What in the world do you say right after you have said something amazing?
We know how it begins. We know… "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…." from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But, and I imagine there are some history scholars here who might, but I don’t think most folks could quote what Lincoln said next. They were there to dedicate the battlefield, and he said, "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."1
We remember that in his first Inaugural Address John F. Kennedy said, "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country." But right after that he said: "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." He called the whole world to shared sacrifice, knowing that, "…here on earth God’s work must truly be our own."2
I remember watching Ronald Reagan in front of the wall in West Berlin in June of 1987, when he said to the Soviet leader, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" But I did not remember that what he said next was in a very different tone. Reagan said, "I understand the fear of war and the pain of division that afflict this continent– and I pledge to you my country’s efforts to help overcome these burdens." He invited partnership. "Yet we seek peace," he said, "so we must strive to reduce arms on both sides."3 You never remember what people say next when their words change the world.
Today’s text is after one of those famous speeches. After the birth narratives in Matthew’s gospel, after the wise men and the escape to Egypt, Jesus, fully grown, is baptized by John in the Jordan. Then 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. He emerges, calling disciples right from their fishing boats. By the end of chapter four the public phase of his ministry begins, moving throughout Galilee, Matthew tells us, teaching and preaching, curing every disease, he says, every sickness among the people. His fame spreads, Matthew reminds us, and crowds followed him from the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.4
At the beginning of chapter five Jesus gathers them for his inaugural address. Up the mountain he finds a spot, waits as the multitudes settle in. Then he begins The Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5, 6, and 7 – with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn….blessed are the meek. Jesus was beginning, already, to turn everything upside down. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. All of those people, all of them, heard that no matter what they were in the midst of…grief and loss, confusion, poverty and hunger and loneliness…that God was creating a new world.
The text Mark just read immediately follows The Beatitudes. And I think that its words and its placement tell us something important. Jesus first draws this big, beautiful, dramatic vision of the kingdom of God, then follows with two simple, earthy images. YOU are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. In the Greek there is more emphasis: It is You who are salt, it is you who are light.5 Don’t be who you can be. Be who you already are.
While you can always push an image like this too far, we know that a little bit of salt can go a pretty long way. Just a little bit of light, like a night-light in a child’s room, breaks in, illuminating everything. For much of the earth’s history salt was a precious commodity, for flavor but even more so for its ability to preserve foods in days before refrigeration. In Roman times soldiers were paid a special allowance to buy salt called a salarium, a word that gives us our "salary."6 I am a bit confused by salt losing its saltiness – it seems like it wouldn’t be salt anymore then, right? But it seems Jesus, with his exhortations, includes a warning. It is possible for us to lose track of God’s claim on us, to not do be as we are made. We lose it when we let anxiety control our decisions, when we lash out in anger, when we get selfish, gathering things to ourselves. We lose it when we get caught up in conversations that bring others down instead of building them up. We lose it when we don’t do everything we can to do better, live to a higher standard, especially with those with whom we disagree, whether because of politics of because of some strange grudge or because of a personality conflict. When we let our standards slip. Then we lose our saltiness. We take this light, shining for all to see, and stick a basket on top of it. We set it to the side; we’re busy, after all.
But the good news is, losing our saltiness is against our nature. It’s not who we are. "Jesus doesn’t say, "If you want to become salt and light, do this…." Or, "before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this from you…." Rather, he says, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." It is… blessing, commendation…commissioning."7 It can surely be exhausting, in a world of addiction, poverty, violence from Syria to the West Bank. Schools fail, churches squabble, leaders disappoint again. Sometimes the needs of the world are overwhelming. But after the oratory, after the stunning Beatitudes, Jesus tells us it is about small and simple things like a pinch of salt, like lighting a candle in a dark room. He is reminding us that after the fancy sermon – and most of us preachers really do know this – after the oratory, it is THEN the hard work begins. Then people – you, us – nameless, faceless saints, organize, listen, go to meetings, walk the neighbor’s dog, pull in their friends on a project, reach out with patience to the person in front of you in line at Target even though you are LATE and feeling a bit cranky.
And if you take the time to pay attention, there is salt and light all around this community. It takes folks working with kids, every day, like the saints at Durham Nativity School. I was there for a meeting this week and continue to be amazed at the commitment of the staff there to transforming these 6, 7, 8th grade young men and their whole families, who might not have much of a chance otherwise.8 It takes groups like CASA, building affordable housing. On Friday some of us were there for the groundbreaking for some apartments for formerly homeless veterans named after our own Alex Denson for his advocacy and commitment, so that we as a community might take care of those veterans who have taken care of us for so long. By the fall, with any luck, there will be 11 veterans moving in that didn’t have somewhere to live before. It takes folks like Donate Life of North Carolina, who had a meeting here on Thursday, trying to continue to get the word out that organ donation is one of the most amazing gifts you can ever give someone else. A gift that our family knows firsthand can bring hope when things look really, really bad. It takes scouts, here at Westminster and far beyond, playing and enjoying being together, but also committed to taking care of their communities, honoring God’s creation, committed to service beyond themselves. It takes folks like you…
Jesus doesn’t say, "If you want to become salt and light, do this…." Or, "before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this from you…." Rather, he says, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." Go flavor the world, shine a light, so that people SEE, Jesus says. Not for you, not ever to give glory to YOU, but to your father in heaven, our beloved God who, who calls us ALL to serve.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Voices of Democracy.
2. John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Bartleby.
3. Ronald Reagan, "Tear Down this Wall," The History Place.
4. Matthew 4:23,25
5. M. Eugene Boring. “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (Abingdon; Nashville,) p 181. This note comes from Joe Clifford’s paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well, Davidson, NC.
6. Harold McGee, Courtesy Dana Lange.
7. David Lose, “Salt & Light,” Dear Working Preacher.
8. Durham Nativity School