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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sermon from February 6, 2011 + The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (A)

“Low Sodium and Energy Saving Bulbs No More”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Text: Matthew 5:13-20)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Did you hear Jesus? He was talking about you.

He wasn’t asking you anything. He was calling you something.

Jesus turned to his disciples, he turned to us, he turned to you, and he said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Not a command, but a statement of fact. You are.

Jesus was saying that with you – with you – he is bringing light to the world. With you – with you – he is salting the earth. He did not say “try really hard to do this.” Our Lord, your Lord, says this is what you are. What I am. What we are.

You are salt. You are light. Did you hear him?

You are salt.

Salt is such a simple compound – two elements toxic to human consumption when separate, but absolutely essential when combined in one compound. Little grains of nothing – but so powerful. Salt is such a small thing, but it changes everything around it in profound ways. In Jesus’ day, its chief role was to keep the rest of the food from going bad – to keep things wholesome and healthy. And you can’t eat salt straight. But just a little salt in the recipe, and all the flavors are brought out. Even sweet dishes benefit from a little salt.

It’s a good thing, I would argue, that we Christians are learning that we’re not the only game in town; living in a pluralistic society is far better for our witness. I doubt if any of us got stuck this morning in the Sunday morning rush hour. And we clearly live as one group among many who differ from us. This is a good realization for us.

In fact, it may be exactly what Jesus expects of his disciples. Not that we dominate and overpower, that we are in control But that we act, to borrow another one of Jesus’ images, as leaven in the loaf, we live as the influence of Christ in the world. Theologian Krister Stendahl once said, “Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ But who wants the world to become a salt mine?”[i]

Because a little salt goes a long way. There are close to three hundred of us here this morning, and more at congregations all over the city. And spread out over where we all live our lives, we can do powerful things in Christ. In a world where the values of the society seem more and more to be self-centered and short-sighted, you and I are the small grain of salt that says other things are more important. We are called by Christ to be ones who keep things from going bad, who bring the flavor of God’s love and grace into a world which desperately needs that flavor.

And a little goes a long way. You are salt.

You are light.

And light finds its importance not in itself, but in what it reveals. You don’t stare at a lightbulb. Light is valuable in that it enables us to see something else. Like salt, a little light goes a long way. Think about lighting candles in the darkness of an Easter Vigil – it’s amazing how such tiny flames can light up even the largest of dark spaces, and we can see each other’s faces.

And light lets us see things for what they really are. You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Without your light, the world will not be able to see. So until it meets someone who returns love for hatred, the world will have no way of knowing it’s hateful. Until it meets someone who returns nonviolence for violence, the world will have no way of knowing it is mired in violence.

When we are light – when we live the grace and hope and love we have received here out in our lives – we show a different way, a new way to live. And we expose things that were hidden in darkness so they can be changed.

You are the light of the world. Your life is light.

Now, did you hear what else Jesus said to you? To me? Be who you are. Don’t hide it, or diminish it.

Jesus says you and I are the light he is sending into the world. We are necessary. If you hide it, keep the light of the Good News you have received here inside – the world will stumble. There is this mystery of our call, that you may be the only light that will work in a certain place. Your place. Or the only salt that will preserve life and give flavor which changes everything where you live or work. The world needs you and me to be redeemed, to be a disciple of Jesus, so it can find its way back to God, too. And so it can be filled with the flavor of God’s love and grace.

And we will witness – for good or for ill – by our lives. That’s inevitable. The world will and does judge the truth of Jesus by the kind of people that faith in Jesus makes. If we aren’t casting light, and providing life, people will notice. Methodist bishop and preacher William Willimon once said, “Disciples who don’t look like disciples, churches who have chameleon-like blended into the wallpaper of secular culture are not much help in showing any one the way out of the dark.”[ii]

You are light, says Jesus. But under a bushel, it helps no one see. You are salt, says Jesus. But flavorless particles make no difference in the food of life.

In many ways, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount flows from this, as we’ll hear in the next few weeks, as Jesus tries to describe what it means to be light and salt. It’s how he helps us understand his call to us to live a life in God’s covenant far beyond what the Pharisees or scribes ever imagined. They followed God’s laws in a way that suggested a checklist – tick off the things that you have done so you know you are right with God.

Jesus isn’t interested in any lists – he wants our all. To be light, to be salt, is to be a disciple, to be filled with God’s Spirit and change the world. It’s intimidating, even frightening to consider the completeness of this call, its extent to the uttermost edges of our lives. Everything we do or say, the way you make decisions, the way I live my life, the words we use, the jokes you tell – all these things are no longer simply personal matters. They are part of your witness, my witness. That’s a little scary. As we learn discipline, as we are discipled by Jesus, there is no stopping halfway.

But notice: Jesus doesn’t say we are come to fulfill all God’s law. He said he has come to do it. Theologian N. T. Wright puts it this way: “Jesus brought [this] all into reality in his own person. He was the salt of the earth. He was the light of the world: set up on a hill-top, crucified for all the world to see, becoming a beacon of hope and new life for everybody, drawing people to worship his father, embodying the way of self-giving love which is the deepest fulfillment of the law and the prophets.”[iii]

You see? Jesus is all these things, and has fulfilled all things. And risen from the dead, he declares that you are now the same, baptized into his life and death and resurrection: you are now light. You are now salt.

And yes, this new calling far exceeds what the scribes and Pharisees taught. The forgiveness to which we so dearly cling, which we so desperately need, restores us to this light and salt. And the Spirit of God shapes us into what Jesus has already declared us to be.

So that makes Jesus’ call even simpler to hear, doesn’t it?

Did you hear him? Because he was talking about you.

The Light of the world has made you his blessing to the world, his light. The Salt of the earth has put you as a transforming agent in the world, his salt. He says that is what you are.

So be what you are. That’s all we’re asked here today – that we be who we are already declared to be by our Lord. That we boldly live our lives as disciples, knowing we are a witness by those lives, knowing we are forgiven and blessed and given grace and are a sign of that forgiveness and blessing and grace to all.

There aren’t many of us. But a little light and a little salt go a long way.

Did you hear Jesus? He was talking about you. So be who you are.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

[i] Essay adapted from an address delivered in 2001 as the Edward L. Mark Lecture at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, printed in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter 2007.

[ii] Pulpit Resource, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan-Mar 1996, pp. 20-21.

[iii] Matthew for Everyone, Part One, © 2002, 2004 Nicholas Thomas Wright, Westminster John Knox Press, Lexington, KY, p. 41

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