Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
Imagine we were there that day to hear, first-hand, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His first impression for the world, and we all know what they say about first impressions. He kicks things off with all those “Blesseds” – or, as Rebecca rendered in her sermon last week, “Greatly honored-s.”
And then he switches it up a bit. He goes from addressing particular types of people – the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers – he goes from them to specifically addressing those who were right in front of him on the mountainside. Which means, in essence, that he’s addressing us.
You are the salt of the earth, he tells us.
You are the light of the world, he tells us.
And we know, as they did back then, it’s not actual salt he’s comparing us to – that would be weird. We know that salt enhances or even alters the taste of food, making it better than it would be without. So when Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, what he is saying is that we have the capacity to elicit goodness into the world. To elicit goodness into the world – that’s what it means to be salt. And, conversely, if we don’t elicit goodness in the world, we are like salt that has lost its taste. Which isn’t very useful salt, is it?
And we also know it’s not actual light he’s comparing us to – that would be weird. We know that light enables us to see what we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, revealing that which was previously hidden. We also know that light is a form of energy – electromagnetic waves, if you want to get technical about it. So when Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world, what he is saying is that our overarching purpose is to help the world see the love of God revealed in Jesus, so that he might bring life and energy where it had not been before.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
And so when we hear Jesus tell us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world, there are any number of ways we can hear it, but two in particular come to mind.
The first is to be inspired by it. Me, Jesus? I’m the salt of the earth? I’m the light of the world? I had no idea! I never really thought of myself that way before. I’m just your everyday person trying to make it in this world, trying to get by. But man – to know that I’m salt, that I’m light – that’s great to hear, Jesus. Thank you!
And I’d venture to guess that’s the way we think we’re supposed to hear this, right? A compliment, almost; a shot in the arm. Something good to know about ourselves; a way we can serve Jesus in our lives. It sounds wonderful.
But I cannot help but wonder if anyone there that day heard Jesus say this and found themselves thinking:
Really, Jesus, really? You’re gonna put that on me? Salt – of the earth? Light – of the whole world?? I gotta be honest, I’m not sure I’m up to being either of those in my own neighborhood, much less the entire planet. Don’t you think that’s a bit much to ask?
Besides, I didn’t come here today to change the world or anything, alright? I just showed up for the sermon. Just wanted to hear a good word. I’m not looking for another thing to pile on my already-full plate. And listen, that’s not to say that things don’t need to change. There’s no denying that our messed-up world needs a little more taste, a little more illumination to it. But come on, Jesus, are you really going to put all of that on me?
I don’t know, maybe not, but I do wonder if Jesus’ words at the mountainside that day struck anyone like that – if not about the whole salt and light thing, then certainly what he says next – do you remember? Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
For the past few weeks, Rebecca and Sara and I have been talking about the gifts of faith that keep on giving – specifically, the gifts of authentic community, of unbridled curiosity, of turning around, and of poetic challenge. Today we’re looking at the gift of salt and light – two things that Jesus tells us we are. Present tense, no conditions or prerequisites, no real choice in the matter. He’s not saying, “You will be salt and light one day” or “You are salt and light, if you want to be.” No, we are salt and light, right now, whether we like it or not. And not just salt and light for our small circle of family and friends – salt and light for the whole bloomin’ world.
Is Jesus putting too much on us here? It’s a fair question. Right out of the gate, mere minutes into his very first sermon. Here’s a question to ponder: when does the calling to be salt and light feel less like a gift and more like a burden?
I had a friend reach out to me the other week: he’s on a pastor search committee and wanted to pick my brain on potential candidates (not me). I told him I’d be happy to help, and he said he’d send me a list the search committee had come up with of qualities they deemed essential for their next pastor.
The following day I had an email in my inbox with the list, which read as follows:
- Exceptional Bible scholar and teacher
- Dynamic preacher and worship leader
- Connecting across the generations with ease, making sure no one feels left out
- A visionary with respect for the past while always pushing toward the future
- Able to bridge the political divide in the congregation
- Knows how to balance a church budget that’s been in deficit for decades
- Able to work with a community of CEO-types who are interested in telling you what they think and less interested in listening.
- Able to keep up with the inner-workings of all church committees, programs, and ministries.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been so exhausted just reading an email.
The next day, my friend called back and asked if any names came to mind. Yes, one in particular, I said. But sadly, he’s not available. He died 2000 years ago. And to be honest, I told him, I’m not even sure that Jesus himself would measure up to standards that your group has come up with!
Sometimes we want the best for ourselves, for others – and there is no fault in that, because we see the vision clearly and it looks amazing, and we want so much for that vision to become reality. That search committee had a vision for a thriving church – which is great – except for the fact that they thought the only way to get there was with a superhero pastor. News flash: looking for a superhero pastor that doesn’t exist will not help your church live into its vision.
The thing is, Jesus knew this. He knew that it could never be just about him. Did you notice, by chance, that in this debut sermon of his – the very beginning of his ministry where he articulates a radically compelling vision of the kingdom of God on earth – did you notice that Jesus barely mentions himself at all? It’s you, you, you, over and over again. Jesus is not the blessed or greatly honored one – you are. Jesus is not the salt of the earth – you are. Jesus is not the light of the world – you are. It’s a full seventeen verses into his sermon before the word “I” comes out of his mouth.
And that is, for us, both a gift and burden, is it not? It’s a gift because we are part of something bigger than ourselves, something that means something, something that matters. For all the changes we’ve been through over the past few years that have wreaked havoc on our sense of community and belonging, the one thing that I’m convinced has not changed is the longing to be part of something bigger than ourselves that matters. Would you agree? And the best part: we don’t have to do anything to earn or achieve this – Jesus tells us right off the bat that it is already who we are. What a gift!
But if we’re honest, it also can be a bit of a burden sometimes, don’t you think? Community does not just happen on its own; it has to be entered into by choice. And once that community is entered, it takes time and effort to keep it together. You have to invest yourself in it; give of yourself. You get something from it too, of course, but you’re still giving.
And in the community that we call church, we have Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world. And we want to be that; we understand its importance. We feel the weight of a world that seems to be losing more of its taste and getting a little darker with each passing day. We want to be part of the vision to change all of that. Still, it takes time, it takes effort.
And it’s not like we don’t have enough going on in our lives already, is it? All the hats we wear, all the things pulling at us. It’s enough to wear you out, isn’t it? I know it is, because I’ve talked with many of you; and you’ve told me you only have so much that you can give. And I get it. The struggle is real.
So, having acknowledged that, I wonder what might happen if we flip that question I asked earlier – when does the calling to be salt and light feel more like a gift and less of a burden?
It feels like a gift when we realize that Jesus is not really asking us to “do” anything, right? Or, more to the point, do “things.” Being salt and light takes time and effort, yes; but it’s not a program or ministry we have to plan and implement. It’s not a committee we have to join. We don’t have to fill out a sign-up genius to be salt and light. Being salt and light is about reflecting the love of Jesus from our lives to those we meet along the journey – in our homes, in our schools and places of work, at the gym, in the checkout line at the grocery store. What a gift it is to share the love of Jesus with the people we meet along the way.
Being salt and light feels like a gift when we realize it is who we were created to be. We are not having to be something that we are not already wired for. We were made for this. In the passage Rebecca read earlier, we learn that you and I are created in the image of God. Scholars have debated for centuries what “image of God” means exactly. I like the person who said this:
….for humans to have the conscious recognition of being made in the image of God means they understand that they are fundamentally good, not evil – and thus, they are the creature through whom God’s plans and purposes can be made known and actualized. Which means, in a very real sense, that human beings are co-creators with God.
Co-creators with God. Think about that! Not just responding to God’s work in the world but actively being part of it with God. What a gift, right?
And lastly, being salt and light in the world feels like a gift because it is who we already are. Like any true gift, we did nothing to earn it. We weren’t even really expecting it. We were made this way, made by the One who loves us deeply, who tells us, as Rebecca said so well in her sermon last week, that we are blessed, we are greatly honored, we belong, we are enough. We don’t have to do a thing to earn the right to be salt and light to the world. It is who we already are.
I guess in a sense there will always be a fine line between gifts and burdens – things given freely that come with some expectations, whether those expectations are placed on us by others or by our own selves. I guess we’ll always have to contend with there being too much on our plate, too many things pulling at us that can hold us back from living into who it is we’re created to be.
But rest easy in these simple yet profound truths:
The world has lost some of its tastiness –
And thanks be to God for you, for you are the salt it needs.
The world is seemingly growing dimmer by the day –
And thanks be to God for you, for you are the light that can shine in that darkness.
The world is longing for someone to show them the love of Jesus –
And thanks be to God for you, for that’s exactly who you were created to be.
Beloved, what a gift you are!
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.