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The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 9, 2014
The Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
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 hid. 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 fulfill. 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."
You’ve probably heard, there’s a drought going on in the Far West. The predicted “Pineapple Express” notwithstanding, California is bracing itself for its worst drought since the mid-1800’s. Back then there weren’t so many people there, but the drought was severe enough to wipe out the cattle industry. That had been the economic engine of the Spanish land-grant families, the Old Californio Dons, (like Don Diego/Zorro, for instance), for the previous 200 years.
There is a solution, though it could be very expensive. California has always had an abundant water source; it’s all along its expansive 1000 mile coastline: the Pacific Ocean. There is a problem, of course. It’s full of salt. Several coastal communities are proposing desalinization plants to turn the Pacific into drinking water. If they get the salt out, they might just survive.
Getting the salt out: it’s the exact opposite problem that Jesus speaks to in our lesson from the 5th chapter of The Gospel according to Matthew this morning. He wants to get the salt in; into his disciples, into you and me. Here Jesus says to them and us, “You are the salt of the earth.” And he adds on, “You are the light of the world.” Interestingly, he isn’t saying that you and I are to become these things; he’s saying we are already these things: salt and light. It’s part of the new nature he instills in us as his disciples. And we are to season and enlighten the world. But what does that mean that we are salt and light? What is it that we are to do as saltshine, so to speak? Let’s consider those questions for a moment.
And lets’ start with what it means to be “The salt of the earth.” In the ancient world salt was a very valuable commodity. Workers were often paid with salt. That is where we get the expression about someone being “worth their salt.” An interesting footnote is that the word salary is derived from the Latin word for salt. People wanting to buy something in the ancient world would often pay for it with salt. They would treasure salt as we might value gold or silver.
Salt was such a valuable commodity because of its many critical uses. It was used to preserve food in the days before refrigeration. Even today, people who butcher their own meat or make jerky use salt to preserve it. Salt was also used as an antiseptic to clean out wounds. This would have been painful, of course, but cleaning out a wound with salt was very effective in fighting infection. Perhaps the most important thing about salt is that in its purest form it never loses its taste. Salt will always be salt. Salt does not go stale even when stored.
One thing Jesus means in calling us “the salt of the earth,” is that once we become his followers we become his salt by nature. This new nature in us gets demonstrated in two ways: first, we become the preservers of all that is good in the world. We keep and defend all that which God intends, that which nourishes the human spirit and heart and mind; second, we become the healers of the hurts of the world. We seek to purge and cleanse people’s wounds that they might heal. That is what it means that you and I are “the salt of the earth.”
Now let’s consider what it means to be “The light of the world.” “A city built on a hill cannot be hid,” Jesus says. A city built on a hill is seen for miles in all directions. Jesus is instructing us to allow our light to shine everywhere in a dark world. A light hidden under a bushel basket isn’t seen by anyone and serves no real purpose. Such a light would burn itself out without anyone even noticing it. Jesus says that a light is to be put on a lamp stand. In other words, what we do in the name of Jesus is to be visible to other people living all around us, and not hidden where no one sees it.
One night at the end of a special Saturday evening worship service, the congregation of small church in Ontario, Canada heard the thunderstorm outside unleash a huge thunderclap. The bolt that had preceded it had hit the city’s main power plant, plunging everything into darkness. The Church sanctuary had gone dark, and was lit only by the sanctuary lamp candle, the paschal candle, the altar candles and acolyte torches. The priest quickly went into the sacristy, found the small congregational candles, lit one from the burning paschal candle, and passed it along with the others out to the parishioners. The congregation began lighting each other’s candles, each one lighting the person’s candle next to them.
As the service ended, the sanctuary doors were opened and the worshipers prepared to head out. Peering out, they could see the rain coming down in sheets. With signals down the traffic outside was snarled. Disoriented motorists who were still trying to make their way on the pitch-dark streets were slamming into each other. Others abandoning their cars rather than be sitting ducks, and pedestrians who had been caught outside were running for the nearest shelter.
There in the darkness, this little band of Christians, each clutching a light, was not sure whether to venture out into that storm, or close the doors and stay inside the sanctuary in hopes that the storm would soon blow over. With the doors open, however, the parishioner’s candlelight was casting the only other light than headlights to be seen in that darkness. Perfect strangers rushed in. The parishioners handed around more candles to the newcomers. As their numbers grew, so did their light. The doors stayed open and the light continued to shine out. And so it went until the storm at last let up, and emergency city power restored order to the chaos.
Reflecting on what had happened, one parishioner wrote that, in this most dramatic way, he realized what it means to be the “light of the world.” He wrote, “It occurred to me then that this is the temptation I face every day. It’s easy to play it safe and be a good Christian in church. It’s a lot harder to venture out in faith into the storms of the world.”
Like a beam of light shining through the darkness, we are to stand out and be visible for all the world to see. Our temptation is to allow our light to be identified with Jesus only among those inside our congregation, while fearing to let those outside know our allegiance to Jesus. What we are to see this morning is that as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we live by a higher standard; Jesus law of love. Here is where Jesus wants his disciples to shine. He wants us to “out-love” the world. He wants us to act out of compassion in all things.
Of course, there can be a glitch to all this. Sometimes salt burns and light glares. Take this case, for instance. A group of church women were looking for a service project in their town. They wanted to spread salt and shine light. Their town, Pine Mountain, was a favorite resort town for young people on Spring Break and summer vacations. Thousands of them would flock into this little town during those times where they would get drunk, sunbath somewhat carelessly, and carouse. As a result, a good many of them would land in the local town jail waiting until they could make bail or pay fines.
The church women decided that they could help the situation by providing toiletry kits with personal items such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and a piece of candy to make their stay a little bit brighter. With their kits in hand, the women made their first visit. They were quite taken aback, however, by at the conditions in the jail. The first thing that they saw was the sheer number of prisoners; at least thirty a week in a facility designed for no more than four. They soon discovered that the town made a profit on all these arrests; nearly two hundred thousand dollars a year. But none of that, it seems, was being used to either expand or fix the decaying conditions of the jail. The women were also shocked with some of the jail’s procedures. There was no distinction made between older and younger prisoners, or between first time offenders and repeat offenders.
The more time the women spent helping at the jail, the more they saw things that they did not like. They noticed the careless attitude of some of the deputies toward their work. They witnessed signs of excessive force being used on defenseless prisoners. They picked up on rumors of money changing hands in order to get some lighter charges. They did not like what they saw one bit. That’s when the trouble really began. Deciding that their town jail was a disgrace, they went to tell the sheriff their concerns. “I knew we were asking for trouble when we let you women stick your noses into things,” the Sheriff told them. “You ladies ought to stay out of what is none of your business,” he advised. “What goes on here is for professionals!” he said. “Why don’t you stick to your little church activities and leave the real work to us?” That, it turned out, was his last big mistake.
“This is church business,” thundered one of the women as she pounded her fist on his desk. A real storm broke loose that day, as these women got very salty. Eventually an investigation was launched. The Sheriff was forced to resign, and the city, somewhat shamed by the revelation that they had been quietly making a profit for years on all those kids, started funneling some of it back into facility and equipment, and procedural upgrades. They also created community service officer teams to go out and proactively help the students not get in trouble in the first place; a suggestion that had come from the church women.
No, being Jesus’ salt and light isn’t always easy. It isn’t always welcome. Salt, though, to truly be salt, is to preserve and heal. Light, to truly be light, is to expose and banish the darkness. It is a high and noble calling. We may not always feel worthy of it; we may even fear it. Yet Jesus calls us, names us, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Let us season our bit of the earth with Christ’s presence. Let us enlighten our corner of the world with his love.