The two basic questions we ask ourselves every morning, whether we are conscious of them are not. As we get out of bed and begin the day, our focus moves to answering, “Who am I?” and “What am I to do?” Most of what we do is habitual, without a great deal of energy applied to figuring that out. We eat breakfast, brush our teeth, let the dog out, read the paper, and get ready for our Dr’s appointment. As we answer “Who am I?” the answer is more inherent and basic; “ Am I OK? The way we answer those questions determines how effective we will be in nagivagating and negotiating the challenges and changes every day will bring.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he spoke of surprising consequences when you grieve or find yourself persecuted. The same when you bccome a peacemaker or show mercy and forgiveness. With that backdrop we come to the heart of his lesson thus far as he answers our two questions, “Who am I” and “What am I to do?” Without blinking, like a Hallmark movie theme reprised, he offers: "You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world." It makes you want to turn to see maybe if someone is standing behind you to whom Jesus might be talking, and when you find no one there, you want to say, "Who me?" Jesus meant these words as an incredible blessing "You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world" but too often we read them as just another mandate to do more, to give more, to be more when often we are doing, giving and being more than we think is humanly possible. Can you cut me some slack, Dear Jesus? I'm tired and I don't think I can hear one more imperative of what I need to be doing next! I think Jesus was rather ambitions in his expectation of fishermen, tax collectors and various other stragglers and sinners. The watts are running low on my Jesus light as I witness so many being trampled upon. Could the Almighty settle for a votive candle or a pinch of seasoning, enough goodness to just get me through the day, rather than a preservative and beacon for all of creation? And then he concludes the section by saying, “Your faithfulness should exceed even those who have great faith.” Could my righteousness exceed that of my most reprobate neighbor, rather than that of the most upstanding religious leaders? I am struggling with Jesus’ sense of scale as he pontificates in this sermon. This little light of mine, I am having a hard time letting it shine. The temptation to hide under a bushel or in the basement or with our close, comfortable circles is intense when the world seems very, very dark. That’s what we do when we get scared. We hunker down, do what we know, hide. When we see the vulnerable being trampled, our tendency is not to run out into the street and stand between them and the onslaught, rather it is to go into our homes and lock the door. This little light of mine, I am going to snuff it out, so that no one knows I am home. I am going to pull down the blackout curtains so that I am not an easy target for incredible darkness outside. But the salt of the earth had lost its taste, the light extinguished for those desperate for even a glimpse of it. That’s what we do when we are afraid, and that’s the antithesis of Jesus’ call to his disciples.
"You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world". We make two mistakes in hearing those verses as they were intended. The first mistake is to read this scripture only in light of today's understanding. It is easy to interpret salt/light with our 21st century brain. But salt and light in ancient times were highly valued. In early Greece, it was said that you must never trust a man with whom you had not sat and eaten salt with him. Greeks called it divine. A Latin jingle went, "There is nothing more useful than sun and salt." (especially for those of us who live a few steps from the Pacific Ocean, begging the sun to stick it out with us for a few more days before the rain returns!). Roman soldiers even received their wages in salt… In fact the Latin word for salt is the root word of salary. In (Matthew) 5:13, the salt referred to the levelling 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 lit in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the fuel was burnt out, the family would throw it into the road to harden a muddy surface.” We’re the ones that help the fuel burn longer and brighter. We are, if we’re the salt of the earth. It's difficult to see the value Jesus attached to salt if we only hear it with today's understanding. The same is true when Jesus said that we were the light of the world. Jesus indicated that no one would ever hide a light under a "bushel." In Jesus' day a "bushel" was a wooden measure in which the day's bread could be measured. Years ago farmers had wooden measures for selling a bushel of vegetables. A light under a bushel represents hiding what we don't want people to see or know. A Portugese proverb says, "architects cover their mistakes with creepers, cooks with sauces, doctors with earth." Adam and Eve used fig leaves. "You are the light of the world." Often our first mistake is to mix our understanding of light/salt with that of the first century. Our second mistake is to hear Jesus' words only through the filter of our own impressions. For example Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world," We can look around and say, if WE are the light of the world, are WE in trouble. It's too easy to be cynical, defeated and to only believe the bad news. But Jesus isn’t calling for volunteers, but rather doing an inventory of what our lives already contain! "You ARE the salt of the earth! You ARE the light of the world". In a church school presentation, a little girl was assigned the part of saying, "I am the light of the world." When the red velour curtains parted and she looked out upon a sea of faces, she went blank. Her mother was sitting close to the front. She whispered to her daughter,
"I am the light of the world." But the little one did not hear it. The mother repeated the words a little louder but still there was no response. Then in a very loud whisper, which could be heard for several rows, her mother again said, "I am the light of the world." Then the girl blurted out, "Oh yes, my mother is the light of the world!"
We are the world’s salt and light, and must we hear the call to care for those who suffer, to carry and to share kindness even/especially when we don’t feel it is recriprocated, to enact generosity even when we would rather hold back and wait to see if it is safe and to listen to others first without needing to pound our point home. Out saltiness is the way that we season our lives and relationships with a kind heart, not with an axe to grind.
A wise rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when night has ended and day has begun?” The students gathered around the fire and pondered the question in silence. One student offered, “When I can distinguish my field from the field of my neighbor.” The rabbi smiled. “A good answer but not the one I would give.” There was more silence. Another spoke up, “When I look in the distance and can tell the difference between a sheep dog and the sheep.” The rabbi smiled and shook his head. A lengthy great discussion broke out among the students. “What about when you can tell the difference between the mist and the clouds?” “Between your house and your neighbor’s?” On and on the students went and the rabbi’s face grew sober. Finally, he lifted his hand and cried out, “Stop! Do you see what you are doing? You are dividing the world between this and that, between what is yours and what is not yours, between neighbors and strangers!” The students grew silent and one of them asked with a puzzled expression, “Rabbi, tell us. How do we know when night has ended and day has begun?” “You are dividing our broken, fragmented world into even more pieces,” said the rabbi. “When you stop dividing then you will be able to look into the eyes of another human being. When you see there a brother or a sister you will know day has come. If you cannot see a brother or a sister it will always be night.”
(From the story “Night and Day” in Stories for the Journey by William R. White)
The prophet Isaiah spoke to the church when he reminded them in Chapter 58 that worship was one of the most important things they did together. He surmised that worship is the place where we deepen our realtionship with God so that we can portray God's love and grace to a broken world. It is too easy to forget who we are and what we are to do. Jesus’ lesson this day is a cry for those being trampled as if they do not matter. Jesus doesn’t tell us to tend to our own, keep our heads down, keep our noses clean and our hides safe. We are told in Isaiah to never be OK when the vulnerable are exploited and devalued. We are to be as aggravating and irritating as salt in the wound of those who seek to hurt and destroy God’s work/world. We are to shine a flood light on cruelty and meanness. We are to live in the realm of who Jesus has declared us to be! We must stop waiting for more or for the right moment or for this/that to happen. Stop wishing for things to return to the way they were when life was easier. Stop hoping for miracles! Stop living for tomorrow and start living in the miracle and the mystery that is today! Within us is the power to add flavor and zest to life one person at a time. Within us is a light that we seldom realize - a light that will brighten and grow and warm and illuminate what before only looked lifeless and cold and dismal. You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world. Who will we be in light of who God has made us and what will we do in light of that this week?