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Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16
Contemporary Reading: Walt Whitman’s poem, O Me! O Life!
If you are like me, then this last week has been a sharp slap in the face, reminding you that you are in the minority from an idealogical and political position, and that the values being lived out all around you, in the papers and on TV, are not the values you hold dear. Maybe it’s just been confusing, or off-putting, to see this kind of turmoil and division. It might bring you here this morning feeling downtrodden, depressed, weathered and beaten up a little and the Gospel has good news for you this morning…
The word that Jesus has for you in the midst of your struggle is – good.
It’s good that you are feeling this way, not because it’s a good way to feel but rather because this is a sign that you have not lost your saltiness. Please remember that just last week in our time together the Matthew reading had Jesus saying…
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Now, maybe that doesn’t sound like what you wanted to hear when you came to church this morning…maybe it sounds like the exact opposite of what you wanted to hear. I can appreciate that. It’s been a long week and some deep despair about where it feels like things are headed, what sort of actions are becoming normalized, and how far we are drifting from any sense of accountability. On top of that, there is this casting of shade, this gaslighting that appears like it’s designed to make you think this is all in your head and you’re the unreasonable one with all of your talk of bigotry and abuse.
I’m not sure where you are, but I’m in a place where I don’t think that things are going to turn out very well. The faith I have placed in politics and the power of organizing feels spent, and I’m thinking about a future that looks pretty bleak. Then the message I hear from this past week of study is – yep, you probably should feel like that.
Thanks, Jesus. You’re a big help.
That could be the end of this sermon, the unhelpful Jesus delivering us equally unhelpful news about the certainty of our suffering. But let’s recognize that Jesus doesn’t stop there, with the admonition to be joyful for your persecution. He goes on, speaking this “Sermon on the Mount” to people beaten down, to those tired of the status quo, to a gathered collection of folks who understand, even if only subconsciously, that what the empire blesses and what God blesses are very different things and there’s something really wrong with the current state of affairs.
After Jesus has laid out the list of things that are blessed, a list that seems almost laughable given the world in which they live, he then turns (I imagine) and looks directly at those around him. Be joyous when you get persecuted for standing against the existing state of affairs, for you are in good company, with heaven applauding you. You are salt…salt for the earth. And you are light…light in the world.
Jesus uses metaphors that come from the lived experiences of the people he’s preaching to – images like salt and light. These days we use a little salt can bring the flavors of something alive. Chefs say on all those dedicated cooking shows that we’re supposed to season our food in layers, using salt and pepper with every ingredient we add. Meanwhile our doctors tell us to cut down on the salt, once of the two major ingredients that the manufactured food industry has been putting in everything. In Jesus time, salt was not so controversial. In fact, it held a high place of honor as a necessary food preservative, a part of the ritual butchering process for kosher food and even as a medicinal balm, though hopefully not on open wounds. So much more than a convenient source of flavor, salt was essential to life.
So, be the things that are essential to life, Jesus tells them. But there’s another component of salt that is important in this metaphor. Too much of it runs everything. Have you ever been in a restaurant where someone thought it was clever to unscrew the lid of the salt shaker, or have you mistaken the salt for the sugar? Both have happened to me and the meal that followed was…unpleasant.
Be salt – be the essential things. And don’t feel like you have to cover everything…don’t feel like you must be the entire seasoning, all of the essential things for the whole world. According to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, the go-to sources for New Testament era cultural information, the metaphor comes from stoves in the ancient Mediterranean which used dung for fuel. Palestinians from the first century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire. After some years, the salt plates in the earthen oven underwent a chemical reaction due to the heat. The result was that the salt no longer facilitated the fire, but rather impeded and stifled the burning of the dung…the salt “lost it’s saltiness.” Given that information, the people gathered to learn from Jesus might have heard that he was saying – be salt, be the catalyst to get things cooking, but don’t be only salt, or think that all of the cooking has to come from you. You’ll burn out.
Malina and Rohrbaugh also tell us that for first century people, darkness was a constant. We are not used to this at all because we have all kinds of artificial lights all around us…so much so that we forget what deep darkness is like. But then, when the sun went down, that was it. Most households had small lamps that burned olive oil, but produced only a small amount of ambient light. The typical way for such a lamp to be put out was under a bushel basket, since it would trap the smoke and fumes as the family went to sleep. Be light, but don’t hide it, let it shine. That greek word translated as shine is only used once more in Matthew, during the transfiguration, when Jesus is bathed in the light of God and connected, on another mountaintop, to the prophets who came before him. That shine we’re meant to have seems to have something to do with our rootedness, with our sense of being connected to something larger than just us – filled with the light of community, of tradition, and of God all at once.
All of that brings me back to this place – our church – in the midst of the turmoil I talked about at the start of the sermon. So we gather on our own hillside, listening for Jesus, longing for answers, for some solution to the problems that plague us and we have this same unhelpful answer staring right back at us still – be joyful that you are struggling. It means your values are solid. It means your hearts are in the right place. It means your humanity and your connections to the divine are still intact. And, just like 2000 years ago in the Holy Land, this advice follows, advice which I find increasingly helpful. Be salt. Be light. Not so much salt that you are considered “salty,” you know? Not so much that you ruin the stew, but enough to season it. And be light. Not so much light that you are just “lit,” chasing only the latest fad, investing only in things if they are entertaining…and not so much light that you blind anyone who gets near you, keeping them from being able to see their own path. Just enough light to light your own path, to be able to see what’s going on around you, to let it shine enough that you make a small hole in the deep night, whose shadow threatens us all.
I am pulled deeper and deeper into this metaphor because I am profoundly aware of how tired people are around me. Swimming against the current is exhausting, and when you live in a place where you have to swim not only against politics nationally, but politics locally, even down to the act of putting on your mask each day when you go to work, or hiding your opinion, biting your lip or holding your voice down in family gatherings, the board meeting, the holiday party, the table in the big, public dining room of the restaurant…it is relentless. And how, we might feel with heaviness and depth…how can we make a difference? How can we change the whole entire world?
And my answer this morning is not “do more.” And it isn’t “do nothing,” either. Here’s my own metaphor – the parable of the cyclist. We’ve probably all seen cyclists riding in great packs, one behind the other or maybe two abreast as they cruise down the road. There’s a rhythm and a routine to that. The lead rider sets the pace, expelling a lot of energy to do so. The rest of the riders enjoy “drafting,” where they can take the wind block the lead rider also provides and expend less energy. Then a shift happens – the lead rider will signal and drop back, pulling to the side and slowing so the line can pass her and she can drift into the back spot, the second cyclist now becoming the lead. And that’s the routine that follows. The only way that the strongest rider among them can truly have their best race is with the team. The only way that the best outcome can be achieved is if there is action and rest, participation and presence, word and deed.
The lesson we get from this morning is – you can’t change the whole world. At least not by yourself. But then again, that’s not your job. It’s not any of our jobs. That’s God’s job. Our job is to be salt and light. What that means here in our time and place has been made much more clear to me over the past few days. If we are to seek blessing, in the language of the Beatitudes, it won’t be in the regular venues, or using the same tools we’ve used. We can choose retreat into our echo chambers, which are prevalent and prolific, increasing the division by choosing to participate in the recipe that is set before us. We can choose to escape, to numb the discomfort with all kinds of distractions. OR…we can add a little salt to the mix. We can curse the darkness or we can light a candle. And those pinches of salt, those small flames from our single candles…they do matter. Just like the acorn that grows into a mighty oak, God takes the small and makes it the all.
So in this time of great turmoil and upheaval, I’m going to suggest something simple…so ludicrously simple that it may seem trivial to you. Write down the salt and light you see in the world. Like keep a journal where you jot down every instance of goodness and hope that you witness, even the tiniest thing. Or come to church each week and write those things on the gratitude slips that are in your pews and put them in the offering plate. It will serve two purposes – instead of numbing when you get stressed, you can read that journal or remember those slips and be inspired. AND – perhaps most importantly – you will develop your eyes and ears for the salt and light in the world.
Why do we need to develop our sense for that? Well, friends, we’re back to the start…because it is good that you feel this weight upon you. It means you still have a sense of what our scriptures call “righteousness,” an awareness that this is not the way things should be. Blessed are you to be salt seasoning the blandness of the status quo…blessed are you to be light in a time of darkness…ALL of you, because that’s what it takes. All of us, each salt and light where we are, with what we have, trusting that the small things we do bring great changes…
God be with us on the journey. Amen.