Rev. Stacy Swain
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matt 5:13-16
I have never been much for receiving a compliment. Perhaps it is due to my stoic Scandinavian heritage that tends to look at compliments with a degree of suspicion. Or maybe it is because of a particularly disappointing compliment I was once paid. It was confirmation Sunday at Pilgrim Congregational Church, the church I grew up in in Duluth MN. I was being confirmed and was up front of the congregation. Our Pastor was going down the row of all of confirmands saying something complimentary about each one of us. About how hard we had worked or how he had been impressed by this or that about us. When it was my turn to be paid a compliment, he said “Stacy, you are a rock.” A rock! “Really!” You can imagine how that landed on my adolescent sensibilities. I think that after that I stopped listening.
So when I hear Jesus tell us this morning that we are the salt of the earth, well I am tempted to stop listening as well. Salt of the earth. Really? Who wants to be salt of the earth? People who are salt of the earth types, are not the ones invited to birthday parties or picked first on kick ball teams. Salt of the earth types are quiet, dependable, common place easily overlooked – in other words — Boring.
But after having done some reading this week, I realize that boring is not at all what Jesus was driving at. Salt may be so common to us now, on everyone’s dinner table and sprinkled on just about everything without giving much thought to it, but in Jesus time, salt was literally a hot commodity. In fact, if Jesus were to go up on the mount today, and if the disciples were to gather around him ready to hear his teaching today, we may very well hear him say “You are a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot tobacco sauce!” Or you are “truffle oil!”
But before we go any further, let us pray: Holy one. May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be guided by you so that our living may be enhanced by your Spirit. Amen.
These words of salt and light that Jesus speaks are part of a larger discourse that he gave that day. They are part of a longer passage that began with the words Robert read for us last week, words we know as the Beatitudes.
Do you remember those words?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
And so it continues.
And as he spoke, I imagine an incredulous look crept onto the faces of those gathered round him. For it was of them that he was speaking. For they were poor. They mourned. They were meek and were being persecuted. His words of blessing were not for another people, or another time. His words were for them then. (For us now.) “Blessed are you!” he said.
But how could that possibly be? What in the world was he talking about? They were not a blessed people. They were a people under siege! They lived under ruthless Roman rule. They were a people who hoped no more than just to keep their heads down, take care of their own and stay out of harm’s way.
Such too was the reality for the people in the passage from Isaiah. They were trying their best to survive in exile in Babylon after their home, Jerusalem was destroyed. And they were feeling abandoned by God, so they hunkered down and started fasting thinking that fasting was a good way to keep their heads down and to stay out of harm’s way.
We too may feel like a people under siege. Particularly so this week with the tragic deaths of the young boy in Mattapan and the young man here in Newton. We may not have the heavy hand of Rome upon us and we may not be living in the foreign land of Babylonia, but we too may feel like an occupied people. We very much may feel like a people in exile.
For the cultural consciousness of our time, I believe, is one of fear and scarcity. We are working as hard as we can, juggling so many demands to try to simply take care of our own and stay out of harm’s way. We are occupied by worry and fear about our future and we live a long way off from that sense of security, peace and place that perhaps our parents, or our parent’s parents once knew.
So maybe when we heard those words of blessing that Robert read for us last week, that Jesus spoke to those gathered round him, we too may feel a bit incredulous. “What is he talking about?” “How can we possibly be blessed?’
But as Jesus spoke to them that day, as he smiled upon them and as the sun warmed their faces, even in the midst of their doubt, I think they began to feel a bit of it. They began to feel the blessing of which he spoke. Right where they were, right in the midst of their troubles they began to feel grace. It was a blessing that came not from the circumstances of their lives but out of the very depth of what it was to simply be alive that day, together with each other and with Jesus. A wellspring of blessing, as if Jesus’ words had uncovered and released a spring of hope and love deep in their souls that was waiting to bubble up within them. And when it did, a couple of them began to sit up just a bit taller. Another let her shoulders relaxed just a bit as hope watered worry from her heart. Another caught his breath as he glimpsed from that hilltop a future he had once thought impossible.
Have you felt it too? In this place, have you felt a wellspring of blessing begin to bubble up in you, if even just for a moment? When we hear Jesus words of blessing, when we share in the warmth of being together in this place, when music transports us and our hearts are opened in prayer, have you –even for a moment – felt loved and held and safe and free? Have you ever found yourself sitting up a bit taller? Relaxing your shoulders as hope waters worry from your heart? Have you ever caught a glimpse of a future that you had thought impossible?
Seeing the life rise in their eyes again, and a flush come to our checks again, Jesus continues. He continues with these two metaphors from the reading today.
“You are the salt of the earth” he says. Salt — not only was it precious in Biblical times but it also had many important uses. Primary among them, then as well as now was, to enhance flavor. Flavors become more pronounced, crisper, more lively with a pinch of salt thrown in. But not only that, salt was used as a disinfectant, a preserver and salt was even rubbed on new born babies as a kind of blessing (Ezekiel 16:4). And salt blended with incense was to be put before the covenant in the tent of meeting, to prepare a place for the glory of God, we are told, in the Book of Exodus. (Exodus 30:35)
So when Jesus says to those gathered there that day “you are the salt of the earth.” It must have been a pretty staggering compliment. They were to be enhancers? They were to bring out the flavor, make more crisp and lively the living of others? They were instrumental in preserving, blessing, making things ready and holy for others to meet the glory of God?
But Jesus does not stop there. As if salt were not enough, he goes on and says that they are the light of the world! OK, that is really over the top even for our ears today. Not only are they blessed which is stunning enough, but they are something so precious and valuable that they absolutely must share themselves with the entire world.
We see ourselves as a people occupied by worry and fear and living a long way from the peace we crave, but that is not how God sees us. God sees us as salt – as ones who through our living can enhance, draw out the flavor of living for others. God see us as light – able to turn gloom into the noonday sun.
Wow! That is pretty extraordinary! But also rather terrifying because who in the world feels up to the task of being salt or up to the task of being light?
But as if reading our mind, Jesus warns us not to put the light that we are under a bushel basket. He knows us well, doesn’t he, for isn’t hiding our light under a bushel basket what we tend to do? We may feel a bit of the light of God’s love lighting us up when we are here together in this place, with each other in this sanctuary set apart. We may even shine I bit and I dare say from where I am standing right now you shining. But what about when we leave here? I fear that we have a tendency to drop off our name tags and then pick up a bushel basket as we head out those doors. We tend to go out into the world hiding our light rather than sharing it. May we fear it will be blown out by all we will face during the days. Maybe we fear it is not bright enough to push back any darkness. Maybe we fear others will mock us for it. So we go out with our lights hidden under bushel baskets until we come back into this place again and feel safe enough to take them off.
But the good news in the scripture for today is that when we let our line shine, healing comes for us and for the world. For the light that shines through us is not our light but the light of God lit in our living. The salt of the earth that we are is not our salt but the power of the one who gives and preserves life that is made present in our living. The good news in the scripture is that our lives are the vessels through with the light and salt of God is brought into the world, in doing so, not only do we discover and really live into our blessedness, but we become a blessing to the world.
For the Gospel truth is that we are not a people under seige. We are not a people in exile. We are a people who are loved and held and safe and free. We are a people who really can help heal the world. We can loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. We can share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into our house, and cover the naked. And we can put down those bushel baskets once and for all.
So what I hear Scripture asking of us is “What will we do this week to sprinkle a little salt into the world? Into what dark place will we let our light shine?” Our NICA travelers have committed to letting the light of God’s love shine through them in all they do and say and are. My clergy colleagues and I are meeting with the Superintendent of the Newton public schools this Wednesday and we are committed to exploring how together we can sprinkle some salt and shed some light so that all the young people of this city may feel loved and held and safe and free — that they may know that they are salt. That they are light! That the world very much needs what they have to give.
Whose life do you know that could use a bit of salt this week? What place of darkness will you encounter that is just waiting to be transformed from gloom to the noonday sun?
As I have gotten older, I have realized that there is some truth in what my Pastor said of me that day. There is much about me that is rather rock like and I have even realized that that may not even be such a bad thing!
So let us listen hard to what Jesus is telling us. Let us take it in that we are blessed – that we are salt; that we are light; that ready to bubble us in us the power of the love of God that is the live giving, generative force of all creation, of which we are a part. We are not a people under siege. We are a people set free to live the love that can transform the gloom into noonday sun.
So let us leave those bushel baskets where they are. Let us go out from this sanctuary being the people God created us to be, salt of the earth, light for the world, bringers of mercy and justice. Repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in. For that is who we are, who God knows us to be. AMEN.