For the first time in almost 9 years of ordained ministry I had to miss a Sunday because I was sick this month. The evening of Saturday, February 5, I just knew I had to make the call to get a "Plan B" going. Many thanks to Jody, Lynne, Lynn, Barb, and John who all stepped in in different ways. Many thanks to the congregation and the communion volunteers who were flexible as we delayed the celebration of the sacrament for one week.
I also want to thank my friend Julie, a PC(USA) pastor in the Milwaukee area who had already finished her sermon when I had not. Several of us "gather" on the internet to share our preaching thoughts throughout the week, so I knew we were thinking about the Scripture in very similar ways. When Julie posted her sermon on the internet I knew that it was right in line with where I was planning to go, but had not yet gone in writing. With her permission I borrowed generously from her sermon to prepare something quickly for Sunday morning so that I could just take my feverish self to bed. You can find her sermon at her blog You Win Some, You Learn Some. My version is below.
Thanks be to God for the compassion and connectivity of Christ's church!
Jesus’ comparison took on a whole new meaning for a whole lot of the nation this week. Luckily most of the storm missed us completely, but for many other people south of us - - all the way south to Arlington, TX and beyond - - being called the salt of the earth probably strikes a bit of a chord. A number of those southern cities, Arlington, TX among them, were hurting without salt. Airports were closed. Streets were sheets of ice. Businesses lost money. A whole lot a headaches and one sports writers article titled “Why the Super Bowl should always be in a sunny city” could have be avoided with a nice stockpile of salt.
The first hearers of the Gospel of Matthew found themselves in the middle of a storm of their own. They weren’t bombarded with snow and ice, but they were caught up in a storm of a spiritual and political sort. The temple had just recently been destroyed. Jesus had not returned quite as quickly as everyone had anticipated. The city of Jerusalem was occupied by the Romans. Everything that stood for their life with God was completely gone. Even the Jewish community was turning against itself as different factions argued about the right way to respond to the Roman oppression, with submission or with force, with subversion or with protest.
Jesus knew in a way that only the Messiah can know that they and that we would need to hear these words in the storms of our lives. This whole Sermon on the Mount, that began with the declaration of blessings, the radical inclusion in God’s grace of all those who are usually excluded, this whole Sermon on the Mount somehow reassures us of God’s favor, reminds us that it is for others too, and challenges us to demonstrate it to the world. A preacher friend of mine likes to say that the Beatitudes that come right before our passage today can be summed up this way, “You are blessed. Act like it.”
His comparisons of us to salt of the earth and the light of the world does the exact same thing. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you do this, that, and the other thing, then you will be salt.” He doesn’t bargain with us, “I’ll give you a little light if you give me a little praise.” Jesus isn’t trying to convince his followers or beg them or bribe them into working on his behalf. He just declares it to us. “You are.”
Salt gets a pretty bad rap these days. Most of the time when we hear about salt when there ISN’T a big game in a not so sunny city we’re hearing about how bad it is for us. Salt will raise your blood pressure. Salt will dehydrate you. These things may be true some of the time for some people, but at the same time it is also completely true that none of us can live without salt. The human body needs salt to perform some of its most basic functions even down to the cellular level.
In Jesus time salt had other important functions. In addition to preserving food and serving as currency, salt was also a sign of a promise. People making an unbreakable covenant with one another would seal the promise with the exchange of salt. This is what Jesus says we are. “You ARE the sign of my never-ending covenant with the world.” Intimidating, right? And as if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on and throws another metaphor on top of that one, “You ARE the light of the world.” Most days we’re probably lucky to feel like the tiny candle on a birthday cake, but Jesus says we’re the light of the whole world!
The world doesn’t help us with our feelings of adequacy either. It seems like every time I turn around another study group is reporting the findings of their poll about the public’s opinion of Christians and the church. “Judgmental,” they call us. Even “hateful.” Close-minded, arrogant, hypocritical. Irrelevant. That seems to be the prevailing opinion of the church as expressed by those outside of the church. As we hear it over and over and over again, we run the risk of believing it. Like Matthew’s church who was reviled and persecuted, who was defamed and hated, we run the risk of resorting to acts of violence or just slipping underground and out of sight all together.
Hearing the world’s opinion of us over and over again, we run the risk of making it our opinion about ourselves, too.
We are right. They’re wrong.
We are saved. They aren’t.
We are in. They’re out.
And maybe worst of all, we don’t matter. They’re right.
But we do matter. We are relevant. Even when the world’s seemingly falling apart around us - - when the economy is tanking, and nations are in complete upheaval, and cancer is striking at all the wrong times - - even when everything seems to be crumbling all around Jesus has the gall to announce, “You are loved. You are blessed. Act like it.”
I read somewhere in an article on parenting that a child needs to hear ten positive messages to counteract one negative one. It’s a good thing Jesus gives us so many. Blessed are you the poor in spirit. Blessed are you who mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted. Blessed are you. You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world.
We don’t need to work at it. We don’t need to strive for it. We don’t need to try to earn it. We ARE. You ARE because God put that never-ending covenant in you. God placed a light into each and every one of us. “You ARE because I am in you,” Jesus says.
A story has been told about a rabbi who was wandering through the forest one evening. As he was praying and walking along, he lost his way and found himself in front of a military base, where a guard brought him out of his reverie by shouting, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" The rabbi replied, "How much do they pay you?" "Why do you ask?" the guard wondered. "Because," said the rabbi, "I need someone to ask me those questions every day.”
Everyday we need to be reminded of who we are. Everyday we need to ask ourselves those questions or find someone who will ask them for us. Every day we need to answer “Who are you? What are you doing here?” and the answer comes straight from Jesus’ lips. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are blessed. Act it.
A striking image that has come out of Egypt in the last week has made its way around a number of news outlets. It sits perfectly and appropriately alongside one from less than a month ago, an image of Egyptian Muslims providing a human shield for Coptic Christians trying to attend mass under the threat of violence on their Christmas day. The picture this week was of Egyptian Christians providing that same shield from violence for their Muslim compatriots who stopped to pray in the middle of the protests and demonstrations in Cairo. Hands held hands in an outward facing circle as the faithful men bowed down on the ground in prayer.
When was the last time we were that kind of salt? When was the last time we provided that kind of light? That kind of love for others?
But it’s likely that those aren’t the only images we can muster up of salt and light in the world last week; we just weren’t looking for them. We just weren’t naming them that way. One preacher suggested early this week that we all keep “Salt Logs” for the next week, writing down the times we were recognized who we are, salt of the earth, light of the world, and what we’re doing here, sharing God’s love in Jesus with the world. I think if we did, we’d find plenty of evidence of the truth.
Beloved of God, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Every good and perfect gift you need to make a difference has already been given to you. Carry your zest, your brilliance with you everywhere you go. Amen.