February 5, 2023, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "On Being the Salt of the Earth"

Feb 5th  |  The Reverend Anna von Winckler |  Matthew 5:13-20

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Jesus said to his disciples, to me and to all of you, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” As you heard in the  message, it is pretty clear what it means to be the light of the world, especially if you take it at a surface level. Yes, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and so God’s light shines through us; but for each of these sayings there is much more depth that Jesus wanted us to take from these words.

Let’s look at salt first. As we all know, salt is not useful in and of itself. Without the other foods it interacts with, it is not worth anything. It is not something we would eat by itself. And, it doesn’t take much salt, unless you are a salt addict, like my former housemate, to enhance the flavors of the food it is mixed into.

Jesus said these words to his disciples. Their numbers were not large, but Jesus was instructing them, encouraging them really, that their small numbers were not a hindrance to spreading the Good News. A little bit of salt can enhance the flavor in a whole pot of soup. Their Godly lives would be a witness in the world that would spread as they interacted with others. And that is now what we are tasked with, to be the salt, to draw out the goodness in others.

I heard this wonderful story about Mother Theresa. She was asked one day how she was able to not be overwhelmed by all the need in Calcutta. She had only to open the front door and see the vast crowds of poor people teeming about. She said that she didn’t see the masses, she saw only that one next face. One person at a time. She went ministering to one person and then to another and then to another until an amazing ministry had come into existence. We can do that within our own orbit, within our own community. I open my front door and see the poverty. It starts with saying hello to the neighbors, with talking to the boys who are always playing basketball every spare moment they have. It just takes a little bit of salt.

The next use of salt is that it is used as a preservative. And isn’t that what we are called to do? To preserve the truth of the gospel. The scriptures warn us of false prophets, of those who would manipulate the scriptures to gain power and influence. And haven’t we seen that in the rise of Christian Nationalism and the distortion of God’s desire for all people in this country and around the world to live in equity and peace to the belief that somehow we are special over others? It takes adherence to the truth of the scriptures, which is first and foremost that God is love and all are created in the image of God, regardless of color or creed. 

We see that preservative, that standing up to injustice through the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandella, and even Dietrich Boenhoffer, who lost his life attempting to stop Hitler. On a smaller scale, but equally as important, it was those who fought for voting rights in the sixties. It is every person who has fought and continues to fight for the rights of the abused, the under privileged, the disenfranchised, through their legislative action and their work to preserve life under the harshest of conditions, even facing jail time or death. For preserving, is not just preserving God’s truth and justice, but it also means for us Christians, endurance. Endurance to go the distance for Christ and for others, to never give up.

And finally, salt was used in the incense that was burned at the alter in the temple. This signifies that we are to live holy lives and that is pleasing God.

And light, well, light illuminates. Light illuminates the way and so we know where to go. The faith of our foreparents illuminated the way for us as we now illuminate the way for our children and grandchildren; and for those who have been lost, but have been looking for the path to righteousness. We need to keep close to God so that our light can shine so others may see.

But light doesn’t just show us the way forward. Light also shines a light on sin, on corruption.

And doesn’t our country need that light now more than ever? Corruption in government brought on by a lust for power. Corruption in corporations as lust for wealth takes over. Corruption in fair housing practices, in fair labor practices. There is so much greed and corruption and we need to stand up against that for the well being of our brothers and sisters affected by this as well as shining a light on the sin of those who take advantage. Not just to make them do the right thing, but that they might be saved in the process. I know that is a tall expectation, but it just takes the first step. Because what Jesus is saying to the disciples, to us, is that we are the beacon fires of truth that reveal the reality of God’s goodness and we live in contrast to human wickedness. And, as I think I mentioned last week, if just a small percentage of Christians gathered together to shine their light on the evils within our society, what a change that could take place. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. That is so needed right now.

Finally, Jesus says that we are to shine the light on our good deeds so that others will see and glorify God. It seems in contradiction to the scriptures that tell us to do good in private, not boasting about what we have done. But that is the difference between what is said in that passage and what Jesus is saying here. The Pharisees would pray aloud naming all the good things they had done for God, but it was never really intended for God’s ears, but for the ears of everyone else who was around. The light will show off your good deeds. You won’t have to brag about them, the light of God through you will show the good that comes from your love of God and that is what will give glory and praise to God.

A guy I knew in college was a Christian and so was his older brother. His older brother had graduated college the spring before and had then gone backpacking around the world. He told us that while his brother was waiting for a train in a developing country that he had this experience. On the platform was a boy with a cart selling fruit. Now, if you’ve ever taken a train in a developing country, or in New York City during rush hour, you can imagine the scene. The crowd had gathered waiting for the train, because the trains were notoriously off schedule. Miss this train and who knows when the next one would come. The train pulled in and the people rushed to get on the train, but in that rush, the boy’s cart was knocked over and the fruit scattered. My friend’s brother, instead of also rushing onto the train, stopped to help the boy. He turned the cart over and began gathering up the fruit. He chose to miss the train to help the boy out. When that was done, the boy looked at him and asked, “Are you that man Jesus that I’ve heard about?” In a simple, yet profound gesture, this young man’s light illuminated Jesus Christ to this young boy. He had heard about Jesus and now he had witnessed Christ-like behavior and was touched.

Finally, Jesus ends the salt passage by saying that if the salt has lost its flavor then it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. I’ve thought about that a lot during this past week. How do we lose our saltiness? I think it may mean when we leave our faith at the door when we head home on Sunday mornings, then we are really good for nothing.

I worked at a hospice that had a director who was the wife of a pastor. Her husband was actually the head chaplain at the hospice and the pastor of a small church. But the wife, the director, was a horrible boss. She had her favorites and those she decided she didn’t like, for no good reason, she would talk about them behind their backs, mocking them with the other employees, reducing them to per-diem work and then reducing their hours until they quit. I heard stories when I arrived and saw it happen while I was there. It is this contradiction between what is declared, “I am a Christian” to how one’s life is lived that reflects a salt that has lost its flavor. And it doesn’t have to be that dramatic, it can simply be turning one’s back on the injustices in our society.

I began seminary after spending two years in the Middle East where I saw grave injustices. When I returned home, it was easier to see the injustices that were occurring in this country. In a discussion with some students one day, I commented on some of those issues. One student from North Carolina retorted with the standard, “Well, if you hate this country so much, why don’t you just leave?” Recognizing the problems in one’s own country is not to be against it or to hate it, but to recognize that there is work to be done and the need to get involved in “good trouble” as the late John Lewis would say.

Keep your saltiness in all that you do and keep the light of Christ burning brightly through you. This is what we are called to do as Christians. Amen.

 © 2023 Anna von Winckler