When the Puritans first arrived in America, they saw themselves acting out the exodus story, with America as the new Promised Land. John Winthrop, one of the early governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, referred to the colony as “the city on the hill” which would be a beacon to the rest of the world of what Christianity, when rightfully practiced and purified of Catholicism, hence the name Puritans, would look like. When they were choosing the location for a new state house, they choose the tallest hill in Boston, called Beacon Hill, and had the dome of the building clad in copper by none other than Paul Revere, so that it would reflect the sunlight and be seen as the light on the hill. This idea of being the city on the hill has been a recurrent theme in American politics and American religion, and it is found not just here in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, but is part of Jewish tradition as well.
In Isaiah, God says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (42:6-7) As part of the covenant between Israel and God, God has set them up as a light to the nations. Of course part of that covenantal also involved salt, as we are told in Leviticus in the instructions given regarding offerings, that salt was to be given with every offering, and in the instructions given to Aaron, Moses’ brother about what offerings he and the other priests are to receive, they are told that they are to receive what the Lord gives them that it “is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants.”
Salt played a critical role in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, and as a remnant of that practice our word salary comes from the root word for salt. To indicate fellowship or friendship it would be said that you had shared salt with someone. It sounds sort of dirty doesn’t it? But what it meant was that you had dined together, and were willing to share salt with that person, and since salt was valuable that indicated that you had a relationship that was more than just mere acquaintance.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. According to the Salt Institute, and I never knew there was such a thing until this week, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt. It can be used as a cleaning agent, it can lock color into clothe, at the time of Jesus one of the only ways to preserve things was to salt them, it can be used in wounds both to cause pain and also to cauterize, it can heal, and of course it can season. That is probably how we use salt the most now as is for its seasoning properties. For those on a low-sodium diet, or if you accidentally grabbed a can a low-sodium something off the shelves, you know what a difference having salt on food can be. German theologian Eberhard Arnold, in commenting on this passage, said that “The nature of salt is salt, or it is nothing.” That is salt doesn’t really lose its saltiness, it can be contaminated, but it’s either salt or not salt, and if it’s not salt or if it becomes contaminated then it’s worthless. And while food is improved through the use of salt, when used correctly, and certainly true with table salt, it tends to disappear so that you don’t see it. You know it’s there, but it’s not obvious or obtrusive. In that way salt, and this metaphor is like yeast, just a little bit will change the entire loaf. You are the salt of the earth. A little bit goes a long way, and similarly too much can ruin it, and the same is true of light or of fire as well, too much fire and it burns out of control.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all the house.” The primary purpose of light is not to be seen, but to make seen. Light is sort of like a vase. While we might think that the solid part of the vase is what’s important, it’s actually the space inside. The form makes the inside possible, but without the space inside the vase is useless, and so while the source of the light is important, unless something is going wrong, we don’t focus on the candle or the light bulb, instead we focus on those things that are being lit up and illuminated. And we need light because there is darkness in the world, and so the presence of light is important because of what it represents. On Friday the Olympic torch was lit, and that light means something to the world. While they might not have clean water, functioning toilets, or even only one toilet per stall, they have the Olympic flame, and that light shines out to the entire world. And that’s also what Jesus tells us. Jesus says “In the same way, let your light shine before others.” Why? So that people “may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”
Notice that this is not a statement of works righteousness, that is that we might do good works because of the reward that it might earn us, like eternal life. Jesus says that we are to do good works not so that we get anything, but so that people will see what we are doing and give glory to God, which means that we must also understand that is why we are doing it and be willing to truly make sure that God gets the glory, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. Sometimes when I’m greeting you all after worship, occasionally someone will tell me how much they enjoyed me sermon, and I’ll tell them that the credit should go to the Holy Spirit, the best answer I got was someone who told me “well it wasn’t that good.” But I want to take the credit for myself, or at least to bask in the glow a little bit, because it’s hard to let God have all the glory.
Last week immediately after winning the Super Bowl, the first thing that Russell Wilson did was to thank God, although he seemed to be taking a lot of glory for himself, and we’re certainly going to be hearing a lot of that over the next few weeks during the Olympics. When Gabby Douglas won the all-around gymnastics gold two years ago, she said, “I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him and the blessings fall down on me.” I know what Gabby and other athletes are doing, and I appreciate it, they are trying to be the light on the hill, they are trying to have people give the glory to God, but I think they’re often failing and the other troubling thing is that by most athletes reckonings God is undefeated, because God is always on the winning side, and it seems as if most of the credit and the blessings are going to them, and when we begin to accept this thinking then we also have to accept that last week’s outcome proves that God just really doesn’t like the Denver Broncos, maybe God’s still mad about that whole Tim Tebow thing. Let your light shine, so that people will see what we are doing in the world, see our good works, and give glory to God, not to us.
But here is one of the most important things from today’s passage. Jesus does not say become the salt of the earth, or become the light of the world. Instead he says you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. It’s not what we are to become it’s what we already are, and it’s not us as individuals, the Greek word here is the plural so it’s you plural, or we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world, but what is more useless than tasteless salt or hidden lamps? Why would someone want to hide their light, or become tasteless salt? Fear, especially at this time when being accused of being a Christian could bring the suffering that are part of the beatitudes of suffering in Jesus’ name. Embarrassment over being a Christian? Not understanding what it actually means when Jesus says that we are salt and light? When we accept that we are salt and we are light, then we have to understand that we are light and salt every minute of every day, and that every action, everything we do, is something that should cause people to give glory to God. Have you ever been cut off, or had someone do something rude, in traffic by someone who had a Jesus fish on their car? Did that show off their light to the world? Did it make the world a better place? While you might have yelled out something, I doubt that it was praise to God. We are the salt of the world, and salt that has lost its saltiness is useless. We are the light of the world, so don’t hide it under a basket, instead let your light shine to the world so that people might see your good works and give praise to God.
I used to work for Kinko’s, and we had an episcopal priest who would come in to have work done, and nearly always they would be wearing their color, so it was clear who they were and what they did. Unfortunately they were also one of the rudest customers who came in, who consistently treated the employees there as if they were clearly below them in existence and preference. What impact do you think that made on the employees of what Christians were like? We are called to be disciples, to let out light shine not just when it’s convenient or easy to do, or just on Sunday morning, we are called to be light and salt every moment of every day so that people might see our good works and give praise to God. It’s really easy to say that we are Christians, making a profession is a piece of cake compared to actually living out the faith, of actually being the salt of the earth and letting our light shine so that people know who we are by what we do and give praise to God. I think I’ve already said this before, by one of my favorite quotes comes from Voltaire who said “Never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian. Why? Because if they were truly a Christian they wouldn’t have to tell you.” If we were to be charged with being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict us?
That’s what Isaiah was talking about in the passage we heard this morning. The people are saying to God, “hey we’re fasting and doing the things you tell us,” or they are practicing some outward practices and thinking that’s enough. But God says, “You fast, but then you do whatever is in your interest, you oppress people, you fight and quarrel, that is not what I am calling for you”. Instead, God says, “Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn...” That is what Jesus is saying when he tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees or we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather than being seen as a negative, which is how most passages referring to the scribes and Pharisees are, especially in Matthew, instead this should be seen as a positive but saying that what they do is good, but it is not enough. The Pharisees in particular worked at making Judaism a religion that could be practiced by everyone, every day, rather than being focused simply in the practices of the Temple. But they became too focused simply on the practice rather than on what goes behind the laws that God has laid done, which we will cover in much more detail over the next two weeks.
Jesus’ saying that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, is the beginning of this appeal. This is not a return to a strict adherence of the law as some Christians today would like to see implemented, naming the simple fact that huge portions of the law are ignored or overlooked completely. I can’t really figure out how it is that we as a church seem to be concerned with only two issues. To outsiders of the church, most especially those who are unchurched, they think the only thing we care about are abortion and gay marriage, we are known much more for what we might be opposed to then what we are for, what we stand for, what we are called to do. I think that is a way we hide our light. The United Methodist Church has been in the news a lot lately over the issues of homosexuality and so we have bishops and clergy and laity talking not about how we are helping victims of hurricanes and tornadoes, we are not talking about how many millions of people we are helping to feed around the world, or the millions we are working to provide clean water, or healthcare or educational opportunities to, we are not talking about the work we are doing with inner-city schools to provide opportunities these students would never otherwise have, we are not talking about how we are transforming the world in Jesus name, how we are working about bringing about the kingdom of God here and now, instead we are talking about same gender marriage, and I don’t care which side of the debate you are on this issue that is a significant problem, because that is not how we are the light of Christ to the world. As disciples we are called to balance between law and grace, knowing that rigid observance of the law lacks God’s grace, but that God’s grace does not simultaneously mean permissiveness.
Let us be known by what we are for, not by what we are against. Let us be light to the world. One of the ways that the early church spread was because Christians reached out to people in need. In the roman empire, when there would be outbreaks of plague or other diseases, and people fled and refused to help people in need, who provided that assistance? It was Christians, and as a result of their witness, not through their words, but through their actions, people wanted to know more about who Jesus was and the church grew. We are the salt of the earth, and we the light of the world. We are not called to become these things, we are salt, we are light. As disciples, we are called to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted, to proclaim that blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are poor in spirit, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness. Disciples who do not do this have lost their salt, and they have hidden their light.
When we end our worship service, we don’t extinguish the candles, which represent the light of Christ. Instead we carry that light out into the world. We go forth following that light; so that we met let our light shine so that others, in seeing our good works might give glory to God.