Salt and Light
(LTSP President David Lose preached at Chapel on Wednesday, February 8, 2017, the first day of the spring semester. Here is the text of the sermon he preached.)
And Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:13-17
I’m not sure I can remember a time when we’ve needed salt and light more. So much fear, so much division, so much disenfranchisement, darkness, and dread. No, I don’t think I can remember a time when we’ve needed salt and light more than we do just now.
Salt and light. These are among the most well-known metaphors that Jesus uses. And they are metaphors. I know, I know, like you I learned — probably at seminary — that salt is a preservative that keeps meat edible and serves as a seasoning that brings out flavor. And light is an essential source of both illumination and warmth. And when Jesus tells those gathered with him on the mountain that they are salt and light, they know what he means…and they know these words are metaphors.
Precisely because they are metaphors, all those who have heard Jesus’ words in the nearly two millennia since he spoke them have needed to fill in just what it means to be salt and light in their particular context and circumstances. Sometimes being salt and light has been as simple as giving comfort to those who are bereaved or caring for those who are ill. At other times, it has been as dangerous as helping escaped slaves flee via the Underground Railroad or hiding persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany.
Salt and light. You have to fill in these words for them to be meaningful and to matter. Salt and light sound like good things, even happy things, or at least hopeful things. But sometimes being salt sounds more like getting angry at injustice and being light may take the form of marching to protest discrimination.
I suspect most of us, on a day to day basis, have a pretty good sense of what salt and light look like. That doesn’t mean we’re always eager to be these things. Being salt and light — especially in times like these — can be a little unsettling, even frightening. It can take more nerve than you thought you had and summon more courage than you ever knew you possessed.
Which is why maybe the key element of this text is that Jesus is not actually commanding us to be salt and light, but rather commending us — even promising us — that we already are. Jesus, that is, doesn’t say “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.
Which is why the primary word of Gospel I have to offer to you this morning is that you are more than you believe yourself to be, that God sees something in you that you may not yet see yourself, and that God has promised to use you to make a difference, to care for this world God loves so much, in ways you cannot imagine. For you, people of God, are the salt of the earth and light of the world.
It’s a good word, this promise, and an important word when we need salt and light so desperately because so many people need protecting and preserving. But there’s just one problem. The people who disagree with you…the people who voted differently than you…those who celebrate events you dread and find hope in actions you find hopeless…they probably think they’re being salt and light, too.
One way to respond to this glaring discrepancy of perspective, of course, is to take comfort in the fact that we are right and they are wrong. Seriously. We do this all the time, sometimes without meaning to. We call for justice and assume any who disagree with us stand for injustice. We say we’ve prayed about a matter and perhaps imply that any who disagree didn’t, or at least didn’t listen to God’s response as well as we have. We issue our statements and state our case and take our stand, daring any who disagree to convince us by Scripture and reason. And, quite frankly, there may be times when that is the most reasonable and faithful course. Statements and declarations can be effective, and at times are critical, means to name our values and indicate our solidarity with the vulnerable and proclaim our faith.
But they rarely change minds or soften hearts.
I find two things continue to happen as I get older. I feel more strongly about my convictions — convictions that have been tested by time and circumstances — and I simultaneously have a harder and harder time rejecting outright the convictions of those who disagree with me. Not, please understand, because I have grown so compassionate, wise, or understanding, but simply because over time I have, as most of us have, formed more and more friendships and inevitably some of those friendships include people I love yet who believe differently than I do and with equal conviction, insight, and intelligence.
All of which has prompted me to wonder if part of being salt and light at this particular time is to make space for dialogue and discussion, to invite conversation, to strive to understand the perspective of those on the other side of an issue, and to pledge not to question the integrity or fidelity of those who disagree with us but rather to pray for them and remind them that Jesus has called them to be salt and light and believe that that is what they are trying to be.
This is not easy, I know and, to be perfectly honest, even when I try I sometimes second guess myself, wondering if this desire to listen is less about being salt and light and more about being a middle child and wanting to keep everyone happy. Good Lord this stuff is not easy.
But I do not think we are necessarily faced with an either/or choice. Either prophetic or pastoral. Either protest or conversation. Either righteous indignation or compassionate listening. There is no reason one can’t march and discuss, can’t protest and listen, can’t issue a statement and then receive feedback from those who disagree with it. What we can’t do — at least not without great deliberation and, I think, a measure of peril — is decide that some persons, because of their views, are beyond the pale of God or the church’s care and concern. For every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out you are likely to find Jesus on the other side, and that conviction can both drive our actions and at the same time fuel our commitment to listen to those with whom we disagree.
Most of the congregations in this country are glaringly homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity and in this sense do not manifest the diversity of the Body of Christ. Yet many of those same congregations are also surprisingly diverse when it comes to political view point. At times like this, we may be tempted to see this as a challenge, maybe even an impediment, to our preaching. But it might also be a gift. Our culture is so ridiculously immature in its inability to tolerate ambiguity and promote meaningful dialogue. And the increasingly widespread penchant to lash out on Facebook, surround ourselves with newsfeeds that support our views, or Tweet at each other instead of speak with each other has, if not created, at least exacerbated the sense of disenfranchisement, discord, and division which now runs through not only our country but so many of our congregations and even our families.
If we can hold fast to our values and views while simultaneously viewing those who disagree with us as having value, maybe we can offer an alternative, maybe we can be salt and light, maybe we can witness to the Christ who not only called us to love our neighbor but also died forgiving those opponents who crucified him and rose forgiving and empowering those disciples who deserted him. If we wait for perfect partners to love and bless this world, we will never get started.
All of which brings me back to Jesus’ promise. You are the salt of the earth and light of the world. You may not always know quite what that means. You may sense you know just what it means and falter in embracing it. You may think you know and later second guess yourself. You may struggle to see those who disagree with you as faithful. Yet in spite of all this, you are the salt the earth and the light of the world, beloved by God and commissioned to care for this people and world God loves so much. God is at work in you and through you and will never give up on you. For Jesus is still making promises, and even as we speak those promises are taking hold of us, challenging us, changing us, renewing us, and preparing us to face the tasks and trials of this day. This is most certainly true. Thanks be to God. Amen.