We are still in the season of Epiphany, where we notice the light that has come into the world, the Light OF the World. Where we talk about Jesus’ ministry and mission and see that everything has changed, all is now illuminated.
That is why it is strange to me, to hear the words of this passage. Jesus’ words to his disciples immediately after the Beatitudes. “You are the light of the world.” he says, We are? You must mean, we have the light of the world, don’t you? You must mean we bring or hold or see the light of the world… because, after all, Jesus, YOU are the light of the world. You said so yourself!
And so we hear it with dubious ears, with insecure and unsure and unlistening ears. It’s safer, we conclude, to assume he is saying, “You should be the light of the world, and you had better be the salt of the earth, if you want to be of any use to me, that is.” That must be what he means.
We should do good works, you know, like random acts of kindness, we should pray a lot and help other people and hold our tongues and just try really, really hard to be who God must want us to be. We’re an example, or something, right? We’re supposed to be Christians, whatever that means anymore. So maybe we just work really hard not to look like what we think people think Christians look like… and just try to be “good” instead. So, “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” means, “You should be good. really really good.”
But that is not what he is saying at all. Have you ever known salt to lose its saltiness? Salt is always salty, that’s what makes it salt. It could dissolve or something, but it couldn’t really get unsalty, it would cease to be salt, as he says, and would be good for nothing at all, but maybe, as some traction for road worn sandals, if that.
And what’s up with this bushel? Jesus points out that nobody lights a candle and puts a basket on top if it if they don’t want to start the thing on fire, or put it out right away. It’s just not really done; it makes no sense. These examples Jesus gives are absurd. And yet we cannot hear what he is saying, still. We think we had better start shining, better buckle down and get salty.
I love that when Jesus is teaching people about the kingdom of heaven, about what it means that the God of the universe is involved in all this, about things holy and magnificent, he uses salt, candles, bread, wine, day laborers, farmers planting fields, camels and needles and utterly ordinary and everyday things that we ordinary and everyday people can identify. It’s disturbing, actually, how completely human he assumes his listeners to be. I mean, come on, we’re supposed to be super holy and spiritual, right? We’ve decided that already, but you keep throwing us off by talking about sheep and runaway sons and women losing coins, and salt.
People, you are salt. Not you are like salt, you are. You are the light of the world. A statement. A declaration. You. are. salt. You bring out the flavor of everything else. You are an essential ingredient that helps the dish be whatever it is meant to be. You’re not the be all, end all; you’re not the whole cookie. You’re the salt.
I once made a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies and I forgot to add the salt. They were gorgeous coming out of the oven, and they smelled divine, but when you bit into them you discovered they were bland and tasteless. Lumps of chewy nothing with some chocolate here and there. After trying to make it work with some milk-dunking and whatnot, I finally threw the whole batch away. Salt matters.
It does. Apparently, wars have been fought over the stuff. I looked it up. There are approximately 14,000 uses for salt. Salt preserves, cleans, disinfects, heals, treats, refines, flavors, de-ices, softens, processes, conditions, de-greases, protects, blanches, pickles, cures, brines, and soothes - to name just a few. Salt is important stuff. But by itself, alone, it’s just… salt. It doesn’t do anything. It’s only helpful when it’s mixed up, spread on, scrubbed into, sprinkled throughout, or dissolved within. In other words, it needs something to react to, to interact with; it has its purpose in relation to something else.
And light, what is light all alone with nothing to shine on? Might as well stick a basket on top of it for all the good it does. Light illuminates, light reveals, light uncovers and exposes and brightens and clarifies. It enables you to see, it enables. Light makes possible other things, it helps life to be lived, and work to be done, and discoveries to be made and interactions to occur. It reveals beauty and uncovers ugliness and drives away the demons that lurk in the shadows and illuminates exquisite moments both ordinary and extraordinary.
You have a purpose, Jesus says. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. The world is made more savory, stronger, healthier because of you, lies are exposed and hope is detected because of you. Colors are brightened and textures uncovered, pain is diminished and wounds are cleansed, because of you. I have already put you in the world for a reason. All you have to do is be you.
And sometimes that is one of the hardest things there is. To be a human being with other human beings. Not to turn away from their sorrow or ugliness. Not to retreat into the safety of darkness in the face of conflict or corruption. To stay present, to stay involved, to stay invested.
The bad news, then, is tied up in the good. You don’t get to choose not to be salt or light. That’s who you are, even when you aren’t acting like it. It’s your identity, your purpose, you reason for being. You’re the one in the situation who is not allowed to stay silent, not allowed to turn away, not allowed to close your eyes. You’re in it. Like Jesus is.
A city on a hill, after all, can’t be hidden.
The good news is there too, though. You don’t make yourself salt and you can’t muster up the light. That is God’s decision, God’s creation and God’s power. You just need to be real. You just need to be awake, present, engaged. To see others. To notice. To participate. God is already doing something, and we are part of it. That’s the bottom line.
I am passing around a picture that has haunted me all week long. I’ve watched in fascination as the Egyptian people have cried out for freedom and made their voices heard in protest. And this photo captures a moment within that. It is a picture of Christians standing guard around Muslims who are bowing down in prayer. Creating a human wall to protect their brothers and sisters kneeling behind them. And as soon as I saw it I was struck by it. We don’t go out and “Be good Christians.” You’ve heard the old saying, “salt of the earth woman, she is.” like she just walks around sinless and preserved in isolated, artificial goodness. Our life, our faith, is always in relation to others. This is them being salt, being light. Linking arms with each other around these brothers and sisters and guarding them as they pray. This is not about what they think or believe, any of them, it’s not keeping themselves pure or trying to change the essential nature of the people around them, or proving anything at all. It is purely acting in the midst of that situation, as true human beings, acting from love. Acting from our connection with one another. And here they are. salt. light.
The other thing to recognize about all this is that our self-conscious ears hear this individually. YOU, person, are the salt. YOU are the light. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Come hell or highwater, baby, I wont let Satan blow it out! But YOU is plural, it is communal. You are the salt. Together, arms linked, all of you.
So I guess I can think of ways we collectively could lose, or at least deny, our saltiness. We could turn on each other or divide ourselves from one another. We could forget we’re salt and act like we’re the meat and potatoes instead. But the church does not exist for itself. The church exists for the world. The world that God loves; all of humanity and creation that God is redeeming. The church is meant to illuminate, brighten, expose, flavor, heal, preserve, enhance, restore and light up the world. We are who we are for a reason.
So, as much as we’d like, in our spiritual insecurity, to hear this as a command, it is really more of a benediction. A blessing. A naming. You are the salt of the earth, lucky earth, delighted and grateful earth! You’re there to bring out its flavor and tend its sore places!
You are the light of the world, powerful light, bright and vivid light, what wonders you reveal when you shine! What sadnesses you uncover and joys you divulge! The world cannot escape you, nor you it. You are in it, for it, and that is as it should be!
May we taste our saltiness and recognize our radiance and not shy away from our purpose. May the world be blessed, and we a blessing. May our “light shine for others and give glory to God.”