Salt & Light

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Last week, our home office lamp broke. 

I don’t mean the bulb went out. I mean the base of the lamp suddenly disintegrated. 

It was one of those tall floor lamps, with a heavy base to keep the top-heavy lampshade from falling over. I’ve had it my entire adult life and it was in my parent’s house before that, so it’s seen its fair share of moves. 

I wasn’t in the office when it happened, but Erron was. He said he heard a pop and a crack and suddenly the lamp on its metal pole came crashing down, while the base, made of plaster and plastic and I don’t even know what, came apart in great sharp chunks. We’re still picking pieces of it out of the carpet. 

All this is to say, I have been internet shopping for lamps this week, which, lucky me, turns out I get to count as sermon research. 

First I googled “lamp.” The results were unhelpful and overwhelming. 

Then I tried “floor lamp,” “office lamp,” and “big light.” There’s no other light in that office, so we need a lamp that really lights up the place. But the more I googled, the more I realized how little I know about the lingo of home décor. 

Do y’all know how many types of lighting there are? How many types of lamps? One blog urged me to create a “lighting schematic” with a “mixture of the three main lighting types, along with accent lights as desired.” Task, decorative, recessed, wall-mounted, sconces, pendants…

I just wanted a new lamp. 

And so I come to today’s gospel passage with slightly more respect than I sometimes do. Salt and light. Not as simple as they seem. 

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, preaching from that mountain in Galilee, to crowds of healed, hungry, uncertain followers. “You are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.”

This is one of my favorite things Jesus ever says. It might be yours, too. 

One of the things I love about this divine declaration of our goodness is how ordinary it is.  

Jesus does not say “you are the light of the heavens,” you are the stars and suns gliding serenely over the earth, but you are the lamps that everybody has hanging in their houses, cheap and common, just a bit of dry clay and olive oil. Not “you are the jewels of the temple” but you are the salt of earth, a pantry staple, used in cooking and preservation and folk medicine and whatever else can benefit from a dash of salt. 

This is what Jesus said to the healed, hurting hungry crowds, crowds he had just blessed in their hunger and meekness and mercy: 

“It is the ordinary, common stuff of life that is so holy, because it is necessary to keep us alive. It is the stuff the world thinks is cheap and disposable that we need the most. Forget gold and jewels—what we need are lamps and salt to get us through the day. And that’s you guys—light and salt. The stuff of life, getting the world through another day. It’s the work you do in the trenches—forgiving someone while you fish, loving someone while you grind grain, making peace with your neighbors while you herd your sheep off their land—that’s what makes a community strong.”

Here’s the thing about lamps and salt—on their own, they really don’t serve much purpose. Jesus reminds us that nobody lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, because the lamp doesn’t shine for itself. And in the same way, you don’t flip on the lights and then just stare at the bulb. The point of the light is to cast light on something else, allow something else to be seen. Light’s beauty is in bringing out what is beautiful in something else. 

And so with salt—the point of salt is not the salt itself. You don’t take out the jar of salt and then just start eating it—or at least, I hope you don’t. Salt goes on meat to preserve it, or in a wound to heal it, or in a meal to bring out its best flavors. I remember the first time I saw a friend put salt on a cantaloupe—I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world. But she explained to me that it actually made the melon sweeter and juicier, and though I couldn’t fathom how, I tried a bite and discovered she was absolutely right—that, chemically speaking, the salt broke down the cell walls in the fruit and let its juices run free. So salt’s beauty, too, is in bringing out what is best in something else. 

Jesus calls us light and salt—common, ordinary, necessary. And he doesn’t just call us the stuff of the world, but he calls us the kind of stuff that has to go out and interact with other stuff to be useful. He calls us light, to illuminate what is beautiful in our neighbor. He calls us salt, to bring out what is best in our neighbor. 

But as I learned this week, it is no simple thing to “be a light.” Just as there are technically thousands of flavors of salt, there are thousands of kinds of light. And while Jesus’ call to us to be salt and light is general, the way we live out that call is as wonderfully unique as we are. 

Are you called to be a searchlight, seeking those in danger until they are found?

Are you called to be a flashlight, giving just one person comfort on an uncertain journey?

Are you called to be a stoplight, bringing order to a chaotic world so that everyone makes it home safe?

Are you called to be a floodlight, shining a light on injustice and sin?

Are you called to be a nightlight, glowing with the quiet promise that we don’t have to be scared of the dark?

Are you called to be a chandelier, adding beauty to this world?

Are you called to be a porchlight, welcoming the stranger home? 

Are you called to be a candle, vulnerable but real and true and warm?

After Jesus calls us salt and light, he says some difficult things about being righteous, and keeping commandments, not just in general, but down to every last letter. And I think it was because he did not want us to get complacent about how we are to shine in this world. He did not want us thinking that we were called to just “be nice,” to open doors and smile at strangers and toss a few bucks to charity and call it a day. 

Jesus calls us to be all in to this life of faith, to become not vaguely but fully who we were designed to be. For Jesus, that includes some highly specific and hard set of behaviors—like loyalty, and forgiveness, and mercy, and peacemaking, and perseverance, and sacrifice. But before he gets into all that, he wants us to know from the outset—we are salt. We are light. The trick is not to become good people, holy people. The trick is not to hide the good and holy people we already are. 

You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. So, Jesus says, I know you can do this. This right-living, right-loving thing I’m going to ask of you. 

And that you, by the way, is plural. While we are each called to shine our own lights, in our own ways, in our own spheres of influence, and through our own passions, vocations, and abilities, we are also called to shine together. 

The internet tells me a well-lit office will require at least three different types of lighting. I am cheap, so I will probably just call a new floor lamp and call it a day. But I understand the theory: the more lights in a room, the more its beauty—and its mess—can be seen. 

We are the light of the world, called to shine together. Sometimes what we will see when we shine our light is a mess, and then we will work to set things right: to heal hearts, to set up just systems, to speak good words, to bring the kingdom closer. 

And sometimes what we will see, when we turn our Christlight upon this world, is so much beauty it will take our breath away. Light of the world, salt of the earth. Amen. 

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