Of the two the metaphor of light is more familiar. Every child who has been through a year of Sunday School has sung “This little light of mine.” Being light for the world is part of our culture here in Massachusetts. Even in public school we are proudly taught the history of the first European settlers in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them. Their purpose in moving across the ocean to this “new world” was to have the freedom and space to set up a Christian society, a Commonwealth. They would live as a City on a Hill – showing the world what it looked like to live in a Christian society. They built the capitol in Boston on top of Beacon Hill – so they could be an example to the nations. That experiment went astray clearly enough. Scarlet letters and witch trials, shunning people like Roger Williams and the terrible treatment of the Massasoit and participation in the African slave trade all hid the light and love of God and often threatened to blow it out all together. As for the salt metaphor, that’s more confusing for folks. What does Jesus mean?
I offer four observations about these rich images to show what it looks like to be salt and light.
Observation 1) You are salt. You are light. This is the same observation I made about the beatitudes. Jesus isn’t primarily telling us we need to do something. He doesn’t say – go be salt. Take some lessons and practice enough and you will become light. He simply says “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” It’s a state of being. When we become Christians, when we become disciples of Jesus Christ our, nature changes – fundamentally changes. We are united with Christ – we become one with him who is the pure image of God. God always intended human beings to be made in God’s image – as disciples of Jesus we become Christ-ones. Once we have accepted this covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ we are salt and light to our very core.
Observation 2) Jesus is talking to the whole group. The Disciples are salt. The Disciples are light. If he was a southerner he’d say: “Y’all are salt y’all are light” One grain of salt can’t do much to influence a whole pot of stew. One match won’t last long unless the flame touches the kindling, tinder, and fuel or the wick surrounded by wax or oil. Jesus wants our light to shine in the darkness – but we aren’t expected to stand all alone shining our light. With both images, salt and light, there is strength in numbers. We are called to be salt and light together as a community of disciples.
Observation 3) Jesus teachings about salt and light are warnings. The beatitudes each came with a particular and often unexpected blessing (peacemakers will be called children of God, the meek will inherit the earth). But these two metaphors salt and light come with warnings. You are salt - Do not lose your savor – don’t try to stop being salt. You are light - don’t hide the light under a basket. Or as we sang as children "Don't let Satan blow it out!"
Why are we getting warnings? Why might salt want to stop being salty? Why would you want to hide your light from other people? This is a reminder that scripture lessons are not self-contained units. If you are ever reading a passage and it leaves you wondering, it’s always a good idea to read what comes before and after the verses in question. Open your Bibles and take a look – Page 4 in the New Testament section of your pew bible.
Today we started with Chapter 5 verse 13 What comes just before? Beatitudes Look at the last two – starting with verse 10.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute 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."
Persecution comes before Jesus' warnings about our nature as salt and light: There is no denying it. Followers of Christ are likely to be persecuted. We are in the world, but not of the world. The world doesn’t understand the way of Jesus, and often punishes those who live in that way. For example you might lose that promotion because as a follower of Jesus it is no longer in your nature to be cut-throat and deceptive. Or, as a disciple who has gotten into the habit of honoring the Lord’s Day by gathering with Brothers and Sisters in Christ to worship you may miss the practice on Sunday morning. And your coach already said that anyone who misses practice won’t get to play in the game on Tuesday. When I went to college the meal plan only included two meals on Saturdays and Sundays – brunch and supper. The Sunday morning bus schedule and the dining hall schedule meant that going to worship meant missing brunch. I had to take that risk in order to honor the Lord's Day and keep it holy, and join myself with a worshiping congregation. But that congregation was kind and faithful and soon I was getting a ride to and from worship and was able to eat my brunch too.
Martin Niemoller, one of the minority of German pastors who took a stand against the Nazis – they called themselves the Confessing Church. Niemoller is best known for his poem
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Like many other Christians who dared to let their light shine in the darkness of that time and place, Niemoller was sentenced to a concentration camp.
Such consequences might make Christians wish we were less salty, undetectable. It might make some wish we could hide the light of Christ we were given at our baptism – try to blow it out – try to blend into society like everyone else. Jesus tells us we are salt and warns us not to lose our savor. Jesus tells us we are light and warns us not to hide that light. Jesus' teachings about salt and light, like the beatitudes before it, are meant to cheer us on – to keep on keeping on even when it’s tough. We are not to give into fear, even in the face of persecution. And once you’ve had a taste of life in the kingdom of God there is really no going back, anyway. You’ll never be happy living in the old way.
4) My fourth observation for today is that salt and light have a purpose bigger than themselves. Salt and Light are not much use all by themselves. Jesus is clear about this: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
What’s the purpose of salt?
- Salt acts as a preservative – Our ancestors knew that if you pack the pork in salt you’ve got ham that can hang in your attic all winter.
- Salt is used for healing. The root of salvation is salt.
- Salt makes food taste better. Great cooks know how to use just enough salt to bring out the other flavors in the dish. Too much salt obscures this. But in the right amount salt enhances just about every meal.
- Salt was of such great value in the ancient world that it was sometimes used as currency. In fact, the word "salary" comes from the practice of paying a worker with salt.
In my family I heard my mother and grandparents calling people "Salt of the Earth" all the time. It was a compliment. They are “salt of the earth.” The Bowman family were salt of the earth. They weren’t fancy. They weren’t highly educated. Gene was a carpenter. Dora was a wonderful cook and baker. They both sang in the choir; Dora an alto, Gene had a beautiful tenor voice and wasn’t afraid to take a solo. They had six children. When we met them the older ones were grown, Karen was a teenager who helped lead the Jr. choir when I sang in it. She was one of my role models. Her little brother and sister, Michael and Ruthie were my brother’s and my age. The Bowman family were salt of the earth, always part of the church, you could count on them. Dora and Gene had wisdom, they were kind, they knew and loved Jesus and you could see it in their eyes, you could feel it. Life in our church and in the world around them was better when we were in their presence.
What is the nature of light?
The image of light gets at another quality of being a disciple. Light, in and of itself is hard to see. We can see a candle and we can see a light bulb and we can see the sun – but it’s really hard to detect pure light.
C. S. Lewis worked on a piece to illustrate this – it’s in a collection of his unfinished writings I found in the Amherst public library a long time ago. The character was someone blind from birth who was given the opportunity to have surgery that would correct the problem and allow him to see. Though he looked forward to seeing the faces of his loved ones, the colors of the world, the shape of trees, buildings, mountains and the sea, what he most wanted to see was the light. But the day the bandages came off was the beginning of his frustration. He could see lots of things, and he could see light bulbs and flames, but he could not see the light.
The purpose of light is not to be seen in and of itself. The purpose of light is to illuminate a dark world. We are to let our light shine before others so that they might see our good works and give glory – not to us – but to God who is the source of the light. Light helps us to be safe by illuminating the jagged rocks so we can navigate our boats to the safe harbor. Light brightens up the dark corners of our home, helping us find what is lost. Followers of Jesus who are daily steeped in his word, and practice his presence can light up a room. They are the non-anxious presences – encouraging others to just keep on keeping on.
The abolitionists who provided safety on the Underground Railroad were light. Consciously disobeying the laws of the land they used coded quilt patters and other shrewd methods to keep the slave catchers in the dark, while boldly leading and harboring runaway slaves escaping to freedom.
I have been blessed to know congregations who have had a long tradition of shining Christ’s light on a dark world. Wesley UMC in Amherst welcomed and ministered to several Cambodian Refugees in the 80s and 90s. I witnessed Liz, Louise, Jo, Jane, and Ginny spend countless hours helping them find jobs, get situated in school, taking them to Dr. and Dentist appointments, helping them find treatment for alcoholism and PTSD. Wesley Amherst also became a sister church to a Black Methodist church in South Africa before Apartheid had ended. And they sent one of their high school students on a Methodist trip of peace to Estonia while the cold war was still in force. They followed the lead of their youth group in addressing racism within the UMC – making changes to the Discipline to clarify that United Methodist Pastors may not hold membership in hate groups like the KKK and United Methodist property may not welcome the meetings of such groups on their premises.
Cicero UMC where I grew up also joined with other to welcome refugees from Bosnia – my mother spent years tutoring Mrs. Osmonivich in English. Six Methodist congregations in Lynn banded together to run a food pantry serving Hattians, Russians, Latinos and others for the glory of God. There are times and places when our light is in danger of being blown out. This is one of them. Fear and selfishness are rearing up trying to blow out the light of these disciples of Jesus Christ all around the world. It is only right for us to rise up and say – no way! We are the light of the world. We are determined to keep on being what God ordained us to be. No matter what.
Sometimes shining light is fun and rewarding. We were shining the light of Christ last Monday when we put on the meal for Breaking Bread. Cooperation, good humor, elbow grease, service with a smile.
But Christ’s warning not to hide our light reminds us that there are times when living as a Christian is downright dangerous. In the last sermon he preached before his own arrest in 1936 Rev. Niemoller named several church members who were missing or had been arrested. Then he compared the world around him to a wind storm, threatening to blow out the Gospel candle. He urged his congregation not to take the message out of the storm and put it in a safe nook. He said, “In these days I have realized – I have finally understood what the Lord Jesus means when He says: Don’t put your light under a bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! It is not your business to worry about whether the light is extinguished or not by the draft. That is God’s concern. We are only to see that the light is not hidden away – hidden away perhaps with a noble intent, so that we may bring it out again in calmer times – no: “Let your light shine before all!” The Gospel must remain the Gospel. The Church must remain the Church. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world!”
5) My final observation about salt and light is that they make us want God. Salt makes people thirsty. The salty snacks we will eat during the Super Bowl this evening will make us reach for a cool refreshing drink. When Christians are salt and the world gets a taste of us they will yearn for Christ the living water.
In a similar way when we shine the light of Christ in this dark and dangerous world people will see God – they will be drawn to the light. As Isaiah promised when Disciples of Jesus are letting their light shine brightly the people of the world will stream to the light, coming to join in the life of the kingdom of God. A we take communion today we are reminded that through Christ’s life, death and resurrection he has called us to be his church, salt of the earth, light of the world. When we do that faithfully the church will grow in spirit and in truth.
Did you like what you read? Do you have a story to share about being salt and light? Please comment below. Grace and peace to you.