NRSV ISAIAH 58:1-9a
58 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
NRSV MATTHEW 5:13-20
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
She was a kindly soul, one who was always there with a cup of soup or a word of wisdom, no matter who they were and what was plaguing them. People called her, “the salt of the earth.”
He could be a pain in the neck sometimes because of his lack of tact but when there was a need he was always there, with a wheelbarrow, or a chainsaw or a couple of hands willing to move things around. He was called, “the salt of the earth.”
We use that expression a lot, usually about people for whom no other title seems to fit. We could call them nice, or sweet or helpful, but then their personalities change and those titles don’t seem to fit at all. They are folks who are willing to lend a hand, to give comfort, to do the grunt work of living in a community. They can also be tough folks to deal with, people who can rub you the wrong way. They can be like salt in a wound, or salt in your eggs. Either way, they are the salt of the earth.
We don’t say, “they are the light of the world,” in quite the same way. But Jesus did. Salt and light, two basic parts of life, two small elements that we can often take for granted. When we do that, we miss out on how important they are, at how integral they are to every day living. We can also miss out on how these metaphors dynamically begin this teaching of Jesus, these words which are considered to be the heart and soul of Jesus’ life and his call to his disciples.
The ‘light’ part is appropriate for us in this season of Epiphany. I keep coming back to this because I need the reminder, and if I need it I am sure you probably do, too: The reminder that Epiphany is not a waste of time, not just a series of throw away Sundays between Christmas and Lent. It the season (often called to my irritation “Ordinary Time”) of anywhere from three to eight weeks of celebrating the ways God comes into the lives of all people. Those of us who believe, yes; those of us who are saved, of course; those of us who are insiders of the Gospel message, sure. But not just us. Maybe that’s why Epiphany gets blown off by some folks. If the good news of God’s Incarnation – God taking on flesh and living among us – starts off by being illuminated and proclaimed to a bunch of Magi, wise men, people from another culture, another religion, what makes us think this good news is just for us?
They were, as we all know, brought to the Christ child by the light of a star. And so we hear Jesus calling us to be the light of the world. To be a light that guides people to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit. To be people who won’t let our light be obscured, either by the bushel basket we sang of in Sunday School or by the fears that can come to us, especially in politically charged times like these. Our call is to let God’s love shine in our lives, for all, not just for some. To let that love shine for those who agree with us and those who don’t; for those who look like us and for those who don’t; for those who don’t extend handshakes and for those who rip up speeches; for those who don’t trust anyone and those who are clueless about the need to be discerning. God’s light comes to all, and we are the light.
In fact, you can say that for of both of these. Jesus does not give us an option. He does not say, “If you want to be, you can be salt.” He does not say, “If you work hard enough, you can be light.” This is not up to us, it is not up to our efforts or our smarts or our stamina. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” You just are. Pure grace. Given, not earned. But given by no less than the Son of God.
So the question is not are your salt or light; but since you are the salt of the earth, since you are the light of the world, what are you going to do with it? Throw it on the ground, neglect it, ignore it, blow it off; hide it somewhere where you think people can’t see, so they won’t call you names? Or are you willing to risk to be salt and light? Are you willing to be the love of Christ in the world?
Jill Duffield was talking about an author named James K. A. Smith who wrote a book entitled, “You Are What You love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.” She says that Smith tells us that we are what we love, what we desire, and we may not love what we think we love. The way Smith puts it, “Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be intentional about what you love…to be human, we could say, is to desire the kingdom – some kingdom. To call it a ‘kingdom’ is to signal that we’re not talking only about some personal, private Eden – some individual nirvana – but that we all live and long for a social vision of what we think society should look like, too.” Duffield concludes her comments by saying, “Smith believes we seek this kingdom consciously or not, and it would behoove disciples of Jesus Christ to become aware of what social vision we are indeed working toward – to do a liturgical audit of our lives that reveal the things, “you do that do something to you.”
I don’t know if it was the light of an epiphany or the salt of something getting my attention but the line about being aware of the things we do in our lives, “that do something to you,” really struck a chord. Maybe it’s because that’s what light and salt does. They do something to us. Light shows us the way, helps us to see things as they really are, or things we need to avoid. Trying to get around in your room in the dark and stubbing your toe on a stubborn piece of furniture will instruct you in a hurry how important light is. Eating something that is crying out for some salt will do the same. Salt and light do something to us. Likewise, Jesus is calling on us to do something to the world – even if it is the little section of the world where we live – by being a light for others, by being salt in a situation that needs it.
It begs the question: How have I – how have we – been salt or light for someone? For our community? For this church? Have I been someone who was afraid to speak up and out against an injustice, against something that was just not right because I was afraid of what other people would say? Have I hidden my light? Or have I – have we – been willing to be salt, to flavor a person’s life with hope, with meaning, with redirection, with encouragement?
I read somewhere this past week that being the salt of the earth is not only something we are, a title given to us by Jesus. It also says that we are precious. We are important. We have a function. A good friend of mine who pastors a church in Scotland said that he was serving churches in the western islands of Scotland – places where electricity was rare – and he discovered that the people there used salt all the time to preserve their food. They couldn’t throw a piece of fish in the freezer like we can. So they showered it with salt and hung it up and when it was time to eat it, they were all set. Salt preserves things; it keeps them until they are needed. We are precious as salt, and we are called to tell others that they are salt, too; precious instruments for preserving.
Another thing about salt – and light, too – is that salt does its best work when it is poured out. Salt all by itself doesn‘t do any good. But salt poured out, in just the right amounts, gives flavor, preserves, heals. It is meant to give of itself.
The text out of Isaiah says this in bunches. Last week we heard from that time honored text of Micah, that our purpose is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. That‘s the ‘what’; lsaiah gives us the ‘how’. How do we do justice and love kindly and walk humbly? By giving ourselves out. By reaching out beyond ourselves, into engagement with others. In a time when the people were engaged in a big pity party because they thought God wasn’t noticing all the nice things they were doing, the prophet gets in their face and tells them that they are doing all this stuff to be manipulative; they are acting as if God is only there to give them what they wanted. But God is Spirit; God is flowing throughout relationships. And God calls on us to be salt in the earth by undoing the thongs of the yoke – that is, any system that imposes excessive demands and burdens on ourselves or on others. God calls on us to share our salt, and our bread, with those who are hungry, like we did last week with our Souper Bowl. God calls on us to take care of the homeless, such as we will have the opportunity to do this week when our local community action agency, STEPS, has a luncheon to receive donations to help their economically intensive and never ending issue of addressing homelessness in our area. God calls on us to cover the naked – to take care of all those who are open and vulnerable to the viciousness and violence of life and cover them, protect them, speak out for them.
But the next part is just as important. Salt is meant to enhance food; it is not to dominate. Just as when I put too much salt on my beloved scrambled eggs. Yuck. Too much salt can drown out whatever good it is supposed to enhance. So it is with us. We are not called to dominate someone; to beat people over the head with a Bible and demand that they believe like we do. The postmodern call of the church is to listen to each other’s stories, and in that listening to be the love of Jesus Christ for others – to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world, to be the ones who break the yoke of hopelessness and despair that so many people carry.
We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We are precious, we are important. We do our best work when we are poured out. But we do it best when we truly listen to others. Over the next few months this church will be engaged in the work of finding out what God is calling you all to be and do; not what your pastor wants you to do, not what the Presbytery wants you to be. But what are you discerning is the work of God through you in this place and time? How are you to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world?
When you discover those things that do something to you, you will find your answer. Amen.