13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
I just want to begin by pointing out the irony of our scripture passage on salt when we just had the “snow-pocalypse.” Let me say this week I have been extra thankful for the truckloads of salt that have come into Columbia! I certainly used my share shoveling out my long driveway. As Terri likes to say… if I could add any text to the bible it would be that “Jesus laughed.”
This morning’s text expands on what we learn about the call to discipleship known as the Beatitudes in the first 12 verses of this chapter in Matthew and our verses sit as the middle transitional passage in the Sermon on the Mount. It sits between Jesus’ call for his disciples and the later ethical teachings. While we don’t have time to go into all of it this morning, it is important to set the context. Arguably this text and the whole of the Sermon on the Mount can be considered the very heart of Matthew’s gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is a short sermon, by relative standards, but it is some of the most brilliant and inspiring passages in all of scripture.
Our verses this morning are no different, Jesus continues his sermon with our two metaphors to describe and prescribe who his followers are and what they are to do for and in the world. This is the point where we preachers like to say he’s landing the plane, he’s bringing home the point. So after presenting the eight Beatitudes, Jesus launches into the heart of his sermon by making these analogies: that his followers are to be like salt and light. These are interesting choices, and both have implications for the implementation of mission and pastoral ministry.
The first metaphor, Jesus calls his disciples the “salt of the world,” suggesting that we have a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the taste of food (and, yes, even melt icy sidewalks). Salt alters the world around it; it brings alive what would otherwise seem tasteless and bland. In the first century it helped preserve food, it was even used as currency (hence worth your weight in salt).
Jesus is making the point that if we live out the Beatitudes - becoming peacemakers, being merciful, pure in heart, those who care of the meek, dispossessed, ones caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice -- to put it in the context of last weeks text those who act justly, love kindness, to walk humbly with their God – THEN we will have the capacity shift the world around us, to enhance the very flavor of goodness. Like my college Derrick Weston says, “We're the seasoning that brings out God-flavors.”
But then Jesus shifts into talking about salt that looses its saltiness…He offers us a challenge. This is a challenge to Israel to be Israel (his original audience), and it is a challenge for us as Christians to be Christ-like. He is both affirming the individual person and challenging the person to become more. Jesus accepted the rich young man, but challenged him to give away his possessions. He accepted the woman caught in adultery, and then instructed her to go and sin no more. He both manages to uphold the person’s dignity, regardless of circumstance, while inviting behavioral change towards a better way of life. Not an easier way of life, but a better way. His first metaphor here is no different.
His second metaphor is, “You are the light of the world,” where he invites us to consider the role of the disciples as a gathered community. Light enables us to see things, it is color, it helps vegetation grow, it provides solar power for electricity, and can even be focused into a laser. We are being called to be the light that brings out the God-colors, to enable diversity (giving things color), to nurture a healthy eco-friendly world (helping vegetation grow), and to even restore or repair that which needs mending (by use of a laser perhaps). This is what will make us the light of the world.
Regardless of the size of the light, even a dim one can bring light to darkness, to offer wholeness in a fractured world. The light is the light of the gospel, and it draws people to its warmth and radiance. This mission has been primary, from the very beginning of scripture, throughout every age. William Temple said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, trusting that the light will overcome it.
But we know that darkness, and brokenness does not exist only outside these walls, but within ourselves. We must be willing to seek what Parker Palmer calls “the dark night of the soul.” We must be prepared to see and read our inner landscape. While this is never easy, it is essential. We cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own hearts. We do not need to banish all darkness inside us, that is too difficult a task for any, but we must understand our darkness, and even because of it, reach out beyond ourselves.
These two metaphors, of salt and light, make me think of Psalm 34 "Taste and see that the Lord is good." As verses 17-20 remind us, it is because of who Jesus is and how he understands his mission that his disciples individually and collectively are enabled to be salt and light.
Jesus goes on to declare to his newly commissioned disciples and followers that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets. But he claims his place in God’s history of the liberation of and covenant with God’s chosen people. He aligns himself with the ever-expanding trajectory of God. By so doing, he does not dismiss the Judean tradition but rather speaks of it being fulfilled. Here we can begin to see Jesus aligning himself with the essence of a covenantal God who continually pursues his creation; from the first moment of creation itself, through the Abrahamic covenant, leading his people out of exiles (on multiple occasions), to the prophets social criticisms, to Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God is at hand, to the early church meeting the needs in their midst, to our day in those seeking equality for all people. To Matthew, “to fulfill” was an eschatological category to see that God was already at work in the world. Jesus was telling Israel and his disciples to read Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of the kingdom. Now that the reign of God was being inaugurated, the measure was no longer human pettiness or brokenness, but the abundance of God’s righteousness.
The very righteousness of God that flows into Jesus and, in turn, is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, with us. Jesus’ followers are both commanded and enabled to surpass conventional and institutional practices, exceeding even what we perceive as being the most gracious, most loving gestures we can imagine! Jesus is proclaiming that as his followers, as Salt and Light in the world, we can and should become participants in transforming the world into God’s vision. The community of Christ is formed while engaging in this mission together.
Let me put it another way: this is your mission, if you choose to accept it; to venture forth, to risk it all, to push passionately beyond our own comprehension of the righteousness, of the commandments, of the prophets, of even the gospels to extend love beyond ourselves. For God is always bigger than we can fathom.
But to be honest this makes me worry. It makes me worry because first of all it’s hard, these things Jesus preaches about on the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most challenging things to actually do, anywhere.
But these days it makes me even worried for another reason. As some of you already know, Julia and I are expecting a baby. And honestly being on the verge of becoming a father (while something I have looked forward too) calls to radical discipleship scare me even more. It scares me because my son or daughter may feel called because of their faith in Christ to leave the comforts of our home and venture out into the danger, crazy upside down world and do something pretty much insane. Like the Coptic Christians in Egypt that I’ve been reading about who are literally putting their lives in harms way to protect Muslim protesters. As a future parent that scares the ---- out of me, both with joy that my child might so concretely live their faith, but also with fear that my child might get hurt doing something so brave and bold as that.
The thing is this hard part is what Jesus seems to be asking of us. Jesus seems to be proclaiming in this text that if we don’t live into these characteristics of the Beatitudes and lack the passion for justice and living into God’s reordering of human life, then we, in effect, break the covenantal relationship. That if we do not embrace our enemies, if we do not bless the poor, then Jesus says here that we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In a very important sense we are being commanded and enabled to live into the reordering of humanity, society, family structures, into the full embrace of a self-giving all loving God. To fulfill the law and the prophets is to bring their purpose to complete expression in everyday community. And that will mean risk, and making ourselves vulnerable, and letting go of some of the control over the way we think something should turn out (despite my new found fears).
I think this tension (of safety and risk) is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he offered these two metaphors. Salt and light both transform their worlds. I want to close with this story that Tim posted on his blog from our very own, Lynelle Phillips who is on faculty at the University of Missouri in Public Health. It’s an excerpt from her journal about taking a recent trip with a group of nursing students to Cape Coast, Ghana.
The goal of the trip was to expose nursing students to urgent dimensions of public health in a 3rd world context, to participate in an international immersion experience and to offer some help in public health education and HIV screenings in particular villages. They were also able to enjoy places of local history and cultural richness.
On one day the students visited the historical locations of the transatlantic slave trade. This included a slave camp and the path the captured slaves took down to a stream for their last bath and last drink of stream water before they were confined in the dungeons of Cape Coast, where they languished for weeks before being shipped long distances to be sold.
There were four African American young women among the students and for them this visit had special poignancy. This was the departure point of the ancestors and the remains of many were buried directly beneath their feet. As the group stood on the banks of the last-drink-stream contemplating all this Lynelle writes in her journal:
Local African women appeared out of the woods as if by magic. They took our African American women by the hand and led them one-by-one into the creek to let the cool water soothe their feet and souls. The good Lord sent them angels this morning.
Somehow these wise mentor women, whoever they were, took these women by the hand and led them to the stream of their ancestors. They were baptized in the meaning of it all. And after they came out of the waters, without so much as a word, the strange visitors disappeared into the forest from whence they had come.
Lynelle ends her journal with a reflection on mission trips, what really happens, and prayer. I share it with you now:
“It is the secret riddle of all mission trips – this paradox of giving morphing into receiving. Perhaps it’s God’s little practical joke on modern humanity. On the one hand we privileged Americans are driven to sign on, undergo injections and forfeit our vacation. We are compelled to help. We want to make that difference, even if it is only one random dribble off the hillside…yet in a gradual, puzzling twist of fortune, we become the recipient. What sets off to be a practical journey of service mysteriously winds up as our own spiritual enlightenment. We dine on the love and warmth and character of those we hope to serve. We magically transform from master to servant, from giver to receiver.
I sit and ponder winter/spring, servant/master, giver/receiver … in my place of confused wonderment. Oh my dear Lord, what is your calling for me? Wild geese honk their friendly greeting overhead. Looking down, I notice my hands are more beautiful when intertwined together, their left-right/giver-receiver distinctions fade as they unify in prayer. Oh…maybe that’s it…”
Let us pray.