"Salt and Light"
Scripture - Matthew 5:13-20
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, February 9, 2014
On a day early in his ministry, Jesus gathered his closest disciples and climbed a hill and proceeded to teach them about God's dream for the world. The Mount of Beatitudes, like the Mount of Olives, is not a great mountain, but more of a hill. And the sight of them gathering must have attracted attention because there came a larger group of farmers, fisherman and stone masons who left their villages to hear this upstart rabbi.
We know this extended teaching as entitled "The Sermon on the Mount" because Matthew, having never seen the Alps, describes Jesus scaling a mountain to address a hungering crowd. Fed up with leaders in collusion with the occupying Romans; fed up with a system that rewarded wealthy landowners while relegating the masses to poverty; and fed up with religious teachings that condemned and ostracized, the people were ravenous for a fresh word, so they were eager to hear what Jesus had to say.
And they were not disappointed. With his provocative opening words, nine blessings known as the Beatitudes, Jesus grabbed everyone's attention by challenging everything their mothers and rabbis had ever taught them. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit?" "Blessed are those who are persecuted?" And a real head-turner, "The meek will inherit the earth." Whoa.
Following those nine startling blessings intended to create an earthquake in their brains, I suspect Jesus paused long enough for people to catch their breath. I picture Jesus doodling in the sand and taking a sip while everyone contemplated his radical reassessment of who is blessed in the eyes of God.
While his initial volley is still simmering, Jesus throws out two metaphors to describe essential traits of those who follow him. First, he says "You are the salt of the earth."
For this figure of speech to work for contemporary Christians, we must delete modern medicine's lectures on the harmful effects of too much salt. For the crowds Jesus addressed, malnourishment was much more the issue than high blood pressure.
In ancient times, without the modern convenience of refrigeration, preserving food was a challenge. Salt was a precious commodity as it kept food from spoiling. Jesus told his followers to be the salt of the earth. He expects us to preserve what is good and to keep people and communities from decaying.
Of course salt not only keeps food from deteriorating, we sprinkle it on to enrich the flavor. Good cooks know that if the soup is bland, they can add salt to give it zest. Jesus orders his followers to add flavor to life, to give it some punch.
Regrettably, the church has more often been known for the opposite: For tamping down excitement, for sucking the joy out of celebrations, for embracing a holy trinity of stodgy, stuffy and stale. "Robert Louis Stevenson once entered in his diary, as if he was recording an extraordinary phenomenon: €˜I have been to church today, and am not depressed!'"1
Violence can turn life surly. Pathology reports can be dispiriting. Broken relationships can cut deeply. There are so many forces to make life sad and severe. Always remember that Jesus commands us to sprinkle some joy and inject some pizzazz.
Jesus can't stop. He adds a second metaphor. Now he calls on his followers to be the light of the world. Light is a powerful symbol in the Scriptures. Remember the opening words of Genesis? "In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, darkness covered the face of the deep...Then God said, €˜Let there be light."
Darkness represents the chaos that exists before God's creative hand is at work. God's very first action is to command light to break through the darkness.
Poets and prophets use darkness to symbolize death and destruction, immorality and ignorance. Light, on the other hand, is a universal symbol for what is right and good, illuminating and truth unafraid to be told. It is very natural for light and darkness to serve as such symbols because light and darkness literally impact us in such powerful ways.
In a recent test on the effects of darkness on humans, British scientists put six volunteers in isolation chambers constructed in a former nuclear bunker. For 48 hours, these individuals, each sitting solo in a soundproof room, were in total darkness while researchers monitored their behavior using night vision cameras.
Thirty-seven year-old Adam Bloom was one of the volunteers. He said he did not think 48 hours was that long and he was confident he could cope with the darkness.
The first 30 minutes he spent talking and singing but he soon lost interest. In a short time, he began to have irrational worries about his fiancÃ©e and his family. "What if something happened to one of them? Would the researchers tell me?"
Eighteen hours into the experiment he became increasingly paranoid. He tried singing again, but abruptly burst into tears. He said, "I can't remember the last time I cried. I felt my emotions were beginning to run out of control."
Bloom began to believe that the experiment was a hoax. Despite the fact that there had been several lengthy meetings over the past few months setting up the experiment, he began to imagine that the scientists were imposters and they had all gone home and he was trapped underground forever. He knew it was a ridiculous thought, yet he could not shake the paranoia.
At 30 hours he began pacing the room like a trapped tiger. At 40 hours he began to hallucinate. There appeared a pile of 500 oyster shells. He said he could clearly see the pearly sheen on the shells. Then he felt as though the room was taking off from underneath him and he realized that the darkness was driving him insane. He began to lose the will to live.
Finally, the experiment finally ended. And Bloom said something unexpected happened. He remembered that when we had arrived at the bunker before the experiment, he had thought it was all rather bleak. He said, "The exterior was all overgrown and the bunker was an eyesore. But when I left after 48 hours, I noticed how green the grass was, how blue the sky was and there were hundreds of yellow buttercups. It was staggeringly beautiful."
Light made all the difference. Light made the colors explode in all their splendor. Light awakened him to the beauty of the world; light chased away the paranoid thoughts; light inspired him to appreciate the gift of life.2
Jesus experienced a world that was far from what God intended it to be. He witnessed widespread injustice and suffering, so he called on his followers to shed light in the dark places.
Think about your internal reaction to these words of Jesus. What do you think, what do you feel when you hear the Son of God call you - not himself, but you, John; you Nancy; you Dave; - the light of the world? My first thought is: It can't be! God is expecting me - God is expecting us - to be light to the world?
Since the ice storm a few days ago, many of you experienced life without electricity. If you have ever been in a house at night in a neighborhood without power, you know how dark it can be. You also know that lighting a single candle can cast a surprising amount of light. So, too, can acts of compassion, showing respect, lifting the spirits of others.
Roman Catholic priest, Gregory Boyle runs "Home Boy Industries," a ministry that offers gang members a way out by providing jobs, support and a new purpose. He pulled two gang members, Chepe and Richie, out of the housing projects in Los Angeles. Boyle helped them learn how to speak to others and encourage them to break free from gangs and embark on a new path. One night before they gave their talks Boyle took them to a restaurant called Coco's. He described the restaurant as one step above Denny's, one notch below everywhere else.
When they walked in, they encountered a hostess who made no secret of the fact that she strongly disapproved of Boyle's companions, whose dress and tattoos clearly marked them as gang members. Boyle could feel his anger rising at the way she treated them.
She grabbed three menus and rushed them through the restaurant to the very back where there were few diners. As soon as they sat down, Chepe and Richie said, "Everyone's looking at us."
"Don't be ridiculous," Boyle said to the two young men. But later he wrote, "Everybody was looking at us."
Their discomfort lasted until their waitress came. She was a whole different breed than the hostess and the other diners whose condemnation was apparent. She put her arms around Chepe and Richie, talked with them, joked with them, called them "Honey" and "Sweetie" and brought them refills they did not ask for. Boyle said she was "Jesus in an apron."3
Norman Rice is head of one of the nation's largest community foundations. His motto: "Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light."
There is always the potential to either contribute to the downward spiral or to be God's partner in transforming the world. Jesus beckons us to overcome the darkness we encounter by becoming the light. When you encounter a dark situation, don't shake your head and say "Isn't it awful!" Instead, SHINE!
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