Salt and Light
Salt and light.
That is what Jesus calls us today, what Jesus calls us to be today, so we want to spend some time exploring what he’s asking of us.
Being called the light of the world is suitably flattering and the symbolism makes immediate sense.
Being called the salt of the earth, well, that one takes some doing to figure out what Jesus might have been talking about.
We notice that Jesus seems to be teaching in this passage about our role in society, how we as Christians impact the larger human family.
He calls us not just salt and light for ourselves, or salt and light of the church, but “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
He’s teaching us that our commitment to discipleship is important for way more than just our own personal spirituality.
We are by our nature and our actions to shift the conversations happening in this world in a Godward direction.
We can come at this concept of salt from several different perspectives.
First of all, Jesus describes salt in terms of its flavor. Salt adds piquancy and zest to food. It heightens and brings out the flavor of food.
You only need a small amount of it in proportion to the size of the dish for it to do its job.
So consider what it means to be salt from that perspective.
People who are making their decisions on the basis of what Jesus Christ would ask them to do are a small number within a very large society, but Jesus is saying we don’t have to be huge in number to do our job well.
(So side note, maybe Jesus is giving us permission to quit angsting about the numerical decline of membership in the Episcopal Church.)
We can “bring out the flavor” in someone else, meaning by our presence we can call someone to be more who they really are, which essentially means calling them to live into being a beloved child of God.
Salt also melts ice, whether it is the ice of a broken and hurting relationship or the ice surrounding our own hearts.
Salt is both rare and valuable—so much so it has at times been used as currency–and it is a biological necessity to many living creatures.
Jesus is pointing out that walking the Christian way is difficult—narrow is the way and many will fall aside.
But it is worth the effort because we provide something that the general body of humanity desperately needs.
Like a deer seeking out a salt lick in the woods, our society at large needs not just the flavor of contrast and challenge that we provide with our Christian moral imperative to pursue justice and peace, but the vital nourishment of the knowledge that God is reaching out to us with love and grace.
Notice something else Jesus does here: he does not say, “You will become the salt of the earth if you work hard enough at it,” or, “Someday when you’ve reached spiritual maturity, you will be the light of the world.”
He says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world,” as in right now, this minute.
It is a constant steady state that exists within us by virtue of being God’s beloved children, whether we want it to or not.
We don’t have the option of not being the salt of the earth or the light of the world.
Jesus points out that we can attempt to hide our light under a bushel, but we can’t hit the off switch or pull the plug out of the socket.
We have the gift of being salt and light at all times and in all places.
That means that we always have the responsibility of pointing toward God no matter how sinful or tired or cranky or incompetent we feel.
But it also means that the salt and the light within us are always present as touchstones within us to remind us that we carry a spark of the Holy Spirit that can never be damaged or lost or extinguished.
Underneath whatever grief and pain and despair and loneliness that we carry lives the light that can call others to God and the salt that seasons our relationships and ministries with a call to holiness and joy.
Amy Oden urges us to
“think about the bushels that cover your congregation’s light. What are they? Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to the big church across town or to the good, old days when our church was full of children and youth. The inferiority bushel blocks out God’s light.
Or perhaps the bushel is the self-absorption of internal conflicts. While conflict is an expected part of any human organization, when conflict becomes an excuse for unproductive institutional self-absorption, then it is a bushel that prevents our light from shining.
Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds. This sort of bushel is seductive because it seems so positive and feels so good. Such holy longing for an imagined future can indeed fuel us. However, it is equally likely that we indulge in lots of talk without any concrete action or effort in the present. Our church fantasies can leave us unable to build a common life with the real people around us. Magical thinking covers our light.
Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels. The only way for our light to be covered is if we put a bushel over it. We can hear the incredulous tone in Jesus voice, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel” (verse 15). Ridiculous! Jesus is clear: we are not victims inevitably doomed to being distracted and drained by the bushels of inferiority or self-absorption or fantasy. Bushels can only block out the light when we put them there.
Unfortunately, for some congregations, our bushels become our very identity. Not only do we put the bushels over our light, we cling to them for dear life, unwilling to let them go. Jesus calls us out on this: no one who follows Jesus gives over energy, time, and power to the things that block the light. We must unmask these bushels for the human constructions they are, disarming their power. For ours is the “light of all people. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). So “let your light shine before others” (verse 16).”
Being named the salt of the earth and the light of the world also calls us to take action in specific places and circumstances.
What is the value of a single pinch of salt in a whole cup of salt? Very little.
What is the value of one lightbulb in a whole room full of lamps and lights? Very little.
For salt and light to be valuable and useful, they have to go where there is no salt and light.
As the salt of the earth, we have to go places where all opinions are the same and be different.
We have to go places where it’s assumed that all the answers are known and ask a question.
As the light of the world, we have to go places where there is nothing but thick, choking darkness and shine the light of Christ.
We have to go places where despair and grief and injustice and cynicism rule—even and especially if that is within our own churches, within our own families, within our own hearts—and say, there is another way, and it is the way of possibility and change, of love and justice, of redemption and resurrection.
I was thinking about this passage when I was watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games in Sochi, Russia on Friday night.
In Russia and other Slavic nations, there is a traditional welcoming ceremony of offering bread and salt to arriving guests. It is a symbol of hospitality and it made me think of this gospel lesson.
Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth and Jesus himself is the bread of heaven.
In a sense when we welcome seekers and newcomers to church, we are engaging in the bread and salt ceremony, because we offer both Jesus and ourselves to refresh the weary traveler and make him feel welcome and at home.
All of us are both in need of salt and light, and are salt and light.
May God, through us and our neighbors, season the earth with grace and light the way home.