Sunday, February 9, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“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.
Her name was Patricia Walter and she was my seventh grade English teacher. I loved her, but she terrified many of my classmates. Mrs. Walter demanded strict order in her classroom. Her academic expectations were exceedingly high for our grade level. She had us seventh graders diagraming Shakespeare. She made us memorize the rules of grammar and the parts of speech. And she was famous for her pop quizzes. She would say things like: “Take out a sheet of paper and list the common prepositions. You have three minutes.” And to show you how effective her method was, allow me to demonstrate, lo these many years later: “of, in, by, to, for, with, at, on, from, into, under, toward, between, down, among, over, across, against.”
One day, my father announced that he had taken a new church assignment and that we would be moving. I still remember the morning I walked into Mrs. Walter’s classroom before school started to tell her the news. Her response was to organize a going away party for me. And I vowed to never forget her.
And I didn’t. We stayed in touch for years, exchanging letters and enjoying the occasional visit. Fifteen years after that initial goodbye, I invited Mrs. Walter and her husband Ray to my ordination. They did not RSVP, but sure enough there they stood in the receiving line when it was all over. They had driven four hours one way just to be there. I was so overcome at the sight of her in that receiving line that at first I was speechless and then I burst into tears, sort of humiliating myself. She hugged me and then she took me by both shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and in her voice of English teacher authority, announced: “You can be anything you want to be. You can go as far as you want to go.” And I knew that she meant every word of it.
Those words took root in my heart, as words so often do. Words are living things, and so what we say to each other and about each other have the power to give life or to destroy it. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary aged children hear about themselves, they will need to hear ten positive ones to restore their self-image. So, words can hurt. But words can also heal and empower.
The Gospel lesson today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount – a beautiful collection of the kinds of words that heal. Jesus had just finished telling that crowd of common folk about how blessed they were even when they didn’t feel like it. He said, “Blessed are you poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.” “Blessed are you meek, for you will inherit the earth.”
But then Jesus shifts gears dramatically. Instead of referencing the people primarily by their frailties and pain (poor, mourning, and meek), he talks instead about what else is also true about them; something not quite as evident to most as our weaknesses. Jesus speaks of their innate gifts and their potential, proclaiming: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”
Do those words surprise you? They’re a bit shocking in that they don’t fit so easily with the dominant theological narratives most often proclaimed by the church. “Jesus is the light of the world, but people certainly aren’t,” we are told. Or, we make these words proscriptive as opposed to descriptive. In other words, this is Jesus telling us to be better – to become salt and to become light. But that is not what he said. He simply announces an identity that most of us are hesitant to acknowledge: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
Now it’s also true that Jesus warns us in this passage about loosing our saltiness and hiding our light. And lots of preachers focus on that. But consider this: in order to loose saltiness, you had to be salty in the first place. And in order to hide your light, you had to be light in the first place. And that starting point is a radically different take on the human condition than most of us are used to hearing.
But this idea about innate human potential as a by-product of being made in the image of God is actually a very old idea in Christianity. The Celtic Christians and the Roman Catholic Franciscans and Eastern Orthodoxies and others begin their theology with an idea called Original Blessing as opposed to Original Sin. Original Blessing, taken from the Creation account in Genesis in which God pronounces the whole creation “GOOD!”, teaches that before we are anything else we might be; before any of our weaknesses and sins, we are made in the divine image and likeness. And that is our primary identity.
But it’s a hard sell. We simply accept the notion that we are hopelessly tainted and incapable of goodness. And so when a thundering preacher labels us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, we believe it. And we don’t just believe it about ourselves. We believe it about everyone else. We see the world through the lens of the negative. For example: statistics consistently show that violent crime has been on the decrease in this country for some years now. And yet, more people than before think of this world as a fearful and dangerous place. We are suspicious of strangers. We will give up our freedoms for the mere promise of safety. It’s a world defined by a very dim view of others. And yet, Jesus said to all those others: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
So what was Jesus actually saying? Well, it was a mouthful. In the ancient world, salt was a very precious commodity. Entire empires were built out of the exportation of salt. Salt was sometimes used as money. The word salary comes from the Latin word “salarium” meaning salt money. Salt was also used to preserve food. It was sprinkled on sacrifices and understood as a metaphor for wisdom. Salt was rubbed on newborn children as a blessing. So, when Jesus proclaimed, “You are the salt of the earth” it was a declaration of our God-given ability to preserve and to bless creation.
The light metaphor is a little easier for us to understand. Without light, everything dies. Turning on a light can banish our fears. Light helps us to see a way forward. So, when Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” it was a declaration of our God-given ability to facilitate growth and banish fear and bring understanding.
But can we believe that about ourselves? After decades of practiced and self-protective cynicism, can we believe it? And knowing what we do about the human capacity for evil, can we believe it?
Well, maybe it’s not a matter of belief. The Christian faith is not primarily about a set of beliefs or dogma or creeds. Christian faith is a living experience, a transformation that Christ works in us. It’s a way of living in the world that makes the truth self-evident. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “It works if you work it.” And the same is true of our Christian faith – it works if you work it. So maybe friends, these unbelievable words of Jesus would be more believable to us if we thought about them less and acted on them more.
I’m sure the first folks who heard this didn’t believe it either. “What did he say,” they asked one another. “We are the salt of the earth… we are the light of the world?” “Yeah, that’s what he said.” And with those shocking and life-giving words, Jesus took those meek, poor, sad people by their shoulders, looked them in the eye, gave them a little shake and simply reminded them of their true identity as children of the Most High God. And if they could dare to believe it, they could change their world. And many of them did. If we could dare to believe it, we could change our world too.
So give us a little shake, Jesus. Wake us up. Set us straight. Help us to see what you do. And then send out to be bright and briny, loving and kind, merciful and just.