“You are the salt of the earth….the light of the world.” Matthew 5:1-14
BEST SERMON EVER! That’s what we hear today. Jesus teaching, preaching on the mountain. I imagine it to be a smaller one, say like Valley Forge Mountain. The listeners are his followers and others who tag along, including you and me. He meets them and us right where we are – dealing with difficulties, not sure what to do next, longing for a new day, but stuck in the old. He calls us out, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Instead he names the trouble, the heart-ache, even the persecution. He’s bluntly honest. There’s no pretending in his presence that everything is all right, for he knows it’s not. He tells our truth. And he blesses that truth by being right there with us, even when we are not at all sure he that is. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, those seeking righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers, the reviled and persecuted ones.
When my son, Todd, was just a little guy – we were out doing errands, and I said, “What a beautiful day!” He immediately replied, “We’re not scared.” It was a line from his favorite book – one we HAD to read every night – called We’re Going on Bear Hunt which I didn’t mind because we’d graduated from Good Night Moon. In the story, when a family faced obstacles they always say, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it!”[i] Through hard times, through grief, through sorrow and despair, through betrayal and persecution, through it all – but not by ourselves, never by ourselves – always with God in Christ, always with Jesus. We’re not scared.
So, in this BEST SERMON EVER, Jesus begins by telling us that God will always be with us in the challenges of life. We can endure. We can support others in their trials and tribulations because he is with us and with them. But then Jesus does something more, he empowers us. He says we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He gives us something to do, to share, to be. And in doing so we go from being receivers of God’s love and mercy, to givers of it. Note, Jesus doesn’t give those listening – then or now, a choice. He declares “They, we, are salt.” “They, we, are light.” We are boldly told, just as Amelia Danielle, will be told today at her baptism, to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” We are agents of transformation – bringing zest and vision to a world desperately in need of both.
Jesus then goes on to interpret the law – the commandments that Moses received on another mountain centuries earlier. In doing so Jesus reveals the heart of the Law which is always God’s own heart. We will attend to this in our Gospel next week. Today our concern is what do we do with salt, how do we shine light?
When the African American writer, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 she told a story. She said it was in the “lore of several cultures” but in the version she knew the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American and lives in a small house outside of town. Morrison writes “her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally, she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”[ii]
Salt and light in our hands. Does the salt bring out the God-flavors of this earth or have we lost zest? Are we stuck in fears and failures, old ways of doing things, that once worked, but do so no longer? And if that is the case, do we dare to go the heart of the matter, the heart of God’s love, of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God with us, God’s blessings uniquely for us in this place or do we long for the blessings of others and ignore what is in our hands? This is a perpetual temptation delivered by self-help books. They have them for clergy. Did you know that? I’d go to a conference, learn a lot and then come back and decide to do it. All sorts of good ideas, but none, if any, came through our unique experience of being blessed by God right here in this place. Because the people of St. John’s and, particularly the staff are patience, they would endure and trust God that we’d eventually arrive where we ought to be. Jesus trusts us enough to place salt in our hands.
Next the light – we are told to let our light so shine, that others may see our good works, and give glory, not to us, but to God. Because the truth is, it’s not our light, rather God’s light reflected in our lives. Toni Morrison quietly ends her story. The children have finished speaking and the old woman (or is she God?) breaks into the silence. “Finally,” she says, “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”[iii] Amen.
[i] Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1989.
[ii] Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, The Source of Self-Regard, Vintage International, 2019, 102-103.
[iii] Ibid., 109.