing. Like salt, we are not to overwhelm the world but to bring out the goodness, or preserve the goodness that is already there.
But, interestingly, salt is of no use to salt. We cannot serve ourselves. We are part of a community. “Being salt” means that we are called to become that embodied Presence of God in the world and for the world and, rather than making everyone and everything into what reflects our own personal image of God, we are rather called to season what we touch so that the flavor that is God comes through.
III. Becoming Light
So, then, the light thing…how do we become light? What does it mean to become light? Well, we know what light is. It illumines; it clarifies; it reveals; it shows the way. Even when light is obstructed, it compensates by peeking around the edges of whatever is in its way. We talk a lot about going toward the light, looking for the light, putting ourselves in the way of the light, but what about becoming light?
You know, light is something that cannot be hidden or it is no longer light. So, if we are light, it means that we, too, are seen. We are meant to be seen, meant to be the ones that illumine the way of Christ, that clarify it for others, that reveal it in the darkness. We are the ones that light the way for others.
That’s a pretty tall order. It’s also rather overwhelming, when you think of the magnitude of it. I mean, it’s not like light puts itself out for a while and then comes back when it’s ready. Being light is pretty much a full time job. It’s also an uncomfortable job sometime. Light doesn’t just illumine the goodness and those things that are worthy of such revelation; light has a habit of shining into the darkest corners of the world and revealing those things that are in need of change, those things that God calls us to change. And light, true all-encompassing light, does not pick and choose where its rays will shine. It illumines all in its path taking it unto itself.
It’s hard for us to imagine a world totally bereft of electricity, remember that lamps were incredibly important in ancient times and, really, even up until the last century or so. Jesus expected his followers to be incarnated lamps, to be God’s light in the dark corners of the world guiding people to the Truth.
- Being Salt, Being Light
So, “you are the salt of the earth”. “You are the light of the world.” Notice that Jesus is not saying that you “should be” salt or light or that you should “try to be” salt and light or that you will become salt and light someday. No, Jesus says you ARE salt and light. You just are. You don’t debate it. You don’t second-guess it. You don’t wonder about it. You just go and be it. You are salt and light. Period.
That’s probably a lot more complicated than aspiring to BECOME salt and light. Because, think about it, salt’s usefulness is at its height when it lends itself to disappear into the food or disappear into the wound or disappear into whatever it is preserving. And light? We don’t see light. If we look at it, it is blinding. Light’s value comes from what it illumines and reveals. Similarly, being salt, being light means that we essentially disappear and become who God envisions us to be.
I read a story that said that there was a church where the cross was prominently displayed behind the pulpit. One Sunday when the pastor was on vacation, a man, who was much taller than the pastor, preached the sermon. After the service, a little boy who usually sat near the front with his family mentioned to his father that he liked their pastor a lot more than the visiting preacher. “Why?” his father asked. “Because our pastor is small enough for me to see the cross.”
The child said more than he knew. In order for Jesus to be visible in us, the self that we’ve created must be invisible. In order for him to increase, we must decrease. We disappear like salt and light. But we are essential like salt and light. No one can impress people with fleshly, or natural, ability and at the same moment be the very image of Christ. In the passage that we read from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, he wrote of coming in weakness and fear and with much trembling because that is the way Christ rises in glory.
- More Than a Job Description
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. The question is, do you know you are? Do you believe you are? Do you speculate that Jesus could not have possibly meant you? Do you hesitate, wondering whether or not this is the right time or the right place? Have you convinced yourself that you can’t make a difference in the world?
The problem is that you are salt. The problem is that you are light. It doesn’t mean that you ignore or shun the ways of the world; it means you change them. The very reason that the Gospel is so powerful is that it actually thrusts us into reality and allows us to move forward in a way that restores everything around us, not only spiritually, but also materially and emotionally. So why do we often fail at that? It’s probably because more times than we’d like to admit we allow the culture to shape our faith, rather than being the salt that our world so desperately needs. We have allowed our light to be hidden because sometimes it’s uncomfortable to be the one that speaks the Truth.
We can no longer stand by and let the Truth be usurped. We can no longer hide afraid of what others may think. We cannot excuse ourselves from speaking out because it might shake up our comfortable existence or change how others look at us. We have to stand up for the Gospel—because we are salt and we are light. We are the shapers and the illuminators. We must speak for those who cannot. We must stand up for those that the world says are not worthy or are not one of us. We must tear down walls that others try to build and invite the Gospel in.
The Gospel is not a viewpoint. It is not an opinion. It is not an alternative fact, to coin a new word in our society. The Gospel is a truth-teller. See, the problem is that the Gospel is our own call to action. We can no longer stand on the sidelines. We have to preach the message that Jesus preached even in the face of a world who would it seems rather not hear it.
If you have lost your taste, if your light is barely visible, ask yourself what happened. Albert Schweitzer once said “your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way. But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright. And then you ask yourself in amazement: Is this really my own life I see before me.”
So why don’t you see it? What silences you? Is it fear? Is it maybe that you are a little too comfortable with where you are? Or is it that you’ve forgotten who you are. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are something of great value. You are called. It’s your job. If you really worship God today, you will become the Gospel. It’s not always easy, but the benefits are good. Will you accept the position? The choice is yours.