“Somewhere in the coming together of these disparate factions, I saw light… the light that values shared humanity above the dictates of rigid doctrine.”
Salt and light.
…Those words take us deeper into the Sermon on the Mount … Jesus’ longest preserved discourse about what it meant to be fully human … fully awake.
In the first part, the Beatitudes, Jesus told us how we are blessed. … Blessed no matter what the surface conditions might indicate. … Blessed when we are down in the mouth … Blessed when we are hungry …. Blessed when we are put down and cursed by the powers that be …
Blessed is HOW we are and WHO we are.
Now he is telling us WHAT we are … the SALT of the earth … the LIGHT of the world.
Now what do you suppose he meant by those words? Lets start with the word “salt” … I’m going to throw a little bit of scholarship in … just for fun … because people have had a couple of thousand years to think about what this means ….
In addition to the obvious uses as seasoning and for preserving and purifying, the Old Testament has salt used to ratify covenants. Exodus, Leviticus, Ezekiel and Ezra use salt for various liturgical functions. Ezra and Acts have eating salt with someone a sign of friendship and loyalty. And in the book of Judges, salt scattered on a conquered field ensured its utter devastation. In the metaphorical language of the old Rabbis, salt was a reference to wisdom.
And here’s a weird one. Apparently salt was added to the cow-paddy briquettes used as fuel in the fires of ancient Palestine. The researcher added: “Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were lit in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the fuel was burnt out, the family would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface.”
The researcher concluded: “Jesus saw his followers as levelling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural ‘dung’. But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics.”
Not a pretty picture, is it? … But the point of today’s message is not to go on and on about what scholars think. It is really about what YOU think. … So, what does it mean to you? What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? What does it mean to lose your flavor?
Thank you. … I mentioned that the point is not about the history of the passage for a reason. The reason is about what comes next. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Nearly 400 years ago, in 1630, while nearing the East Coast of the New World, aboard the Arbella, ….a sailing ship loaded with pilgrims on their way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony,…. Governor John Winthrop wrote this:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it. Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity. “
You are the light of the world, the governor was saying to his people. For him, it was an opportunity to become a beacon to a world shrouded in darkness.
The past two weeks have brought me ample reasons to be distressed about the city on a hill Winthrop imagined. A cadre of plutocrats is rapidly being installed into the halls of power. Daily we seem to be insulting one or another country that has long had friendly relations with us. And much of our most precious elements of self-image – land of the free … think religious freedom for Muslims … refuge of the hated and persecuted … what will tumble next?
A song came to mind … in fact I couldn’t get it out of my head. By a group called Steppenwolf, the song was simply called “Monster”. It begins with a happy enough nod to the Pilgrims:
Once the religious, the hunted and weary
Chasing the promise of freedom and hope
Came to this country to build a new vision
Far from the reaches of kingdom and pope
It is a long song … it encapsulates a lot of hope and disappointment in the progress of our city on a hill. Then it goes on:
And though the past has it’s share of injustice
Kind was the spirit in many a way
But it’s protectors and friends have been sleeping
Now it’s a monster and will not obey
The spirit was freedom and justice
And it’s keepers seem friendly and kind
It’s leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they won’t pay it no mind
‘Cause the people got fat and grew lazy
Now their vote is like a meaningless joke
You know they talk about law, about order
But it’s all just an echo of what they’ve been told
‘Cause there’s a monster on the loose
It’s got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watchin’
The song was released in 1969, about the same time I was drafted into the Army. It was a bitter time of deep division in the country. A few years later, we would abandon the Vietnam war, and a couple of years after that, the President, Richard M. Nixon, would resign in disgrace.
Those were dark dark days. And there were some bright bright lights. Some like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were snuffed out too soon. But others like John Lewis and Gloria Steinem and John McCain and many many more came out of that dark pit to craft a new era in which tremendous strides were made… Civil rights advances…. Some women’s rights improvement … A dispelling of the dark threat of nuclear war that had covered the world for decades…. The Berlin Wall came down.
I attended Texas Muslim Day at the State Capitol last Tuesday. I’m no expert on crowd numbers, but there were at least 5,000 and maybe 10,000 people there. A sea of light. You’d think it would just be a sea of strangers. But no. There was Kyle Walker, pastor of Faith Presbyterian, and Jim Rigby pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian, … Laura Walters of Lake Travis Pres. … Coincidentally, I was standing next to a man who identified himself as the brother of Ruben Armendariz who, until recently was our acting Executive Presbyter…. I even ran into Frances Barton, musician friend who sometimes filled in as accompanist in Bastrop. It was like old home week. Of course, there were thousands of Jews and Methodists and Episcopalians and Atheists. One surprise was when Alia Salem, one of the Muslim organizers, was thanking those who showed up in support of his religious freedom. He thanked the LGBT contingent – a sizable one judging from the response to the recognition – and he thanked the feminists …. along with the Jews and Gentiles and so many others.
And here’s where your prejudices come in … or mine anyway … Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking conservative … Shariah law … homophobia … I really hadn’t been expecting anything in particular, but I admit I was SURPRISED at the enthusiastic welcome of the LGBT folks supporting the Muslim gathering.
Jesus reached across lines … across borders …. Jesus was adamant that the law would be fulfilled …. yet he declared that the Sabbath – a key component of the law – ….. that the Sabbath was made for people … not people for the Sabbath.
Somewhere in the coming together of these disparate factions, I saw light… the light that values shared humanity above the dictates of rigid doctrine.
I see light in here, too. I see it in a gathering of people who come from different places on the political spectrum … from those who are terribly anxious about what the new government means to those who see no cause for alarm and think we need to give it time to settle in… and you are people able to hear each-other’s hopes and fears without rejecting a friend because of a different perspective.
That is light in the darkness.
Friends, you are the light of the world. A light not to be hidden away…. A light that shines brighter the darker it gets ….
Earlier I mentioned that the scholarship behind exactly what a phrase meant when it was written in the Bible is of secondary importance. There’s a reason for that. The Bible isn’t a dead book …. it is a living Word that lives in you …. and what it means to YOU to be the salt of the earth …. what it means to YOU to be the light of the world …. that is the only meaning that matters.
In the days to come … How will YOU be the light of the world?
Let us pray: Lord who is all light, ignite us. Through your Word … through our interactions with our brothers and sisters … through the still small voice we can sometimes make out in the midst of a noisy life … make us beacons of your light in the world. …. Inspire us to live lives worthy of your trust. AMEN.