Light and Salt

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20
Blair Pogue

Dwight is traveling around the Episcopal Church a lot these days encouraging lay leaders and clergy to notice the new thing God is doing in their midst. He attempts to motivate our Episcopal brothers and sisters to seek God’s leading and spiritual renewal rather than getting caught up in organizational self-preservation, budget deficits, shrinking church populations, and crumbling church buildings. He seeks to remind Episcopal Christians of their first true love, God, and why they are in church in the first place.

 At a recent convention in a diocese on the East Coast Dwight finished his final presentation and invited questions and comments. The diocese he was in had a few vital churches, mostly in suburbs, and lots of small and crumbling urban churches. An older woman stood up and said, “once, a long time ago, we had a flame, and it burned brightly. And then we put a hurricane lamp over it, and we built a nice stand for it, and then we built a bigger structure and put a building around it, and all these things obscured the flame.” Wow! My eyes started to fill with tears when I heard this story, because I can relate. It is the story of so many faith communities across the U.S., and the story of many of our lives. At some point, many of us had an experience of God’s love or a glimpse of God’s flame burning brightly.  Somehow, we’ve forgotten that flame, hid it, obscured it, ignored it, or maybe just tried to snuff it out. Maybe at one point in our lives we were on fire for God, or for something God had gifted us to do. We cared passionately about God’s world, wanted to give our lives to bring healing in some way. And then we got our first job, and then our second job, and maybe we got married, and maybe we had kids, and the bills came, and the responsibilities, and family members and friends got ill, and all we could understandably think about was survival – getting through the day and maybe getting some food in our refrigerator to feed our family. We’ve forgotten the flame or can’t see it anymore. We don’t even have time to think about it.

Yet today Jesus, toward the end of what’s called the Sermon on the Mount – a short and beautiful meditation on what blessedness looks like from God’s perspective -- Jesus tells his followers that they are light and salt.  More than that, they are “the light of the world.” Light and salt have been in the headlines a lot lately. The opening of the Sochi winter Olympics was full of light, especially the over-the-top firework display. And in the Midwest, the severe weather has brought a salt shortage. Not only does salt make winter roads safe to travel on, it makes food taste good. In the ancient world, salt was an essential preservative. And in any place lacking electricity, from ancient times, to poorer countries and regions like Southwest Uganda where the girls of the Blue House live, light is a luxury and a privilege. Without light, it is impossible to study or work at night, and thus get the education that will enable a person or nation to move forward.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his followers that they are salt and light. They are the seasoning that not only preserves life, but makes it worth savoring. They are the light that illuminates the darkness, the light that reminds others of the hope and new life God offers, even and especially during the most difficult times.

Both our reading from Matthew and our reading from Isaiah talk about God’s vision for people of faith in the world. On one level, these lessons from different times and places are talking about what it means to be blessed by God.

We are blessed to be a blessing. The light God gives us is not just to illuminate us and our way, but to give light to the world. We are to bear God’s light, love, grace, and joy to the world. We are to participate in God’s life and work in ways that make this world a trustworthy place. I thank God, daily, that so many of you are already doing this. You are salt and light in your homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, the Cities, and the world. You bear God’s life and hope to others in so many, many ways.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking to a people who have lost sight of what it means to bear God’s blessings in daily life, tells the Israelites that God is not happy with their rituals and prayers alone, because their faith doesn’t extend to the whole of their lives.  God is asking God’s people to practice compassion and to seek the common good. The Israelites’ prayers and fasting are empty unless Israel treats her neighbors and relatives with kindness and dignity, including the poor, hungry, and prisoners. If Israel can understand her “fast” as seeking relationships with those who are suffering, justice for those who have been wronged, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and contributing to the good of those around her, however, her light will rise in the darkness and she will be like a watered garden or a spring of water. She will lay the foundation for the future generations, and be called “the repairer of the breach,” “the restorer of streets to live in.”

 In our Gospel it is telling that Jesus says that “no one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket.” A bushel basket is a large container that hides the light rather than extinguishing it. By using this metaphor, Jesus implies that the light continues to burn, whether we acknowledge it or not. After all, the first chapter of John’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus the Word is the light of all people and “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

In the silence that follows let us take a moment to ask God to kindle the light of Christ in us, and to help us strip away whatever is obscuring or keeping us from the light. Let us also ask God what might sustain this light in the long term. Is there a spiritual practice in St. Matthew’s Way of Jesus like prayer, gratitude, or contemplating how our story connects with God’s story that might stoke and feed the light in us, so it can continue to burn brightly through good times and bad?

May God help us live in the light, and share it with others. May the Way of Jesus at St. Matthew’s help us remain light-filled and salty, as we seek to bear God’s ultimate word of hope to a world desperately in need of it. Amen.