Salt and light
A sermon given by Revd Caroline Risdon, 9 February 2020
Let us pray…
Loving God we give you thanks for the gift of your word, the grace of the sacrament and the fellowship of your people. Amen.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed before but, in Matthew’s Gospel, important things always happen on mountain tops. So, let me ask you, do you have a favourite mountain? And if so, why? What about that particular mountain do you love?
It may not surprise you at all to learn that my favourite mountain is Table Mountain in Cape Town! I love its outline against the sky and I remember many sunny days in my childhood when it actually looked more like a card board cut out than a real mountain. It’s beautiful and big; I always know where I am with it in view; and it makes me feel like I’m home.
Matthew uses mountains to remind people of the Old Testament, where mountains where places of divine revelation. There are in fact 6 mountain tops in his Gospel:
- The 1st is the mountain of temptation - where Jesus is tempted by devil
- The 2nd has become known as the Sermon on the Mount
- On the 3rd mountain, Jesus heals people
- While on the 4th mountain, the disciples witness the transfiguration
- The 5th mountain is the Mount of Olives, where Jesus teaches his disciples about the signs of the end
- And on the 6th mountain, Jesus meets his disciples after resurrection and sends them out to share the good news.
In this series of mountain top experiences, we can perhaps find a summary of Jesus’ ministry according to Matthew- resistance to temptation; teaching; healing; transfiguration; teaching about the end; and commissioning.
Our reading this week comes directly from the second mountain top Matthew describes, the Sermon on the Mount; and it is therefore part of the body of Jesus’ teaching. In these stories, Jesus reflects on what living faithfully in the kingdom might be like. He also begins to explain what faith in him means.
So it is that we hear these rather strange metaphors of Christians being like salt and light. We’re so used to the images that, in some ways, they cease to have meaning for us. The phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean someone good, reliable, and trustworthy. Someone without falseness. It’s quite a compliment and one we don’t use very often. So perhaps it’s hard for us to hear this expression as the original audience would have.
Let’s change the words a bit and see if that helps:
“You are to become the chilli powder of the earth.”
“You are to become the red hot pepper of the earth.”
Now we begin to understand that being salt of the earth is not a status- not a privilege we hold as Christians. It is our function- we are to add zest to the life of the world.
Similarly, perhaps we need to change the words about light:
“You are to be the shining ones of the world.”
“You are to be the lit up of the world.”
Again, we realise that we are not the light of the world- that is the title we ascribe to Jesus. And we know that all light comes from God. Being light in the world is not a status we carry as some type of ethical elite. It describes our function - we are to add light to the life of the world. We are to carry the flame as it were for Jesus.
A few years ago, James and I bought our Dads the same present for Christmas. It was Tim Peake’s book of the photographs he had taken from the International Space Station. Among them were several taken at night. There are striking images of the world in darkness, yet with the lights of major cities shining out. This is the image I’ve had in mind all week. That if you were able to take a picture of all the forces for good in the world, all the lit up people, it would look something like that spread of electric light across the world.
As a Church this also has resonance because we can only ever claim to reflect the light here in Greenwich if the life of Jesus is manifest in our life as a Christian community. We are not the light but in fact the window through which God’s light can be seen. Our calling is not to hide that light but, rather like a city on a hill which can be seen for miles around, we are to proclaim the light joyfully and freely and constantly. We are to be a place of divine revelation for all who enter our doors.
Overall, Jesus is talking about living a life of integrity because we are not salt and light for ourselves, a closed fellowship, but for the world. Salt and light only fulfil their purpose when they are poured out. So, how can we be this salt and this light?
I think the key is actually in our reading from the prophet Isaiah. He is speaking to a people for whom the religious ritual of fasting has become empty and self-serving. Their fast is not a genuine act of devotion to God, it has just become a genuine act - praying loudly, wearing sackcloth and ashes, proudly displaying their fast.
God's desire is not for singular, pious acts, but for behaviours and actions with consequences. Indeed, if you think about it, loosening the bonds of injustice, sharing what we have with those who have not, bringing the homeless into one's house, giving clothing and shelter to the naked, reconciling with one's family, and helping the afflicted, these are not one time actions but lifelong ways of being.
Instead of the traditional fast days, "the fast that I choose," says God, is a whole new way of life. Fasting is to become for us a new set of relationships within ongoing and daily lives. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, from blaming others, from evil speech, from self-satisfaction, from entitlement and from blindness to our privilege.
Or, to return to the light metaphor, if we behave in ways that are self-serving and domineering, we prevent God’s light from being seen. In the Gospel, Jesus talks about covering the light with a bushel basket. The bushel doesn’t extinguish the light but renders it ineffective. What are the bushels that cover our individual lights and our light as a Church? Too many of us think we aren’t Christian enough or church-going enough or we don’t know the Bible enough to be claimed by God. That is being captive to a lie. That is a bushel that prevents your light from shining.
So let me tell you this, we are each known and loved into being by God. We can’t earn this love; we are ‘merely’ created by it and within it. The first step to allowing God’s light to fill you is to know this truth about yourself- you are a beloved child of God. The first step to allowing God’s light to shine through you is to make choices that lean into this light; choices that fan the flame rather than cover it.
And that is really why I wanted to mention mountains at the beginning of my sermon - because they stay the same. They are fixed points and, somewhat like a compass, you can rely on them to guide you. Today’s readings are ultimately a reminder to come back to God, who was and is and will be, our most forgiving and true guide.