Passage: Matthew 5:13-16
Date: February 5, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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About once a week I make scones for breakfast. It’s the easiest recipe in the world – some dry ingredients and a cup of heavy cream. Everyone is happy.
But occasionally I mess up the recipe. I use baking soda instead of baking powder or forget the chocolate chips. There was one morning, though, when I reached for the darkish, finely powdered spice that began with a C and ended with an N and confidently put two tablespoons in. Except it wasn’t cinnamon. It was cumin. Because it was early in the morning, I thought it made good sense to try to get the cumin out. Let me give you a happy hint: it doesn’t work. I was surprised, when I tasted one of the “I’m sure I got all the cumin out of the flour” scones how strong the cumin flavor still was. A little bit went a long way.
Salt is like that too – a little goes a long way. And in terms of baking, if you do your job right, it disappears into the batter or dough, helping with the rising but not standing out as the premiere flavor. Sea salt has breathed new life into the caramel industry and one of our family’s new favorite recipes is for chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with kosher salt as soon as they come out of the oven.
This week, as we continue along in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are salt and light. As a pastor having served twelve different congregations over the years, I can attest to parishioners who were a bit salty, and with some of them, a little went a long way. But there were also those who did all things that salt is supposed to do: they enhanced others. They preserved what was good and precious in their community. Some added a bit of flavor – I remember in particular one woman who wore a hat to church every week, the same hat, and kept the price tag on it. She said she did it because she always met new people who wanted to tell her that she was still wearing the price tag.
There have been those who were light, too. The sanctuary of the first church I served, First Presbyterian of Springfield, Illinois, was adorned with seven stunning Tiffany windows, six of saints from the Bible. The church was on the Lincoln tour, because the Lincoln family pew was on display and Mary Todd Lincoln had been a member there. One of our members was giving a tour and showing the windows to a family and she asked one of the children if he knew what a saint was. The boy answered, “Someone who light shines through.”
We know the blessings of those who are salt and light to us and to the world and it would be fun and uplifting to tell stories about them. I met this week with Ginny Robertson and her family to plan the memorial service for her husband Robbie, who died this week after a brief time in hospice care. They started telling stories, as families do, about how Robbie would take anyone in, and it was the norm that someone who needed a place to stay would be found sleeping on the couch for a few days or weeks. We will miss his light.
But Jesus isn’t saying, look around at who is salt and light. He is saying, You – you all – are salt and light. He doesn’t say “you used to be salt and light but you’ve lost all your flavor and power.” He doesn’t say “you will be salt and light when you do these things or when you’re older or more mature or more faithful.” He says “you are salt and light, right now.”
I wonder how we hear that.
We might say, oh no, he doesn’t mean me. I bring nothing to the table. I question God every day. I’m not smart enough, or talented enough, or faithful enough to be these things that Jesus needs.
We might say, oh no, I don’t have time. It is all I can do to manage my job and my family; it is all I can do to take care of my commitments. Or I have lived a life of service and I am now officially retired. It’s someone else’s turn to be salt and light. I’m just going to sit over here under my bushel basket.
We might say we don’t know how to be salt and light, that no one ever taught us, that we’re too old or too settled in our ways to learn.
But no. Jesus said it then and I think this is one of those scriptures that leaps quite nicely over two thousand years. What was true for that group of first disciples and the peasants of Galilee who sat on that mountain by the sea that day – that Jesus needed them to help do God’s work – that is as true for us today.
Recently I was talking with a friend who’s been feeling a bit at loose ends. She wanted to do something, but she didn’t know what. So we talked about what she is passionate about. And we talked about what she loves to do. And we talked about what she is good at. Somewhere in the intersection of those things is the opportunity for her to be salt and light.
Remember that salt is a naturally occurring element. It’s in rocks and in water, but it is, by itself, NaCl, sodium chloride. Like salt, who you are, all by yourself, is sufficient. You already have everything in you that you need to do this work that Jesus calls you to. Who you are, right now, is who you need to be.
My favorite Frederick Buechner quote is about this very thing. He said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That’s the other thing about salt. On its own, it has limited use. Sitting in that cardboard cylinder with the Morton label in your cupboard, it doesn’t do much good. Add it to your dough, it modifies the yeast. Put it on your sidewalks and you don’t slip much at all when it’s icy. Rub it all over some meat and it tenderizes it and brings out the flavor. But sitting in your cupboard, nothing will happen. It might clump together if it stays in high humidity, but it won’t lose its flavor.
I like to think Jesus knew that about salt. The saltiness does not fade over time. The only way salt loses its saltiness is if it is burned over and over, or if it is watered down to the point of nothingness. So there is a caution: it’s the caution of burning out or spreading ourselves too thin.
We have to let our light shine. Light, too, is a naturally occurring thing but all the natural light we know goes away and then comes back – the light of the sun and the moon is not constant, thank goodness – we would go crazy if there were never the time of darkness to rest. We must rest but we must shine, too.
If you were here on Christmas Eve you might remember the story I told about Caroline Kurtz working so diligently to have a solar panel bought and then carried and then installed on the tin roof of the medical clinic in the far-flung town of Maji in Ethiopia. She, and those who worked with her, allow light to shine in the darkness so that midwives assisting women in labor have enough light to see. That is a great metaphor. We shine light on what is good. We also shine light on what needs repair.
Which means we are light, you and I, just like Jesus said. Maybe we are even saints, people whom light shines through.
So I invite you, right now, to think of someone you love who is experiencing some kind of darkness. Grief is a darkness we are all too acquainted with. Health struggles are a darkness too. Maybe you know someone who is estranged from their parents or their children. Maybe you know someone whose marriage is in trouble. Maybe you know someone who just lost their job. Maybe you know someone who has been the victim of a crime and they just can’t shake the fear. How can you be light to them today, or this week?
Maybe there is someone you don’t really know but you see all the time who is in some kind of darkness. Maybe it’s the same guy on the same corner who asks for money for a meal. Maybe it’s a child who is struggling at school. Maybe it’s the face of someone across the globe who is hungry or who faces violence every day. Maybe it’s a teenager who’s being bullied. How can you be light to them, this week or this month?
I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t call us to do nothing. I’m pretty confident that Jesus wants us to interact with him and these words he gives us, and to interact with our own souls and what stirs them, and to interact with other human beings with whom we share this planet.
Being salt and light to each other and the world will change us. You know that. You enter into someone’s darkness and the experience can tenderize you, bring out a gentleness or an empathy you didn’t know you had. The experience can stir you up out of bland observation into heartfelt response.
I want to leave you with words written by our beloved Portland author Brian Doyle, who is going through the darkness of fighting a brain tumor. This is a man whose writing and speaking has been salt and light to many of us, and he and his family need this Portland community to be that to them right now. He wrote these words when he was better, but I think they work today, too.
“And what might we be, as a species, in the years to come?
O what, O God tell me, o people tell me,
o friends and lovers tell me,
o enemies tell me,
o come clear to me in the entrails of birds and the fleeting tails of stars,
what we might be if we rise and evolve,
if we reach and leap,
if we deepen and sing,
if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain,
if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger,
if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison,
if we smash the bricks from around our hearts,
if we cease to stagger and swagger,
if we peel the steel from our eyes,
if we yearn and learn,
if we do what we say we will do,
if we act as if our words really matter,
if our words become muscled mercy,
if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth,
and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins,
creatures become what we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of…