(Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany A, based on Matthew 5:13-20)
On Friday there was a wonderful story in The Oregonian about a woman named Mary Bayless. The article doesn’t say whether or not Mary is a Christian, but the way she lives her daily life certainly exemplifies what Christian living looks like! For the past 20 years, Mary, who is 73, has been riding her bike from her home in outer SE Portland to her workplace, the Pendleton Woolen Mills distribution center in Milwaukie—a 20-mile round trip! When reporter Tom Hallman learned that she rides along the Springwater Trail, he asked her how she felt about riding through the homeless encampments along the trail. Mary told him that over the years she’s gotten to know many of the people there. She’s taken them coffee and doughnuts, socks, blankets, sleeping bags, and holiday meals. Recalling her earlier life as a single mother who juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet, she said, “I understand these lives. It could have been me out there on that corridor….” Over the years, Mary has done all this quietly, without telling any of her coworkers. I get that she probably didn’t want to be viewed as boasting about it, and yet her story of doing good in simple ways can serve as an inspiration for others, and so it’s a good thing that it’s been told!… As she reflect on her relationship with the men and women along the corridor, Mary said, “The people tell me that they like me because I give them hugs no matter what they look like….” My friend, by fearlessly showing love for her neighbors, Mary is giving them a sense of human dignity, and that’s no small thing, especially in today’s world!… In her own unique, God-given way, Mary Bayless is the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
I wonder: Who are the people you think of as “the salt of the earth?” I invite you to think about them and about the ways that you may have been salt and light for someone recently, while I tell you about a couple of people I know…. Over the years, I’ve met many remarkable people who are salt and light just by being who God has created and called them to be in their daily lives. For example, I know a remarkable woman named Susan who’s legally blind, and yet she creates the most incredibly beautiful miniature paintings, which she exhibits at art shows across the country. Sometimes she sells her paintings and donates the money to causes that are dear to her heart. She also volunteers with hospice, makes quilts for Lutheran World Relief, and is the care team coordinator for her congregation. Susan IS salt and light, because she believes God has graced her with abundant life to share with others. She sustains her “saltiness” and her light by intentionally cultivating a sense of God’s presence through prayer, art, and spending time in nature. In essence, everything she does becomes a form of prayer that sustains her…. I know a kind, gentle Vietnam veteran named Gary, who visits a hospice center and a hospital each week and plays his Native American flute for the patients and their families. Gary also has a heart for kids and has helped teach confirmation classes for a number of years. But my favorite thing about Gary is that he’s quick with a smile and a hug, and if someone needs a ride, they can always count on Gary to give them a lift—in every sense of the word!… When my mom was in the hospital right after Christmas, my phone rang while I was in her hospital room, and it was Gary, who offered to come and play his flute for her…. In his own unique, God-given way, Gary is the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Sisters and brothers, like Mary, Susan, and Gary, each of us is called to be salt and light in our own unique God-given way…. Jesus’ words to his first disciples are also meant for you and me. Jesus says to us, “As God’s people, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world—and NOT in some far off distant future—but here and now!” In first-century Palestine, people would’ve understood that salt and light were the stuff of life: Without salt and without light they couldn’t survive. Salt was the only means of preserving foods back then, and it was so valuable that it was sometimes used as currency in trading. In an era when the only dependable light was the sun, light was also valued and treated with great care; in Jesus’ time, it was important to keep lamps trimmed and to make sure an adequate supply of oil was available. Today we tend to take salt and light for granted, because salt is cheap and artificial light is everywhere! All we have to do is go to the store or flip a switch. And we complain loudly when the power goes out, don’t we?!… And so, I wonder: Do we really appreciate how significant it is when Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world?…” Do we really get that Jesus is telling us we’re valuable NOT because of anything we do, but because we belong to God, who has poured God’s salty, light-filled grace out on us….
As people who’ve come to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ, you and I are blessed, and with blessing comes a responsibility to live each day as Jesus’ disciples. Our confirmation students can tell you that in the original Greek of the New Testament the word “mathetes,” which we translate as “disciple,” literally means “learner.” So, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be a lifelong learner of the faith. And I’m not just talking about head learning! I’m talking about holistic learning: head, heart, hands and feet-learning! We are the church, and the church is the Body of Christ in the world today…. God has salted each of us with the fire of the Holy Spirit and kindled within us the light of Christ, so that we can continue Jesus’ work of bringing healing and hope and new life to our neighbors each and every day…. My friends, in this world where many are hungry for life-giving salt and yearning for the light of God’s love, our little bit of saltiness and light can make a big difference, because it’s the very Spirit of God that works in us and through us—and not just when we come to church on Sunday or when we engage in church-sponsored ministries in the wider community—but every day and in every part of our lives!…
So, now we know: We’re salt and light…. BUT Jesus also warns us right up front that it’s possible for us to waste the gifts God has given us: He says we can lose our “saltiness” by mixing it with stuff that defiles it, and we can render our God-given light ineffective–not by extinguishing it, but by hiding it so that it doesn’t do anyone any good…. As I’ve pondered this, it occurs to me that we sometimes lose our saltiness when we listen to the voices around us that tell us we’re not good enough or strong enough or smart enough or you-fill-in-the-blank enough…. Similarly, we hide our light when we feel afraid or unworthy. In addition, the crushing weight of life’s burdens can also diminish our saltiness and our light: Maybe we’re being squeezed in the Panini press of the sandwich generation, or desperately trying to find a new job, or dueling with the demons of our own disease…. Those are just a few of the ways our saltiness and our light can be diminished!… Yet whatever the cause, losing our saltiness and our light is a matter of life and death, because when you and I begin to lose those qualities, we’re starting to separate ourselves from God….
My friends, you and I know that many of our neighbors are in a world of hurt. Our decaying, darkening world desperately needs salt and light, the stuff of life, and God has called you and me to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world…. Holy Scripture and human history teach us that as God’s people we’re in this for the long haul. That raises a question: When you and I find ourselves running on empty, how can our saltiness be replenished and our light be rekindled?… As followers of Christ, we look to the example of Jesus, who shows us what we need to sustain us: 1. a contemplative prayer practice that creates an awareness of God’s presence and helps us to listen deeply for God’s guidance; 2. self-care, including resting, eating properly, and practicing self-compassion; 3. faith-based friendships that provide companionship and support; and 4. a collective sense of mission or purpose. One more thing to keep in mind: A little bit of salt and a little bit of light can go a long way, so we shouldn’t try to do everything; we’ll either burn out, or we won’t be “worth our salt!” To paraphrase the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton: When we try to do too much, we do violence to our souls…. Now, you get to help me finish the sermon: Please turn to your neighbor, look them in the eyes, and offer them this blessing: “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world!” […] My friends, it’s time for you and me to get busy “salting” and shining because the world needs the gifts God has entrusted to us! And all God’s children say: Amen!