Salt and Light: A Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

The sermon from Sunday, February 5, 2017 on Matthew 5:13-20.

I begin tonight with a quote from one of my favorite theologians, the German writer and activist, Dorothee Soelle – “How to be a Christian is something you learn not from books or information packets but primarily from other human beings.”

You are salt and you are light.

Not you might be.

Not you could be.

Not maybe possibly one day you will be.

You are.

Salt and light. Salt which gives flavor and preserves and keeps. Light which illuminates and guides.

The word we hear from Jesus is not that we might become these things, but that we are these things.

Salt and light.

The instruction here is not how to become, but instead a warning that we can cease to live in this way. We can lose our flavor, our strength. We can hide our light.

That’s the danger.

But if you allow yourself to be, you are the salt that enables people to taste God in this lifetime. You preserve the sense of the possible – of hope and joy and justice and meaning.

You are the light that allows them to see God at work in the world.

Does that feel like pressure?

It is a responsibility. No doubt about that.

How about also letting it feel like a joy? Like a gift?

For indeed that is one of God’s great gifts to us.  

Even in the world we live in. Especially in the world we live in.

For these are troubled times and likely to stay that way for a while. We are surrounded by brutality and corruption and raw power’s abuse of people and the planet for its own enrichment and glory.

But Jesus names for us here a glory of a an entirely different sort. An opportunity to live a different way.

Salt and light.

Dorothee Soelle puts it another way for us “How can I, in our position, turn into a letter from Christ, an invitation to genuine living . . . an invitation to life, to be whole, to be authentic? The kingdom of God is lived here and now – that is what it says in that letter from Christ which we are and shall more and more be.”

These words from Soelle come in an essay where she talks about the life and death of another woman.

Sister Ita Ford was a Catholic nun from the Maryknoll order. She lived and served in the urban barrios of Santiago, Chile and San Salvador, El Salvador. And in December 1980 she was murdered alongside 3 other religious women by members of the Salvadoran military in service to an oppressive government supported by the United States.

Soelle speaks of Ford by saying “This woman has become a letter from Christ to me.”

If we are trying to figure out what it means to be salt, to be light, hear these words  –

Ita Ford wrote in a letter to her teenage niece, “What I’m saying is that I hope you come to find that which gives a life deep meaning for you. Something worth living for – maybe even worth dying for – something that energized you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.”

Ford asks of the work that she does among the poor “Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity?”

Can you let yourself be evangelized by this moment in our time? First you have to believe that you are indeed the salt, that you are indeed the light. And you have to  make sure that you root that knowledge in the witness of Jesus Christ to God’s love and mercy and justice for all people and the whole of the planet.

Can you let this moment – this moment of death-dealing in our culture – can you let it inspire life in you, so that you are evangelized by this opportunity into light and love, into kindness and commitment, into continual witness for God’s presence and God’s call?

For as Soelle says – and this is after Ford’s death – “Beyond the political hope [or its absence] there is a spiritual hope in which the life of people like Ita Ford is grounded. . . . You yourself are responsible for the meaning you give your own life.”

Living like that is an end unto itself. It can be your goal to live like that – to be salt. To be light. Whatever else is going on in your life or in this world. You are salt and you are light.

That is a completion unto itself. And that’s really what Jesus is talking about in the second part of this passage that we’re looking at tonight. Jesus is saying that he comes as the completion, the fulfillment of the Spirit.

Learn from what came before us, but understand that we are called to embody and practice the teachings of Jesus. That as Christians we are called to the margins and called to do away with the margins because all are fully included in the realm of God’s justice.

I said last week that this sense of personal piety, this sense of that righteousness is some act of considering yourself holier-than-thou is not what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. And indeed this translation makes it plain. Jesus says “I tell you, unless your sense of justice surpasses that of the religious scholars and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kindom of heaven.”

Back to something I quoted earlier – “The kingdom of God is lived here and now – that is what it says in that letter from Christ which we are and shall more and more be.”

Can you live with with such a commitment that people come to understand the realm of God through you?

You are salt.

You are light.

I want to conclude tonight by lifting up an example from the history of the Civil Rights Movement. This is Black History Month. We’ll be paying attention to that fact all month – including daily on our Facebook page. It’s Rosa Parks’ birthday, so it would make sense to talk about her and we do indeed lift up her wisdom and her courage. It’s Trayvon Martin’s birthday. He should be turning 22 years old today and we grieve for his senseless loss in our world. But the person who has been on my heart in recent days for whatever reason is Medger Evers.

Medger Evers was the field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. He was born in July of 1925 and in his 37 years of living  fought for voting rights and voter registration. He did the daily work of challenging on-the-ground policies of segregation in Mississippi, especially in education.  White supremacists tried to kill him twice before they succeeded the third time.  On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot in the back in his driveway by a member of the White Citizens Council named Byron de la Beckwith and taken to a hospital that initially refused him entry. Though they did eventually treat him, he died there that night. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery because he was a World War II veteran.

So we speak tonight of three people who lived and died for ideals beyond themselves – Ita Ford, Medger Evers, and Jesus Christ.

I’ve been pondering a quote from Evers that speaks to the lives and deaths of all three – “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”  That’s a key lesson in Christianity. This faith is bigger than any of us. So if you lose your flavor or hide your light for a while, the work lives on. The work of justice and mercy lives on in spite of the odds because it is God’s work.

Evers also reminds us that “Freedom has never been free.”

Friends, we together in community and in our own individual lives bear out the work of human freedom. The people I have named tonight along with countless others were a part of that work.

We are all a part of that work. Jesus Christ taught us how to do it.

You are salt.

You are light.

Live so that people may taste God’s presence through you. Live to cast light in the shadows of the darkest days.


Image credit to Chris Tomlinson at Crave Something More

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