(Sermon 2/5/17 – Youth Sunday)
“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 hid. 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.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Last week, we heard the Beatitudes as our gospel text, that very familiar part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What we heard today was the part that immediately follows that one, and it’s probably pretty familiar, too. Jesus tells his followers that they’re supposed to be like light and salt to the world.
Whenever this passage comes around in the Lectionary, preachers pretty much know, and listeners pretty much know, where the sermon is likely to go: since we’re followers of Jesus, and we know God’s good news for all people, we’re supposed to be a very visible, positive model for others to see. We’re supposed to let our light shine, for others to be attracted to like a moth to a porchlight, and to draw others to become followers of Jesus, too. We’re the knowers and keepers of what’s good and right and true, that others are supposed to look toward and be inspired by.
That’s where most of these sermons go. That’s what most people are expecting to hear. That’s where many of my sermons on this passage have gone. And generally speaking, depending on how it’s presented, that’s a good message to get out of this. Jesus’ own words certainly bear out that message. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I think that Jesus’ own words indicate that there’s another way to think about this too.
When I was a kid, I remember helping my Dad as he was doing various things. Dad worked long hours, six days a week, and when he’d get home he’d have a to-do list that would often take him late into the evening to get done. And for a lot of those things, whether it was repairing a leaky pipe in the crawl space, or spending time under the hood trying to keep the aging family car running just a little bit longer, I’d be there beside him, passing him tools back and forth, and most importantly, often holding the big sealed-beam flashlight steady on his hands – so he could see what he was doing, but also, so I could see, because as he worked, he kept up a dialogue with me, explaining just what it was that was wrong, and how it had to be fixed, and what he was doing at each step of the way and why. During those sessions I learned all about the mysteries of the lead-to-tin ratio of solder, or how a distributor or carburetor worked, all periodically seasoned with a mild profanity or two when some all-important screw fell into an inaccessible crack, or he’d skin his knuckles when his wrench slipped. It’s funny how back then, half the time I hated getting dragged away from what I was doing to help him. But now, as I think back on it all, I’m surprised at just how much I learned almost in spite of myself, and how much I value those times with him now.
My point here is that in those times, I was in a literal sense, his light. But it wasn’t light to draw attention to me; rather, it was to focus on, and highlight, and learn from, something else. It wasn’t me, the light, who was teaching anything. I was the one learning something from him, because I was shining a light on what he was doing.
That, I think, is the other part of Jesus’ message in what we heard today. When Jesus calls us the light of the world, it isn’t so much to always call attention to ourselves, or how good or smart or wonderful we might be, or at least think we might be. Often, our job as the light is to focus it, to hold it steady on someone or something else – calling attention to it, not us.
I think this is the point Jesus is making when he calls us the salt of the earth – or, I suppose if you’re on a salt-restricted diet, you could say that we’re the Mrs. Dash of the earth. Think about it: what does salt – or Mrs. Dash – do? It enhances, it draws out, the flavor that’s already in whatever it’s added to. Its whole purpose is to call attention to the other thing, not itself. It isn’t about the salt; it’s about the other thing.
So whether it’s salt or light, an important part of Jesus’ calling us these things is our being those things in order to lift up someone or something else; to make it more visible or noticed. We’re supposed to use our light to shine it on the good that we see, and to enhance it and learn from it. We use our light so we can see and learn from positive things that people are doing that are making this world a bit more like the Kingdom of God. People who are working to increase educational opportunities where it’s needed, or working to build character or reduce bullying. Or we can shine the light on our youth, so we can see them as the important part of us that they are, and so they can teach us something about faith and worship, instead of always assuming it’s the other way around. We’re also called to shine our light on things that are bad, things that are wrong, too, for people to be aware of it. Shining it on those in our society who endure injustice and discrimination, so we can see what’s really going on, as we listen to them teaching us about its reality and learning from them how to fix it.
There are certainly times when it’s right to think of ourselves as the bright thing, the thing that others are supposed to look to and be drawn to. But there are those other times – personally, I think it’s the majority of times – when the light that Jesus says we’re supposed to be is meant to be focused outward, on someone or something other than ourselves. Using the light to lift up and learn from the good, and to spotlight and help fix the bad, wherever we find it. And really, if we’re that kind of light – humbly turning it outward instead of just using to light ourselves – won’t that actually make others more intrigued and inspired by who and what we are? In the end, won’t that actually make us more the kind of light that Jesus says people will see and be drawn to?
Thanks be to God.