Sermon for Feb. 9, 2020, Epiphany 5A.
Audio will be available here for several weeks.
[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Sometimes when I’m reflecting on Jesus and what he was all about, I get this overwhelming feeling that this man was amazing, for all kinds of reasons! One reason was what he saw in the people that followed him.
I don’t know what you picture when you think of Jesus, standing, or sitting — which was the pose of teachers back then — outside, surrounded by the curious people who came to hear him. But think of what he saw.
Try to picture looking through his eyes. Most of those people were what some call the “unwashed masses.” Not to fault them; they were peasants. Most were quite poor.
They lived subsistence lives, day to day — which is why they prayed for “daily bread.” They had hard lives; they aged fast. They all probably had a mouth full of bad teeth, or missing teeth. They were uneducated — again, not their fault — literacy was a luxury peasants neither had need of nor could have afforded.
But they were not dumb. They could think. They may not have been able to read, but they heard the scriptures, Torah, read to them by rabbis. They knew well the stories of the Hebrew Bible. I’m sure they had absorbed the hopes and dreams that those stories ignited.
I don’t know how many of them thought things were hopeless, but I imagine most probably did. We know that there were revolutionary movements, but most people were just trying to survive.
So Jesus looks out on these powerless, hurting people and says something that must have sounded completely ridiculous.
“You are the salt of the earth; …You are the light of the world.”
Now, how is that even remotely reasonable? Who among them would have believed it?
And, no matter what I say this morning to you all, I wonder if anyone of us will walk out the door thinking, “I am the salt of the earth; I am the light of the world.” I seems, not just arrogant, but preposterous.
Well, that’s kind of my job, but you are going to have to work with me, okay? Try to keep an open mind and let’s think about this together.
I believe that if Jesus could look at the rag-tag people who came out to listen to him and tell them that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, then he could certainly say the same to us — in fact, that’s the point of Matthew writing it down for us; that we would hear the teaching directed to us too.
But I am guessing that we do not believe it any more than they did. How could it possibly be true?
Let’s start with the basics: why salt? why light? Salt makes things palatable that wouldn’t be otherwise. Light is required for seeing. It’s illuminating. That’s all we need to know.
So, the question then is how in the world was that little bunch of peasants around Jesus, and how are we, in any way in a position to make life palatable for people and to bring illumination to the world?
There are two things I believe we should think about: content and strategy. Both are crucial. First, the content of Jesus’ teaching. If people could get on board with the content of Jesus’ message, it had the power to transform their lives. If they could grasp that they were actually beloved by God — in spite of everything — if they could actually believe that God was for them, and not against them, it could change everything.
If they could believe that they were not being punished by God, that their poverty and their condition of oppression under Rome was not some inescapable curse, but that God cared for them even more than God cares for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, that every hair of their heads was numbered, then they could go through life, facing difficulties, knowing that God was with them.
If they could embrace, at a gut level, their own forgiveness, and become people who paid forgiveness forward, it could transform all of their relationships, from their families to their work associates, to their experience of the Roman soldiers watching them.
If they could do enough work on their egos to actually pray and mean, “may God’s will (i.e. not mine) be done on earth as it is in heaven” they could become spiritually mature people of equanimity and they could bring to an end the games of competing and comparing that make so much of the world toxic.
And if they could internalize Jesus’ message of openness and inclusion, they could be agents of reconciliation and healing to people who had been marginalized, discriminated against and ignored.
I have quoted before the professor who summed it up by saying that the early Christian movement had the capacity to make the people who were treated as non-persons in the Roman Empire into persons: women, slaves, the poor, the sick, children, and every kind of minority. It was amazing.
If they could become awake, as Jesus was awake, to the structures and systems that were perpetuating unjust economic practices, they might just be willing to join movements of resistance, like the one Jesus led to the temple that day, even at great personal risk.
You see where this is going. Even a group of illiterate peasants, if they were to embrace Jesus’ vision, could live the kinds of lives that would, in fact, make life palatable for people and bring illumination to the world. That’s the content.
Now let us look at the strategy, because this is another thing I find amazing about Jesus. Jesus did not set up shop in one location and ask the people to come to him. He went to them. He went to their villages, their homes, and their synagogues. He met their sick people, he ate with their families, he shared their life. It was all about relationships. There were no hierarchies. He treated everyone equally.
Then, as the ministry got going, he sent out 12 to do the same, taking only the barest of necessities, being dependent on, not superior to the people they shared the vision of the kingdom with. Later he sent out 72 to do the same thing.
This was a non-violent, grassroots people-movement, spreading organically from peasant to peasant. It needed no money, no organization, no bylaws, no buildings, had no debts and paid no salaries. Jesus’ strategy was hyper-relational. And anyone could be involved, from carpenters and fishermen to stay-at-home moms.
So, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the fact is that yes, even poor Palestinian peasants could be the kind of people whose lives could make the world palatable, as salt does for crackers, and it could bring illumination of a whole new way of living and looking at life, God, people, power, economics, justice, and everything else.
And if all that can be said for a toothbrush and soap-challenged peasant, how could that not be true for us? Are you the salt of the earth? Are you the light of the world? You could be. You have the capacity to be.
Coaching, not Cajoling
But this is not to lay a burden of expectations on you. Jesus is not commanding people to be salt and light. He is not cajoling them. Rather, he is encouraging them as a coach would. I think there may even have been some winking-humor in his encouragement, when he said,
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Then he sums it all up saying,
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Let your light shine. Shine out compassion, shine out mercy, shine out forgiveness, shine out humility. The world is desperate for people who can shine like that! And all the more so in a deeply divided world, filled with so much bitterness, anger, and arrogance.
Now, there is something going on here that needs to be discussed. The goal of being salt and light for the world are beautiful end states to want to get to. But how? How can you shine, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed by the tasteless darkness of the world?
The fact is that Jesus was great about telling where to end up, but he did not say much about how. It would be great if we could simply decide to be loving, kind, forgiving and compassionate, but it doesn’t work that way. We need practices that help us get there.
Jesus himself had a set of practices that the gospels describe him doing, even though they don’t describe him talking much about them. For example, we know he regularly gathered with his community at the synagogue for worship and instruction. When you gather with a group of likeminded people, just as we are doing right now, and together you orient yourselves toward your goal, it helps you to achieve it.
So that is an important reason we gather together. It is a practice, or some people call it a spiritual technology, for getting to the goal of being the kind of people we want to be: salt and light for the world.
Another important practice for Jesus was wordless prayer, or meditation. Some call it contemplation. He would go out and spend long periods of time alone in prayer, the gospels tell us. There is no other practice that is so effective at helping us get control of our egos than meditation.
People who practice meditation become much less ego-focused. So they’re able to forgive more. They’re able to be fully present more. They’re more likely to laugh at themselves than to get offended. And they are more in touch with the world’s pain, and more likely to try to be involved in practical ministries that address that pain and help alleviate suffering.
So meditation is a crucial practice, a crucial spiritual technology, it helps us get to the end state of being salt and light for the world.
So at this point, I’m wondering what you’re thinking. I’m wondering if you’re thinking that you were capable of being exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’re thinking it seems ridiculous. If you do, then thank God that God believes in you, maybe more than you believe in yourself.
If you have trouble believing it, They let me encourage you to engage some spiritual technologies, some practices that can be transformative. Practiced them consistently for a while and then see what happens. Make a bet, make a wager that there might be something to it after all.
Well, all this sounds theoretical, so I want to leave you with one concrete specific example, of how little people with transformed lives can make a huge impact, can be salt and light. This was recently written about by Richard Rohr, who was reporting on a book by Stephen Schwartz about the enormous social changes the little community of Quakers has made. Rohr says,
“the Quakers. Their actions—grounded in contemplation—(or, meditation) have had a profound impact, helping to abolish slavery, promote gender equity, and reform prisons and other institutions.” Schwartz writes:
“How could this small group of people create movements that ultimately involve millions, tens of millions? This is a tiny group whose being-ness is so powerful that enough people personally change their choices so that the desired change becomes society’s new norm. (The Quakers illustrate) how individual choice linked in consensus becomes the strategy… that creates change.”
That specific concrete example gives me hope. I hope it gives you hope. You are beloved by God and you are here for a purpose. Let us live into that purpose and watch what’s going to happen in our corner of our world!