Isaiah 58: 1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
In Matthew’s version of this sermon Jesus is on the mountaintop, talking to his disciples.
Presumably the “you” in these verses refers to Jesus’ disciples. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Your righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. You: disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus is talking to us. We are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Seems a rather expansive mission, doesn’t it? Why couldn’t it be: you are the salt of your congregation. You are the light of your community. That’s still a tall order, but perhaps doable.
Given the scope of tastelessness and the depth of darkness that pervade the globe at the moment, I think Jesus was rather ambitions in his expectation of fishermen, tax collectors and various other stragglers and sinners. The watts are running low on my Jesus light as I witness so many being trampled upon. Could the Almighty settle for a votive candle or a pinch of seasoning, enough goodness to just get me and mine through the day, rather than a preservative and beacon for all of creation? Could my righteousness exceed that of my most reprobate neighbor, rather than that of the most upstanding religious leaders? I am struggling with Jesus’ sense of scale as he pontificates on the mount. This little light of mine, I am having a hard time letting it shine.
The temptation to hide under a bushel or in the basement or with our close, comfortable circles is intense when the world seems very, very dark. That’s what we do when we get scared. We hunker down, do what we know, hide. When we see the vulnerable being trampled, our tendency is not to run out into the street and stand between them and the onslaught, rather it is to go into our homes and lock the door. This little light of mine, I am going to snuff it out so no one knows I am home. I am going to pull down the blackout curtains so that I am not an easy target for the bombs falling from the sky.
We don’t want to shout out and announce the rebellion and sin all around us, we want to go about our business and hope no one notices us. That’s the temptation that too often we’ve succumbed to, and history has countless of examples of the ravages that succumbing has wrought. I just read “No Ordinary Time” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Much of the book is about the run-up to the U.S. entering World War II. There is strong America-first sentiment at that time. There was little energy for admitting European Jews into the United States during a time when Hitler was still letting Jewish people leave – a narrow window of escape. The United States denied boatloads of refugees the ability to come ashore, sending those people back to their deaths. On the brink of World War II, hiding the light under the bushel and turning a blind eye to suffering became the norm.
The salt of the earth had lost its taste, the light extinguished for those desperate for even a glimpse of it. That’s what we do when we are afraid, and that’s the antithesis of Jesus’ call to his disciples.
The word of Jesus from on high is in service for those being trampled underfoot. Jesus doesn’t tell us to tend to our own, keep our heads down, keep our noses clean and our hides safe. We are told in Isaiah to shout out the rebellion, the apostasy, the injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable we see. We are to be as aggravating and irritating as salt in the wound of those who seek to hurt and destroy on God’s holy mountain. We are to shine a flood light on evil, cruelty and meanness. The righteousness that exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness that fulfills the whole law: love of God and neighbor, all our neighbors, no matter the cost.
You are that salt: of the earth. You are that light: of the world. Shout. Irritate. Burn so brightly it hurts the eyes of those who proudly fast and worship but fail to feed and house. This is no ordinary time, either. Jesus’ band of fishermen, tax collectors and rag tag sinners must be bold, confident not in their expertise, power or abilities, but unquestionably loyal to the one who settles for nothing less than our lives.
The salt of the earth and the light of the world preserve the perishable and warm the shivering. The only way not to give into temptation is to focus on Jesus Christ, his Word and his Way.
I recently climbed the tower of Duke Chapel. It was over two hundred stairs up a narrow, spiral stone staircase. I was with a group and we were instructed to keep two steps between each of us. The kind young woman at the desk warned us that if we were claustrophobic or afraid of heights, this was not a recommended activity. Just in case her warning was not enough, there was a sign posted with added admonitions about asthma and other health conditions. I am afraid of heights. I do not like enclosed spaces. I went anyway. I wanted to see the view from the top.
Going up was easier than going down. As one colleague commented, “I now understand the phrase ‘downward spiral’ much better.” There was a handrail most of the way up, but it abruptly ended several stories from the top. Turning around was not an option given the single file nature of the ascent. My anxiety rose with each turn, but the only way out was to keep going through. I focused on the next step. Just the next step. I could hear friends behind me, I could see the person directly in front of me.
Just before we reached the top, light flooded the stairwell. I couldn’t see the end, but I knew it was close. All I had to do was keep going, one step at a time, until I reached the top. There, I was greeted with light and beauty and wind, and a place to rest.
I think, in our current context of so much fear, so much darkness, so much showy worship that lacks the substance of justice, we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. We are called to love God and love neighbor, all our neighbors.
We can only do that by following Jesus very, very closely, one step at a time. It will be a steep, scary and exhausting climb and we should not presume to do it alone. Remember, Jesus was talking to the disciples, plural. But we must commit to the journey, even when we don’t know when the beauty, wind, rest and light will break through the chaotic darkness. Sometimes there will be a handrail, but we can’t count on it being there for the duration. Just when we want it most it may well disappear. We will feel disoriented, tempted to turn around and hunker down. But we must keep going, focusing on the next step, following Jesus right in front of us, quelling our fears and walking toward the light that will illumine the world and, eventually, give us rest – all of us.
- Could “salt and light” stand for “word” and “deed”? Notice in the Isaiah text how the light comes as a result of acts of justice. Take a look at Colossians 4:6 and see how it relates salt to speech.
- In contemporary language to be “salty” is to be annoyed or irritated. How could this use of “salty” relate to Christian witness?
- The word for “tasteless” also can be translated “to be made foolish.” How does this translation color the meaning of this verse?
- Do a word study of “light” and note how many places this images is used in the Bible.
- If we are to put our light on a lampstand, what is our “lampstand” in contemporary context?
- Look in the hymnal for hymns with references to light, and use them as prayers in your daily devotions this week.
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