You are the Salt and the Light

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 5, 2023

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? … You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. (from Matthew 5:13ff)

What did Jesus mean when he challenged his followers to be salt and light? Let me tell you about an everyday incident that might prove instructive. The place was a public middle school cafeteria where students from grades five through eight would eat their lunch. One day a student opened the carton of milk she had purchased and received an unwelcome surprise. Floating inside was a dead insect. A few days later someone else claimed that his hamburger was raw. Soon a student-led movement began to boycott the school’s cafeteria. Crude posters went up on the walls depicting the state of ill health that would result from eating the food prepared in the cafeteria. Sure enough, on the day that the boycott was to begin, the line that usually backed out into the hallway and took forever to get through was barely a trickle. The boycott was working at all lunch periods. The students were proving their point.

Finally, after about a week of the boycott, the vice principal of the school addressed all of the lunch periods. First, he apologized for the incidents that had brought about the boycott. Next, he detailed what they had done to address the situation, including the Board of Health’s inspecting the cafeteria kitchen, and reviewing the vendors who supplied the food. Then he explained the impact that the continuance of the boycott would have on the school. The most serious of all was that cafeteria workers who depended on their jobs could be laid off. Everyone listened intently as the vice principal appealed for an end to the boycott. Finally, he put the question to the assembly: “Who’s ready to end the boycott? May I see a show of hands?”

Every student there knew perfectly well that the boycott had already proved its point, and that the right thing to do was end it. One student, any student, willing to risk being salt and light would have made the difference. One raised hand would have started a chain reaction of other raised hands, and the boycott would have been over. Sadly, everyone hesitated, and not a single hand went up. The boycott continued for reasons no one any longer understood.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” What do you think? Was Jesus giving his followers a compliment or a commission? Was he patting them on the back, or urging them to get to work? If I were to come up to you later today and say, “You are the salt of the earth,” my guess is that though your brow might furrow a bit, you would generally take it as a compliment and utter a somewhat guarded, “thank you.” Likewise, if I were to greet you and say, “You are the light of the world,” you would stand taller and receive the words as high praise – though you might secretly think that I was exaggerating or being sarcastic. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Is it a compliment? Or is it a commission? I believe that the answer is yes. The answer is both compliment and commission, with an emphasis on commission. If Jesus were, in fact, conferring on his listeners some lofty status, he was not intending it to be for their mere enjoyment. He was doing so because he had a purpose in mind for them. Salt and light have a purpose.

Since ancient times people have used salt for two general purposes: as a seasoning to bring out the flavor of food, and as a preservative against decay. It seems to me that salt’s use as a preservative may be what Jesus had in mind. In his time and place people lived close to the land. Uneaten meat and fish would spoil quickly and become inedible. Modern methods of food preservation hadn’t been invented. People knew nothing of microorganisms and how they break down organic matter. But they had discovered that salt greatly prolonged the shelf-life of food. They didn’t know why, but salt held back the decay. Salt performs a conservative function. It arrests the progress of death and decomposition, which is the devil’s work. Thus, salt participates in holiness. Salt is the essential ingredient in the holy water used in exorcisms. Legend has it that the devil doesn’t like salt. What have people done when they think the devil is behind them, tempting them to do wrong? They throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder to drive the devil away. Granted, a fine line runs between the superstitious and the symbolic, but you see how the metaphor functions. You are the salt of the earth. You are to be a bulwark against the devil’s doings.

You are the light of the world. The purpose of light hardly needs explaining, but the metaphor of light, coupled with Jesus’ words about salt, conveys to us a similar commission. Salt holds back decay, and light dispels darkness. Anyone, Christian or not, who shines a light onto the dark schemes of evil and injustice is living into Jesus’ commission. Light also leads the way to the city of God. Thus, if salt is conservative, light is progressive. It takes both. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. When Jesus first spoke these words, his Jewish hearers would have taken his reference to a city to mean Jerusalem, the city of God. To set Jerusalem in its prominent place, on a hill for all to see, would require them to be salt and light. For us, our commission as followers of Jesus is the same: to shake the salt and shine the light.

What holds us back? A few days ago, I was in midtown, making my way to the E-train, and descending a long escalator at the 5th Avenue station. On the wall to my right was a series of identical posters all the way down, the same poster every six feet or so. You can’t miss them. If I recall, the ad was for some sort of insurance firm. I don’t really remember. But the slogan itself is what stuck in my mind. It declares, “We’ll always get the future wrong” Down, down I went, with the constant reminder that we’ll always get the future wrong. It made me wonder if what holds us back from being salt and light is fear – fear that we’ll get the future wrong. I suppose in the small world of a middle school cafeteria, it was fear of getting their future wrong that prevented the students from standing up for what they knew was right. It was fear of the social ramifications they would incur by breaking ranks with the others, and raising a hand. No one was willing to be salt or light.

In Memphis, TN last month, none of the police officers involved in the arrest of Tyre Nichols was willing to be salt or light and stop the savage, fatal beating of an unarmed citizen. No one was willing at any moment to break ranks with the other officers and shout out like a trumpet, “Stop. This is wrong.” The powers of death are always counting on people not raising a hand, not standing up, and not persevering in resisting evil. Speaking of evil, Vladimir Putin is counting on the west growing weary of his criminal war, and leaving Ukraine to his own devices. He’s counting on the world being like the priest and the Levite on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, passing by on the other side, and looking the other way to avoid a helpless traveler, beaten and bleeding in the ditch (Luke 10:25-37). Only the Samaritan was willing to shake the salt and shine the light.

Jesus ended the parable of the Good Samaritan by saying, “Go, and do likewise.” It sounds clear enough, but you and I may feel completely inadequate to the task of holding back the evil powers of this world. You may feel underpowered to dispel the darkness of those who corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. So down, down we go, always getting the future wrong. Take heart: the promise of the gospel is that Jesus never commissions us to a task without giving us the means to accomplish it. In today’s reading from 1st Corinthians, we’ve heard St. Paul describe how we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. As Martin Luther wrote in his great hymn, and here I will paraphrase: The Spirit and the Gifts are ours through him who sides with us.

If we truly believe that Jesus commissions us to be salt and light in the world, then it logically follows that God cares about how things unfold on this earth. Not only does God care, but God intervenes. In fact, God gets personally involved in restoring, quickening, soothing, and blessing a bruised and battered world. How? Does God tinker with the laws of nature? Does God stop bullets in mid air? Is God given to the grand interventions that leave no doubt who’s in charge, and assure that history goes the way he wants? I’m not putting any limits on God’s divine ability, but it seems to me that God most often chooses a different way. God, who is Spirit, merges his Spirit with our spirits to raise up willing people to be salt and light and accomplish his purposes on earth. God sent the Spirit and raised up the prophet Isaiah to be salt and light and rail against the injustices taking place in Jerusalem, the city of God. Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet (Isaiah 58:1-12)! God sent the Spirit and raised up the Apostle Paul to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and establish churches wherever he could travel.

I believe the same Spirit of God is at work today at Grace Church. Later on today is the Annual Meeting of the parish, so it’s an appropriate moment for us to take stock of how we shake and shine. It was in 1808 when Trinity Church established us downtown, directly across the street from themselves. Since then we moved uptown, built this inspiring edifice to the glory of God, and ministered to waves of immigrants entering the United States through Manhattan. We established Grace Church School, and in partnership with them, the GO Project to reach children and families falling through the cracks. In recent times we’ve sponsored and built two houses with Habitat for Humanity. Little by little, we’ve been restoring the glorious interior of Grace Church, and we’ll soon begin some exterior work on the parish house. We keep the church open seven days a week. With volunteer hours and financial grants we support the Red Door Place, so that our neighbors in need may eat. God intervenes through us. Let me say it again: God, who is Spirit, seeks to merge his Spirit with our spirits, and raise up willing people to be salt and light to accomplish his purposes on earth. It is why we pray, why we receive the Sacrament, why we read and study the Scriptures: to receive the mind of Christ, to merge our spirits with God’s Spirit and say, “Here we are, Lord. Send us.”

I think again of that middle school cafeteria, where no one was willing to be salt and light. No one raised a hand when it was clear that it was the right thing to do. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t raise my hand in the moment. You see, I was a student there. I was largely a spectator of the controversy, having had nothing to do with organizing or really even participating in the boycott. I always brought my lunch from home because my parents thought it was too expensive to buy it every day. Even still, one hand raised, my hand raised, could have ended the boycott. Everyone knew the right thing to do. No one was willing to do it.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.” No, the earth did not pivot in a middle school cafeteria. The world did not turn on our failure to act. But opportunities to be salt and light will present themselves in the most mundane of places. The chance to get the future right may be at hand when you least expect it. If we practice being faithful in the small things, when it really matters we will be ready to love and serve the Lord, with gladness and singleness of heart.