Sermon preached February 6, 2011
Texts: Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt – generally a good thing. This is one of the biggest weekends for snacking in our country – Super Bowl weekend, and my taste in snacks runs more toward the salty than the sweet – chips and guacamole, wings, and such things. A little salt adds flavor to food. A little salt helps us stay standing in our winter weather. We don’t mind if some of our salt gets trampled under foot. We also know that salt has some problems. Too much salt in the diet leads to high blood pressure and heart problems. Too much salt left for too long on your car can lead to corrosion. The first car I ever owned was not a car you wanted to drive on dirt roads with the windows down. The trunk had Minnesota air-conditioning from road salt and if you were on a dirt road with the windows down, the dust was just pulled right in like a vacuum.
“You are the light of the world.” Light – generally a good thing. Light helps us find our way. We need light to read. I love the Groucho Marx line: “Outside of a dog, a book is a person’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read.” We need a little light. Too much light can be a problem, though. Drive on a dark road at night and you don’t want an oncoming car to have its bright beams on. It blinds you momentarily. In those old black and white movies, light was often used to interrogate prisoners – that light shining right in their eye. Too much light can be uncomfortable.
And salt and light don’t often mix well. In the winter, when I get too much salt on my car, I begin to notice that the headlights don’t shine as brightly. They are not as helpful as they should be.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Good news. Good images, though they may have their limits. But Jesus is not done offering images that are intended to remind us of who we are in God and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…. Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” We who are salt, we who are light, are also to be disciplined practitioners of the ways of God. But it is no rote series of tasks Jesus invites us too. In the stories of Jesus, his own following of the law was creative and thoughtful. He understood what was most important, and he invites us to be just as creative and thoughtful in our discipleship, even as we are disciplined practitioners.
O.K. So salt and light are catchier images for the life of a follower of Jesus. What’s a creative, disciplined practitioner? Here is Anne Lamott on writing. You sit down…. You try and sit down at approximately the same time everyday. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down… you put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so…. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind… and you try and quite your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above all the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys…. But you… make yourself stay at your desk…. You clear a space for the writing voice. (Bird By Bird, 6-7).
Being a disciple of Jesus is shining and being flavorful, and also being disciplined and determined in engaging in practices, like writers working on their craft.
We just recently completed a Bible study on The Book of Acts, that part of the New Testament which tells stories of the earliest followers of Jesus after his death. You may remember that Jesus first followers were Jewish, like Jesus himself. Over time, non-Jews began to become part of the Jesus movement, the movement of the Way. A controversy arose – imagine that, controversy in the church! – a controversy arose over how much of the Jewish law and practice was required for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Some wanted all followers of Jesus to practice the fully Jewish way of life, following all the commandments. The main body of the church did not go that direction, yet some continued to insist on this, and they were a problem. These “Judaizers” were among those Paul wrote against in some of his New Testament letters. But the opposite position could be a problem, too – that is, asking virtually nothing of followers of Jesus. The authors of the study book we used in our Bible study called this “gentilizing.” “Gentilizing represents the erosion of the church’s identity and public practice when nothing, or too little, is expected of those who have known and experienced God’s radical grace” (Robinson and Wall, Called To Be Church, 276). The authors go on to argue that to be Christian involves one in “resurrection practices.”
I am arguing that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers not two but three images which help us understand who we are and how we are to live as God’s people – salt, light and the creative, disciplined practitioner. But I need to say that this third image does not function in quite the same way. It is not as important as the other two images, even if it remains essential. You see, we are salt. We are light. Practices don’t make us salt and light, that is the work of God’s radical grace in our lives. Yet practices keep our salt salty and our light bright and protected. Practices help us keep salt and light in the right proportion. Practices are part of what it means to be God’s lightly salted people.
So what are some of these practices? The authors of our Acts study book talk about resurrection practices and include: hospitality, sharing, doing justice, worship, prayer, learning. We did not need to wait for their book, however. Jesus words about salt and light and disciplined practice follow the Beatitudes, which is also a list of practices: mercy, justice, peacemaking, generosity, courage, tending the heart. Practicing such things takes discipline and creativity.
Last Sunday night some of us gathered for our Faith and Film night and we watched the movie “Invictus.” Invictus is the story of the South African rugby team and their quest for the world cup in 1995, just a short time into the presidency of Nelson Mandela (1994-1999). The story is a powerful one. Mandela was imprisoned by the white South African apartheid government for 27 years (1964-1990). Can you imagine the potential for anger, resentment and hatred is such a situation? Mandela became the first democratically elected president of the county and it first African president in 1994. Instead of enacting revenge, Mandela actively pursued reconciliation, even embracing the rugby team, the Springboks, which had been a hated symbol of white South African rule. Mandela is a creative, disciplined practitioner of peacemaking and reconciliation. It let his light shine and his salt be truly salty.
A pastor friend recently shared with me a story about a member of her congregation named Earl. Earl’s wife died a few years ago, but while she was in the hospital, Earl was by her side. One night going home from the hospital, Earl’s car broke down. Three college students helped Earl that night, helped him get home and make arrangements for his car to be repaired. One of the young men, hearing Earl’s story about his dying wife, even came and picked Earl up the next day and took him to the hospital. The practice of generosity and hospitality.
You are the salt of the earth. In another translation: “You’re here to be salt seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”
You are the light of the world. In another translation: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
You are to be creative, disciplined practitioners of the Way. It’s how we keep our salt salty and our light bright and protected. It’s how we express our identity as God’s lightly salted people. Amen.