Last Sunday we began a journey through the Sermon on the Mount by looking at Jesus’ words of blessing on the kinds of people whose lives define God’s realm. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who experience persecution. To them belongs God’s realm both in heaven and on earth. Now, as we continue this journey, we hear Jesus say to us: “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” That is, you are signs of God’s reign in this world, which God loves deeply.
In these two phrases, Jesus answers two of the most important questions that we can ask of ourselves: Who am I? And what am I to do? Because Jesus addresses these words to the community and not just to individuals, the questions become – Who are we? And What are we to do?
These questions have emerged with even more urgency since this congregation made the commitment to become a missional church. And I need to add that you made this commitment even before I was interviewed for this position three years ago this month. In making this commitment the congregation decided to uncover the light of God’s Spirit that is present in this congregation so that it might shine forth into the world. This is what it means to be salt and light, and to experience the unconventional righteousness of God’s realm.
1. Our Reality
Jesus calls us to be salt and light, but this calling doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As I thought about what it means to be salt and light my thoughts went to a conversation that recently took place in our library. A young community organizer with whom I’ve been having conversations gathered together a group of mostly suburban pastors to discuss the needs and the difficulties that are facing the suburbs, and to see if we can work together to address some of these needs, even as we seek to partner with urban churches to resolve issues that affect the entire region. In other words, even though our organizer didn’t use Jesus’ words, he was asking us to consider how our faith communities could become salt and light in communities that are struggling with unemployment, foreclosures, declining population, and diminished hopes and dreams.
These issues hit home even here in Troy, which as I was told three years ago, is an affluent, diverse, and forward-looking community. The information that was shared with me noted that Troy has been ranked among the nation’s safest and most livable cities, but since our arrival here, I’ve discovered that things have changed considerably in a rather short period of time. Home values have gone down, office space lies vacant, and the city is planning to close the library and it may even sell the city hall. Now, some of these problems are self-inflicted by voter decisions, but I sense that what is true of Troy is probably also true elsewhere in Metro-Detroit. So, how can we be salt and light to communities that are struggling to sustain themselves for the future? In trying to answer this question, we need to understand something about salt and about light, and then we can start thinking about Jesus’ call to experience an unconventional righteousness.
2. The Salt
Salt has many uses. Not only does it enhance the flavor of my food, but it’s also useful for melting ice and snow! When Jesus calls us to be the “salt of the earth,” I think he had the former in mind, not the latter. When Jesus calls on us to be salt, what he means is that just as salt enhances the flavor of our food, we are called by God to enhance or add value to God’s creation. But, remember, if salt loses its flavor it’s rather useless, and so you might as well throw it on the ground and trample under your feet. (Of course if there’s ice on the ground you might find a secondary use for the flavorless salt, but again, I don’t think Jesus had this use in mind!)
When Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, he was probably thinking in terms of the way salt acts as a conserving agent. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write that this means that we’re to “act in the world in ways that will keep it wholesome, that will prevent it from going to rack and ruin.” Therefore, we are being called by God to help preserve the well-being or common good of our communities (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, WJK, 2004, p. 18). This is a task that fits quite well with our Disciple mission statement, which calls on us to be a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” To say that we’re a movement of wholeness doesn’t mean that we should expect everyone to experience complete wholeness in body and spirit, but it does mean that we can participate with God in creating an environment where our neighbors can experience compassion, healing, peace, mercy, and hope. Therefore, how we live together as God’s people is a sign of our saltiness.
3. The Light
Not only are you “salt of the earth,” you are “the light of the world.” You are, Jesus says, like a city that is set on a hill and can’t be hidden. To get a sense of what it means to be such a city of light that can’t be hidden, think about Las Vegas. If you’ve ever been to Vegas you know that unless the electricity goes out you simply can’t hide the city. Vegas shines forth with such intensity that you can even see it clearly from space. So, if you’re the light of the world don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, but instead, let it be seen so that the world can give glory to God.
Now, it’s important that we understand that the light that shines into the world doesn’t come directly from us. Instead, like a mirror, we reflect God’s light out into the world. Or, like the moon reflects the light of the sun back into the darkness of night, our lives, what we do and how we act, shows forth God’s presence in the world, bringing glory and honor to God.
And we do this in so many different ways. For instance, we’re light in the world when we advocate for the rights of others and stand up with those who are voiceless. To give you an example, let me point to an Iraqi Christian named Moses. You may have seen him, because he comes by quite regularly to speak to me about the needs of the Iraqi Christians who are suffering tremendous persecution. He is being light by letting us know that his people are hurting and that they need our help.
We are called to be lights, but this light is most effective when it is joined together. If Jesus were speaking to us today, in our context, he might use an LED flashlight as an example. Now a flashlight with one LED bulb doesn’t do a lot of good, but if you put a bunch of LED bulb’s together the aggregate creates a lot of light. The church is like a LED flashlight, and the more bulbs you have, the better the light! So, let us pull the cover off our lamps and place them on their proper stand so that the world might see this light through the good works of the community, so that God might receive glory.
4. Experiencing Unconventional Righteousness
We are salt and light, and we have been called to experience an “unconventional righteousness.” In the closing verses of this morning’s text Jesus builds a bridge between this call to be salt and light and the call to live out the Law of God, with a focus on murder, adultery, divorce, and the taking oaths. I bet you can’t wait for that discussion!
Jesus says to us – I’ve not come to do away with the Law. Instead, I’ve come to fulfill it and not one jot or tittle will pass away from God’s law. Now, you may have heard that Paul said that we are free from the Law. So, how do we build a bridge between Jesus and Paul? Although theologians have often tried to reconcile Jesus and Paul by distinguishing between moral and ceremonial Law, Jesus doesn’t make the distinction. In fact, as we move forward through Jesus’ sermon, we discover that he expands its meaning.
And if you think that Jesus gives us a get out of jail free card because he died on a cross, according to Matthew, Jesus says that our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. As we hear this word, we should probably remember, as Ron Allen reminds us, Matthew offers us a caricature of the Pharisees. The real Pharisees, like the real Puritans, were a lot more complex than the stereotypes would suggest, but, if we can leave aside our stereotypes for a moment, perhaps we can hear in this word a call to move beyond traditionalism so we can understand what it means to be a child of God. As Walter Brueggemann points out in a reflection on Isaiah 58, too often worship becomes self-indulgent, which he says “is a violation of neighborliness.” The worship, which God desires from us, lifts up and constructs the common good. It looks “advantage and disadvantage square in the face, and urges gestures that bind haves and have-nots together.” He goes on to say that “knowledge of God is acknowledgment of neighbor.” (Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, pp. 110-111).
Jesus, like the prophets before him, reminds us that we can’t separate out love of God from love of neighbor. As the prophet points out, our fasting does us no good, if we oppress our workers or quarrel with each other. I realize that this is a difficult word to live out, but this is the pathway that Jesus has set before us, so that we might be salt and light in the world. Therefore, when we share bread with the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked, the “light shall break forth like the dawn and . . . healing shall spring up quickly”; so that even as our vindicator goes before you the “glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.” Yes, when you cry out to God, God answers “here I am.” (Is. 58:8-9a). In this is the power to be salt and light, so that we might experience an unconventional righteousness.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
5th Sunday after Pentecost
February 6, 2011