“Jesus’ Beatitudes 2 of 4: On Being Salt and Light”
Matthew 5: 13-20; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church; February 5, 2017
It was an innocent evening. I was wasting some time surfing the net, checking my Facebook feed and then I ran across this, and I quote…”First they came for the Mexicans - but I did not speak out because I am not Mexican. Then they came for the gays - but I did not speak out because I am not gay. Then they came for the Jews - but I did not speak out because I am not Jewish. Then they came for the Blacks - but I did not speak out because I am not black. Then they came for the Muslims - but I did not speak out because I am not Muslim. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me”. As I was studying this morning’s text earlier this week, this Facebook post came across my screen…and it just kind of sat there…right in my gut…right in my ethical / what does it mean to be a Christian / what does it mean to live out my Christian faith…gut. These words are ones which could just have as easily been said by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. … “And there was no one left to speak for me”…
The image before you on the screen is entitled “the Light of the World”. It is an 1850’s painting by William Holman Hunt and was inspired from the third chapter in the book of Revelation ~ Rev. 3:20. In its day, the church of Laodicea had been rebuked for being neither hot nor cold, but rather had become lukewarm in their way of living out the gospel. The passage that inspired the artist’s creation was Revelations 3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any [one] hears My voice, and opens the door, I will come to [them], and will eat with [them], and [them] with Me". As you can see, it depicts Jesus standing at the door knocking. He is carrying the light; he is the ‘light of the world’. He knocks on a door that is heavily overgrown with vines and branches that it has likely not been opened in ages. The question underlying the painting is: ‘will the person behind the door hear Jesus’ knock and then will they respond and open the door?’ Will the person behind the door be like the ‘lukewarm’ church of Laodicea or will they passionately respond to the knocking of Jesus at their door, and open it? I don’t know about you, but I know the seduction of being lukewarm…a lukewarm bath feels good ~ it feels good (not too hot / not too cold)…and a lukewarm faith… it is comfortable … it very demands little if anything of the person ~ it is the prototypical Pierre Burton’s “Comfortable Pew”. Two millennia into the Christian faith, I wonder…is that what we have become? Are we lukewarm Christians? There are many benefits and seductions…it is easy to be lukewarm; it is safe; it is comfortable. We see someone litter or fail to recycle ~ What do you do? Do you speak with the stranger about this poor choice? Do you pick up the litter? Or do we grumble about ‘those people’ and carry on your way? How many times have you been in a grocery store and witnessed a parent physically or emotionally harming their child? What do you do? What do you say? When you attend a social event and hear someone voicing a viewpoint that is racist or sexist or homophobic. Do we intervene and offer a corrective? Or do we silently stew about this person’s narrow mindedness? I wonder how often our lukewarm – polite Canadian way causes us to hold back our words / causes us to avert our gaze / causes us to ignore the injustice occurring right in front of our eyes? Have we become lukewarm Christians; lukewarm Canadians; lukewarm citizens?
In this morning’s passage, Jesus first describes who his disciples / his followers are. Then having first described who they are, he then prescribes what they are to do and be in the world. The identity portion began in last week’s text as we commenced the Beatitudes. Jesus identifies his listeners, people who are persecuted under Roman Imperial rule, as being people whom God is on the side of. In his pronouncement of the eight blessings or beatitudes, Jesus assures them of God’s blessing / God’s presence in their suffering; God’s presence in their persecution ~ God is with them and God’s promise is a new heaven and a new earth. As last week’s reading concluded “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. And this morning, Jesus continues to describe to his followers who they are ~ describing them in two ways…as “salt and light”.
Salt, of course, was valuable in Jesus’ day and had some deep-seated meanings which contrast radically from our modern times when we purchase a box of kitchen salt for a dollar. For the Jewish people salt was involved in Israel’s covenant with God (see Lev 2:13 & Num 18:19) and was used in the purification of sacrifices in the temple (see Ex 30:35 & Ezek 16:4). Salt was also key for table fellowship ~ and led to the saying ‘sharing salt’ that is still in common usage today. In the era of pre-refrigeration, salt’s task was to preserve and give flavor to food. Salt was used as currency. During the times of the salt rations, those rations given to the Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum”, which is the forerunner to the English word “salary”. It was very high praise to be considered as valuable and essential as salt ~ ‘she is worth her salt’ was a measure of high praise. And for Jesus to say “you are the salt of the earth” was tremendous praise to his followers. The problem with salt is that it must be used in order to be effective. It’s the same as the lukewarm faith of the person who hides behind the door upon which Jesus knocks. Salt must be applied, used and shared in order for its benefits in worship and in dining together to be realized. Jesus follows the statement of description with one of prescription. “but if salt has lost its taste, how can saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot”. You are salt and you must be used.
The other image of description and prescription Jesus offers is light saying “you are the light of the world”. Jesus is reflecting Isaiah’s expression of us being the ‘light of the world’ (42:6). Said from a different perspective as compared to the description of us being “salt”, we are also meant to be “light” that shines in a dark and broken world. We are meant to be light shining into the dark places in the world; we are meant to be light shining in the moldy places of the world where greed, hatred and injustice fester; we are meant to be light shining the good news of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. There is a powerful quote given to us by Archbishop William Temple who served as bishop in the regions of Manchester, York and Canterbury during the early part of the 1900’s. Bishop Temple prophetically wrote: “The church is the only organization that exists for those who are not its members”. In this era of interfaith understanding, were he with us today, I believe Bishop Temple would likely expand that to say that the ‘faith communities in our world are the only organizations that exist for those who are not its members’.
I think in many ways what we are discovering is the balance that occurs between God’s grace and the subsequent demand placed upon the person ~ grace and demand. There is tremendous grace in the way you have been created: you have been created with tremendous gifts, and talents, and blessings. And that is one of the most significant pieces of your life’s work…to figure out your gifts and talents. Yet, you were not graced in this way for your personal benefit. There is a balance in the grace of your creation with the subsequent demands that weigh on you. Along with the gift of life and love and mercy, come the prescriptions and demands that rest upon your living. And, I have noticed in people, that they will always be restless in their living until they realize those demands and live them out. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. Our self-made / me-generation regularly forget this balance of grace and demand that we must strike in our living. It is so easy and seductive to miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace … of salt and light upon each of us. So often, we forget the purpose of God’s grace in each of our lives and forget to live out our specific roles as salt and light. This is best articulated, I believe, by pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoffer, who ministered and was ultimately executed in Nazi Germany, when he notes that our ignoring the demands for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands causes us to turn all that God has done for us into “cheap grace”.
So…how do things look in the faith world today? Well…the good news is that I haven’t seen much ‘lukewarm faith’ out there in the past while. And I find that when one person has a red-hot faith, it inspires the faith of others as well. Following the tragic shooting in the Quebec City Mosque last Sunday, there have been numerous vigils occurring in both religious and secular settings. In complete contrast to the words I opened up with this morning, people have gathered together and have not remained silent. They have said “NO…those 11 Muslim worshippers are not just strangers, they are members of my family…No!…when they bleed, we all bleed! No!…never again, in our country! Or in our world! Our Moderator of the United Church of Canada released a “letter of solidarity” saying that “we share your grief, as we share your determination to stop the forces of hate that seek to divide and destroy us”. The timing of the United Nation’s ‘Interfaith Harmony Week” this week feels like a movement of the Spirit because we so need to unite our lives at a time such as this. People gathered this week in one another’s home for interfaith dinners ~ and isn’t that just how we share life? As we ‘share salt’ / break bread and share wine and talk about life. Many gathered last night for the “Interfaith Music and Spoken Word Concert” at the 7th Day Adventist Church last night. And, while the weather did not cooperate, many pilgrims were planning to walk in solidarity for peace and justice in the world ~ and we would have been delighted to have them join us for a brief rest stop amidst their walk. So many examples of being salt and being light and living one’s identity out today. How are you living out your saltiness? How are you shining your light?
This is an important corrective for us today because I think that somewhere along the journey, we have been increasingly been losing the essence of what it means to be follower of the Way of Jesus. We sometimes think that if we are just nice and polite our churches will grow and Jesus will be present. Yet we are reminded everytime that we receive the waters of our baptism that we are commissioned to live the kind of dangerous and faithful life that Jesus did…a life that ultimately leads not to the glory of this world, but to the glory of the cross. I hold close the words attributed to Saint Francis “preach the gospel always, and when necessary, use words”. How does your life preach “saltiness”? How does your life preach “light”?
I would like to close with the words of theologian Isabel Carter Heyward, from her book “Learning to See”. She writes “If we spend our energies searching the heavens and spiritual things trying to rise above the clutter of our daily lives, we will not find the God whom Jesus loved. No. We must learn to see that to be the salt of the earth, flavourful and tasty; to be the light of the world, not hidden but rather illuminating God’s presence in the world, is to be epiphanies ourselves. We are called in this season to be bright manifestations of the power of God in history. Our vocation is to join Jesus and many others in giving God a voice, giving God an embodied life on earth. By the power of the Spirit which we witness in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world is to be “in Christ”, the active cooperative movement between divine and human being on this earth. As we learn to see sacredly, we will know where we are called to be and what we are called to do. We will find ourselves able to believe in both God and ourselves as empowering friends, companions and helpmates”.
The world does not need anymore lukewarm Christians! Let us be salt and light to the world that so dearly needs it.