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“The Light of the World and the Salt of the Earth”

a sermon based upon Matthew 5:13-16

In today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses two “metaphors” to express the function his followers will have in the world if they live according to God’s values: He says we are “Light” and “Salt”.

To live with Jesus’ values foremost in our minds (such as the Beatitudes we spoke about last Sunday) -- values which are often a direct contrast to the normal ways of the world! -- Jesus says: we will serve as salt and light within our society.

Now, everybody can figure out the significance of light! I mean, life itself relies on light. It’s so visible! The alternative… constant darkness and shadow, gloom & chill, inevitably starts to give a person “cabin fever.” This is, after all, the second week in February… in the deep mid-winter!

I think we human animals (almost like plants) have a sort of photo-synthesis in our blood, too; or at least we’re partly solar-powered! I think that’s why so many Alpena church folks go South to Florida or out West to Arizona for the winter (leaving us with several empty pews)! More than we want to admit, a lot of us are sun-worshipers who like to be warm & tan.

The point is, as regards Jesus’ metaphor of light: we all know what’s right with light! It’s an illuminating image for the in-dwelling spirit of God. Light is radiant. How affirming it must have been when Jesus said to that crowd of ordinary folks who had come out to a hillside in the Galilee to hear him teach, “You are the light of the world!”… You are!

It’s a memorable phrase from the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world.” 25-30 years later, the Apostle Paul, writing to the newly-formed Christian Church in Ephesus, put it this way:

“Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.

Walk as children of light; for the fruit of light is found in all

that is good and right and true. … Take no part in the unfruitful

works of darkness, but instead expose them. … When anything

is exposed by the light, it becomes visible! For anything that

becomes visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:8-13) Exposed by light.

Made visible by light.

The difference between darkness and light is a profound metaphor used frequently in the Bible -- from its very opening scene, in fact. (!) Back in Genesis, before the beginning of time, into that void of darkness & chaos, God said: “Let there be light!” (Gen. 1:3), and there was a “Big Bang” of light-energy (E=mc2) and the evolution of life into the marvel-ously amazing reality that we now enjoy, was off and running. Hallelujah! Thank God! Light brings life, and it’s all a gift from God, our Creator.

Psalm 27 says in its opening verse: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Psalm 119 has the familiar phrase: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105) And David wrote in Psalm 139: “If I say ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light around me be night,’ … even the darkness is not dark to Thee; the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with Thee.” (Psalm 139:11-12) Yes, the contrast between darkness and light is a profound metaphor in the Bible.

In the New Testament, we read in the first letter of St. John that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness. [Therefore], walk in the light, as he is in the light.” (I John 1:5 & 9) The opening poetry in the Gospel of John says of Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) And it is in John’s Gospel, too, that Jesus says of himself: “I am the Light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Did you notice? In John’s Gospel, Jesus claims to be -- he himself -- “the light of the world”; but in Matthew’s Gospel (as we heard it this morning), Jesus tells the crowd: “You are the light of the world.” “I am… You are…” So… how can we have it both ways?

Jesus himself helps us to sort it out by something he said to his disciples (this was in John’s Gospel): “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said that (as we saw in last week’s Monday morning’s Bible study), Jesus healed the eyes of a man born blind at the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. (John 9:4-7) In other words, Jesus brought light into the darkness physically to that formerly blind man, just as he brought light spiritually -- mentally, metaphorically -- to all of us who are here, now. “I once was blind, but now I see!” Jesus is a light-bringer.

“As long as I am in the world,” said Jesus, “I am the light of the world.” But now that Rabbi Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is no longer physically present, it is up to those who follow him to be -- in their day… in our day, for our society -- “the light of the world”…as He was in His. (!)

Which brings us back to today’s Scripture reading… in which a crowd of ordinary folks out on a hillside in Galilee are listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world,” he says to them, and, by extension, to us. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid! Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand; and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine!”

Eugene Petersen’s paraphrased version of the Bible called “The Message” quotes Jesus as follows: “If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there, on a hilltop, on a light stand -- shine! ( ! ) Keep open house. (!) Be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God!” (unquote) To that, I say: “Amen!”

First Congregational United Church of Christ: we may not be on a hilltop, but we are very visible near the heart of Alpena’s Downtown.

You and I are intended to be “the light of the world”… in the world’s much preferred darkness, we are supposed to shine! We offer an alternative. All that is intended for us, if we are the “light” of the world.

But what’s up with salt? That second metaphor: salt! While light is in your face, visible, beaming bright... salt is, perhaps, the most hidden, invisible, trace material on earth. (Shake it on your hamburger, it’s gone!)

We are fortunate to have fresh water in our Great Lakes (“unsalted, and shark-free”), but did you know that there are also huge salt mines beneath Detroit, remnant salt-fields from earlier oceans that covered Michigan. We all know that the Earth’s oceans are salty. Sea salt (collected and dried and sold in a salt grinder) is visible as irregular white chunks. But out in the ocean, it is diluted -- laced into the water. The salt can be felt on the skin as the sunlight dries it; and it can be tasted on the lips like salty tears -- but salt is invisible in solution. It’s hardly seen when it’s added to food... but the good effect is experienced -- a pleasant ingredient that brings out the best in steamed veggies or a potato… on our French Fries!

Of course, a little salt goes a long way! I have been known to stop eating a pizza (or a restaurant meal) if the chef has put too much salt on it. Furthermore, as we get older, many of us are on sodium-free diets. We must reduce our intake of salt, lest it harden our arteries and increase the pressure in our blood vessels. Salt is not the kind of flavor that you can double down and still enjoy!

Salt can also be a preservative. Fishermen used to salt fish before they had refrigeration, because it would not spoil if it had been coated in salt. After several days, when their catch made it to market, the fish could be rinsed off and cooked; it was still edible.

I suspect it is this ability of salt to preserve (more so than just to “spice up” your French Fries) that Jesus had in mind when he said: “You are the salt of the earth.” We should add a bit of flavor, a pinch of spice, if we are taken in very small doses -- but remember that we can be toxic when forced down somebody’s throat! (I think a lot of folks have gagged on too much heavy-handed Christianity! They’ve gotten “fed up” with it.) So, let’s lighten up, okay?

But as a preservative, which keeps bacteria at bay and bodily fluids healthy, salt is essential to all living things.

George Lamsa, the Assyrian author of “Gospel Light”[1], writes: “Salt is precious . . . and in some regions very scarce. From ancient times to the present day, salt has been a medium of exchange in some eastern countries. . . . Far from seas and oceans, salt is not only precious & scarce, but also sacred. Small deposits have been discovered in mountains, but because of crude mining methods, a sufficient quantity could not be secured for human & animal consumption. Salt, therefore, becomes a valuable possession. Taxes are paid in salt. Salt, moreover, is necessary not only to preserve food, but also to preserve life. It is said human life cannot be sustained for any length of time without the use of this precious article.” (unquote)

Just think of the Michigan hunters who put out “salt licks” for the deer during the winter. Not only does it keep the deer alive, it keeps them close to the hunting lodge for the next hunting season.

Life cannot be sustained for any length of time without this precious element; and yet, too much of a good thing is deadly. You may recall the story of a sailor lost at sea, who knew he could not quench his thirst by drinking salty seawater, who cried out those memorable words: “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!” It’s a fine line to be the salt of the Earth, and yet not be too salty.

Light is bright -- brilliant, in fact -- and visible for all to see. Salt, on the other hand, is plain, dull, & for the most part, entirely invisible. Let me put it this way: If light is an extrovert, salt is introvert. There are lots of Christian songs about being light in the world: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” Very few about being “salt”.

We all need a little salt -- salt for spice, for zesty flavor. Salt for blood circulation & cellular health. Salt for cleansing & preservation. And something we know far too well this winter: we throw salt on the sidewalks when they are iced over… the Highway Dept. spreads salt on our streets. You see, salt has a much lower freezing point than water. In the same way that a salt solution doesn’t boil as quickly as plain water does (as anyone who’s tried to make pasta will tell you!), it doesn’t freeze as easily, either. Throwing rock salt on an icy patch will thaw it. That’s a good thing.

In fact, Jesus even alludes to that in his saying: “If salt has lost its taste… it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.” (Matt. 5:13) The next time you track salt in from an icy sidewalk, remember Jesus’ words!

Of course, the heat of Palestine in Jesus’ day did not have much occasion to produce Michigan-winter ice. But rural roads and village pathways were often strewn with salt to keep the vegetation down. Jesus pointed to the usefulness of salt even if it didn’t really taste good.

So, let’s let our Christian witness be like salt: zesty, spicy, full of flavor. But let it also be measured (monitored) in order to be healthy for us and for all we meet. Let our “Christ-like” character help preserve the world around us, cleanse its wounds, and help hold decay at bay. (But don’t over-do it! Don’t become extreme… Moderation is a good thing.)

Like salt, may your Christian identity be able to endure more cold shoulders, more cold hearts, than a human would otherwise be able to suffer -- without freezing yourself, without turning your own heart to ice. May you assist in bringing a thaw. Like salt, may you be able to endure more heat before you boil over. May your threshold for frustration be ever higher, like a saline solution. May you continue to bring life, even when everything seems to be simmering…

Unlike the metaphor of light, the value of salt is not at all found in its appearance, but in the effect it has on things around it. Salt has meaning because of what happens as a result of its presence, and in what measure it is mixed in.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are supposed to share in the great “salty” purposes he has for the world. So... let’s get out of the salt-shaker and into the meal, off of the sea-shore and into the sea. Let’s not be afraid of being diluted, because greater is the God who has called us out than the world we are called to serve.

Brian McLaren[2] says: Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society [as we get involved in it]. Also like salt, we will have a “preservative” function – opposing corruption and decay. … To “lose our saltiness” means letting ourselves be toned down, [to be] tamed of our pungent spiciness. It would be like “hiding our light” under a lampshade -- to lose our “saltiness” means that we might be shut down and glossed over, set aside as though we made no difference. (unquote)

As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with questions of who we are now and who we want to become in the future.

I am glad that Jesus balanced the brilliance of light with the image of salt, when he tried to describe what a “Christian” character is supposed to be like. Some folks naturally radiate the warmth and engaging style of “light” -- light-hearted, with a light touch, or like a ray of light in the dark of night. Some folks strike us as light-bearers, radiant, charismatic, extroverted, visible.

But there are others who, by temperament, are less visible, less brilliant, and much more introverted… and easily dissolved (if we’re not careful). By using these two metaphors side-by-side in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus values the salt as much as the light -- the invisible, hidden, power of salt as much as the obvious attention-getting beam of light.

This tells me that the Church needs not just meat & potatoes disciples, but people who add spice; people who “blend-in” to the world (like salt infuses water) and not just those who stand-above it, or who stand out in it, or who stand up for it.

Yes, we do need cities set on a hill, lit up with light, which make all passers-by say “wow!” We need some “spectacle” in a visually-oriented world. We need to let our light shine, and not hide it under a bushel. (No!) But, friends, we also need a little salt, if we hope to sustain a healthy, balanced, living world.

Maybe you are more inclined to identify with “salt” than to imagine yourself as “light” -- that’s OK. Praying preserves & heals at least as much as preaching does. Unseen “angel acts,” hidden from view, may do more good for more people over a longer lifespan than any bold gesture done publicly in Jesus’ name. We need a little salt as well as light to be wholly Christ-like.

If you feel destined to be salt -- be the best salt you can be, for God’s sake! Jesus said to his followers: “You ARE the salt of the earth!” With those words, I think he intended to inspire them with the image of a scarce, valuable, precious, life-giving, life-enhancing, life-preserving, healthy and whole role to play as we dissolve ourselves outward into the world.

Be the salt that Alpena needs today… to melt the ice of chilly relationships and hard hearts. To spice up people’s lives with the pungent taste of Jesus’ Good News Gospel. If you are salt, be the best salt you can be, for God’s sake and the good of the world!

And if you are not “salt”, are you ready to shine your light into the shadows that surround us… bringing brightness where lives have grown dim, providing warmth where people feel that nobody cares or under-stands them, and demonstrating God’s loving presence where people feel like they have been abandoned? Those are the kinds of character traits that Jesus says will bring glory to God in heaven. So let’s do it!

Amen? … Amen.

[1] Lamsa, George, “Gospel Light: Comments on the Teachings of Jesus from Aramaic & Unchanged Eastern Customs” (Philadelphia: Holman Co., 1936), page 192

[2] McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group: NY, 2014, p. 129

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