Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the Light
Blessed are the Upside Down: Lessons from Sermon on the Mount Part 2
Isaiah 58:8-12, Matthew 5:13-14
Feb. 9, 2014
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
Did you see it? Did you watch the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics? There was so much going on with music and images projected and dancing and athletes. I did not watch the whole thing. But one of the parts that gave me goose bumps was the end. The Olympic flame, the light, that had travelled thousands of miles from Greece and throughout Russia, came into a darkened arena. Tennis star Maria Sharapova brought the light in. She passed to a pole vaulter and then to hockey player and ice skater. They ran outside arena through hundreds of colorful dancers from the ceremonies. They ran to a platform place, lit it, and the light literally moved up a chain of light into this large structure to the caldron. The light of the Olympic games. It struck me that light is an essential part as human beings for special events. And the flame is a beautiful symbol of light of the Olympic spirit.
I have been thinking about light and also salt this week. The salt of the earth is in high demand at the moment. Governors are calling states of emergency as salt supplies diminish. “Everybody is low right now.” Mayor of Fanwood said there was only enough on hand for one more storm. And even worse, lights have gone out in wide swaths. Electrical lines have fallen due to ice storms, thus causing trials for millions. No salt. No light. No small problem.
These images of salt and light seem to bring my focus to ways God is at work in my life and our church and the world. Notice the present tense as Jesus tells his followers they are salt and light now, not in some distant future. Jesus’ teaching is not only about what the Kingdom of God is, but centrally about who we are, what our new lives in this new realm look like — tasty and lit up.
Salt of the Earth
Think about salt first. What did it mean for Jesus to call his followers salt of the earth. The whole history of the world can be told by tracing what has happened with salt. I read some excerpts from a book Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.
Salt is still a basic symbol of hospitality in the Middle East. Salt is often presented to visitors, along with bread, as a way of saying, ‘your life is safe with us, and we recognize you as friend.’ The ancients understood the profound potential hospitality holds for building and transforming lasting relationships–for binding families together, making strangers into friends, even turning enemies into neighbors. Salt is a symbol for hospitality.
Wars have been won and lost on the basis of who has control of the stores of salt.
Governments have found salt to be a lucrative means of raising money — by controlling and taxing it.
At different points in history, salt has been the currency of commerce. The word ‘salary’ has its Latin roots in the sense that the worker was paid in order to be able to ‘buy salt.’ And think of the phrase, “Worth your salt.”
Evidently, until a hundred years ago, salt was scarce. And in the time of Jesus and long before that and ever since, salt was necessary for the preservation of food. Having it or not having it was the difference between life and death. Think of all foods through history where salt was used to preserve for long trips and voyages across oceans – fish, meats. (1)
In Jesus’ time salt was an ingredient for fuel. The salt referred to the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus. Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were placed in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. (2)
So another aspect of this image is that Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress and opposition.
A quote I discovered this week is “The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” – Isak Dinesen
So salt brings taste and flavor to food and to life, salt is a symbol of hospitality, salt preserves what is valuable, salt stings but bring healing and salt can keeps the fire of faith burning.
“You are the salt of the earth.” How can we be salt? How is our church salt? Willow Grove is a place of hospitality. New people say they feel God’s love and are warmly welcomed here. We offer hospitality to groups who use the building and are part of our mission and ministry. We offer hospitality to families who stay here as our guests through Family Promise. Willow Grove is a place of hope and healing. As a church we care for each other and our neighbors near and far. We encourage people to see how their faith, their love, their gifts, their calling can be salt in the world.
A group of us worked at the NJ Community Food Bank in Hillside yesterday. We met Eli who was in charge of the senior boxes. We packed boxes for seniors in senior housing who may not have enough food. He said he loved working at the food bank. He loves thinking about the seniors who will receive the boxes. He is salt int the world.
Last Tuesday many of gathered to give thanks to God for Sylvia Ballatt. As we shared memories of her and reflected on her amazing life and deep faith, it is clear she was salt. She was humble. She flavored those around her with God’s love, with God’s Word, with compassion, with intellectual rigor, with joy. We are thankful for Sylvia and the way she was salt among us.
Light of the World
In addition to salt, Jesus also asks us to be the light of the world. What did he mean? What did his followers hear when he said that? We are the light of the world and that light is shone through our deeds, our actions.
For the Jews light was connected to the Feast of the Tabernacle. At the end of this feast, an array of candelabras or lampstands would be lit in the court of the temple. The rabbis who participated in the feast would then dance around these candelabras.
Yes, special light in the temple, for the gathered community of faith. But Jesus challenged them by saying You are the light of the world. Most homes were one room. So if the light was on the lampstand it lit the whole house.
Let Your Light Shine
Think about Jesus’ time and the reality of day and night, light and darkness. I take light for granted. When we lose power, we realize again how dark the night is and how much light one lamp can offer. We are the light the world, but I am just one person. And yet together we can reflect that light of Christ as individuals, as a church, as a community of faith. That is our purpose and our calling. Be that light, let it shine. Be willing to talk about your faith and how God is at work in your life. Jesus said don’t hide the light. Shine so others can come into the light too. That is what is meant by evangelism. When our relationship with God becomes the source of our life and our hope, we want other people to experience it too.
Shine your light by talking to people. When people ask, What did you do this weekend? Do you say – I went to worship at my church. I went to the food bank with people from my church. I had this great soup lunch with friends at my church. I realize God is changing me. I’m getting clearer on what really matters. You want to come to the at my church on to a concert? Want to come to worship next Sunday?
Salt and light means not hiding, but living our faith. Inviting others to know, to experience being salt and light.
Salt and Light – Not the main thing
Salt and light share a funny characteristic. Each of them is discernible by our senses—we taste salt, and we see light—but neither of them is usually meant to be a direct or main object of perception.
Nobody makes salt for dinner. We put salt on the chicken, but the chicken is the dinner. The chicken tastes better if we salt it; and enjoying the chicken, not the salt, is what we are after.
Light is like this, too. We turn on a light not in order to look at the light, but in order to look at other things by means of the light. So if a Christian is the light of the world, we are enabling the world to see something other than ourselves.
I believe in Christ, like I believe in the sun – not because I can see it, but by it I can see everything else.
Reflect the Light
We are called to reflect the light so we can see the world as in that light. I found a story about that.
The well-known writer of Bible studies Keith Brooks had just finished speaking to a large class on the Christian’s responsibility to be a “light” in the world. He emphasized that believers are to reflect the Light of the world, the Lord Jesus. After the class, one of the men related to him an experience he had in his home which had impressed upon this same truth.
He said that when he went into his basement he made an interesting discovery. Some potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first he couldn’t figure out how they had gotten enough light to grow. Then he noticed that the cook who worked in the house had hung a copper kettle from the ceiling near a cellar window. She kept it so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun onto the potatoes. The man said to Brooks, “When I saw that, I thought, I may not be a preacher or a teacher with ability to explain Scripture, but at least I can be a copper kettle catching the rays of the Son and reflecting His light to someone in a dark corner.” 1430 — WHY THE POTATOES SPROUTED (3)
How can we reflect Christ’s light at home, with our friends, with our families?
Godspell and You Are the Light of the World
I think about this passage whenever I have seen a production of “Godspell” or listen to the music. I first saw it when I was in high school. Our church did a production. Then I saw it Papermill Playhouse with a group from Willow Grove. The musical is based on passages from Matthew. “You are the light of the world” is one of my favorite songs.
Read a reflection from a person who performed “Godspell” at his church.
“You are the light of the world,” I sang. And then I went home and reflected on the amazing thing we had just done. Godspell had forever changed me, but in the hours after the show I don’t think I had any idea just how much.
“You are the light of the world,” we all sang and our Jesus went out into the audience. He grabbed someone and had them stand up so we could all sing to that one particular person, “You are the salt of the earth.” Then quickly to another man he dashed. He got him to stand up so we could point to him and sing, “You are the city of God.” Finally, he found one last woman. She was sitting near the back, and we sang one more time, “You are the light of the world.”
It was the last song before intermission. ….. And at the end of the show, after singing the beautiful refrain “We can build a beautiful city, yes we can. Yes we can.”….I felt a great sense of accomplishment.
After the show a woman approached me. She told me that she had a great time. She loved the music, and she was so glad she could come. For years, she told me, she had a Playbill from the original Broadway production. She also had an album she had never played. For years she had kind of wondered what Godspell was, and when she saw us in the paper, she decided on a whim to come check it out. I told her how happy I was that she was there, and invited her to come again to worship with us.
The next day I was talking to our head usher about what a great experience the show was. We were marveling at the amount of people that came, and how many people came that were not a part of our church. I told him about the woman I talked to after the show, and he quickly realized that he knew who I was talking about.
“Yeah, I was talking to her at intermission. She seemed like she was looking for something. I realized she was one of people that the cast sang to. I half-joking said, ‘You are the light of the world.’
“She kind of laughed when I said that. And then she said, ‘No one has ever called me that before.’”
I got goosebumps when he told me that, Then I went back into my office and was overwhelmed. Something washed over me that I can only describe as the Holy Spirit as I prayed “Thank you God.” Tears started to flow, as I was struck at once with an overwhelming sense of awe, wonder, sadness, joy, and purpose. “No one has ever called me that before,” she said.
“You are the light of the world,” is not just a catchy line in a pretty song in an upbeat musical.
“You are the light of the world,” are Jesus’ words to his followers. It is part of Jesus’ message about what it means to live in this world. (4)
I think for a moment of the children in this world that have never been told that they are the light of anyone’s world, and it breaks my heart. I think for a moment of people stuck in darkness of abuse or violence or addiction or depression. People who feel worthless or stuck or desperate. I think for a moment of young people that want only to hide and be as invisible as possible so as not to draw anyone’s attention, and it hurts my heart to know that they have never been told, “You were created in the very image of God. The light that God created at the very moment of creation. Hear Jesus saying to you, ‘You are the light of the world.’”
Supply of Salt and Light
Is salt and light in short supply in the world or in New Jersey right now? Is the news right? No salt. No light. No small problem.
But Jesus was talking about a different kind of salt and light. How shall the vital elements of life be distributed, conducted, dispersed? Who will carry them to places of need?
Friends, the salt and the light that Jesus was talking about are not in short supply, but maybe it is only those willing to be the salt and to shine the light. He says we are the salt, we are the light, conveyors of God’s love and hope, not to be stockpiled in a shed or hidden under a basket but to be dispersed widely, with prodigal abandon.
We tend to hold ourselves in reserve, counting up the cost. One roads supervisor said: “It’s actually more of a salt bottleneck than a salt shortage.” I think Jesus would appreciate that take on the situation. The availability of salt is not to blame; the light of God has not abandoned us. (5)
We either will be light and salt, given freely, or we will not. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we no longer live for ourselves alone. We become servants of the common good. We are day laborers, linemen, road crew, faithful distributors of salt and light. Amen.
(1) The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, You Are the Salt of the Earth, Feb. 2, 2014, Dancing With the Word http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2014/02/you-are-salt-of-earth.html
(2) Word Sunday.com Salt and Light http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/a/5-a/A-5-a.html
(3) SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS Compiled and Arranged Topically by Duane V. Maxey http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/1801-1900/HDM1876.pdf
(4) Rev. Robb McCoy, You Are the Light of the World, April 14, 2013 http://fatpastor.me/2013/04/14/you-are-the-light-of-the-world-2/
(5) Kayla McClurg, Being Salt and Light, Inward and Outward, Feb. 9, 2014 http://inwardoutward.org/the-story/feb-9-epiphany-5/