who is such salty light

Matthew 5:13-20

We enter Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount
on the wings of metaphor—
two metaphors to be exact—
two metaphors and a warning.

Here we are, about to get into what is commonly accepted
as the distillation of Jesus’ teaching—
his ethics, and, as we have been suggesting,
perhaps the essence of who Jesus is,
and Jesus wants us
(or Matthew has Jesus wanting us)
to consider it all—all of what Jesus teaches—
all of who Jesus is—how Jesus is—
all of whatever Jesus expects of whomever—
Matthew has Jesus wanting us to consider it all
with two metaphors in mind—
and that warning—our text this morning.

So first, the metaphors.
You are the salt of the earth,
and you are the light of the world.
Now the first questions to address happen to be grammatical!
Don’t laugh … don’t groan either!
We have a second person plural nominative pronoun,
and in English, we have to clarify that.
See, southern is so much more helpful and accurate here.
Y’all are salt; y’all are light.
None of this is to be heard in the singular.
So to what group is Jesus talking?
He’s addressing everyone there without qualification, isn’t he?
The disciples. The crowds. Matthew’s church. Us.

And he’s not saying some of y’all are—
the ones who obey me, for example.
Nope. This is pure blessing. Original blessing.
Y’all were all created salt and light and named good—
named very good.

But—but not just in and of yourselves.
Not only is this not to be understood singularly
(I am the salt; I am the light),
there’s also that qualifying prepositional phrase.
We are all created salt and light with a role—a function—
a responsibility to the wider creation.
Y’all were created and named good for the sake of all creation.
Y’all are the salt of the earth—of the earth;
Y’all are the light of the world—of the world.

Now, we could think a lot more about these metaphors.
They are such profoundly rich images
with such a variety of applications.
And, in fact, I detoured this past week through many of them,
but as these metaphors are unpacked in our text,
they’re pretty straightforward.
The salt metaphor is apparently just focused on taste.
Again, it’s made explicit, if the salt loses its flavor, what good is it?
Y’all are part of the God-flavor of creation.
Y’all make a deliciousness worth savoring (Job 6:6; Colossians 4:5).

But if salt loses its taste, it’s good for nothing.
A literal translation of the Greek here would be “foolish.”
If salt loses its taste, it’s foolish.
So two things:
first, salt can’t really lose its taste.
It just can’t.
So, again, we’re thinking about a image bigger
than just that of salt.
Salt in and of itself cannot lose its taste,
but the flavor of salt can be lost.
It can be lost when it is too alone amidst too much else.
It can be overwhelmed.
And it can be lost when salt wants too much just to hang out with salt.
Right? No one wants to eat just salt or even too much salt.
Then it’s the taste of salt and not the flavor.

And I don’t think it’s that we’ve misunderstood our mission—
our evangelical mission —
some call to turn everyone into salt.
Everyone is salt ….
We may have underestimated the profound acknowledgement
of the reality that will always be other than God’s way and will—
the profound acknowledgement that the way the world is
will always require the flavor of salt.
And what we have here is, again counter-culturally,
not a triumphant image,
but a persistent one.
And along with it, the persistent affirmation
of an ever faithful remnant—
a minority that brings the God-flavor to creation.
An encouraging word.

Now we might read into this affirmation
a warning—
that when the people of God are the apparent majority,
what we then have,
when we no longer have a faithful remnant,
we have an unfaithful majority.
I think we can appropriately read into this
a warning about a faith compromised by the world
thinking it’s still salt and light—
when it’s become self-focused—
when it’s lost the responsibility to creation.
We can appropriately read that in here,
but it’s not there to begin with.
That’s not what people needed to hear.

Then there’s the second metaphor:
y’all are the light of the world.
Again that dynamic of being part of a bigger whole
and being differentiated from that whole
even while defined within it.
Y’all are in the world but not of it.

And like salt, as rich an image as light is,
here it’s mainly about visibility, don’t you think?
For it is in the light we see each other—
see creation,
and know ourselves to be part of a larger whole.

The priority of visibility is again made clear
as now this metaphor is unpacked.
Because while some name city on a hill a third metaphor,
it’s really a continuation of the light image.
Y’all are visible up on high.
You can’t hide.

So too with the the light under a bushel
versus on the lampstand.
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

And the light’s not about doing good works,
but rather about letting your good works be seen.

Two metaphors
about our role in creation.
Then the warning
about not disregarding the law—
not dismissing it.

“These were the words of a strict Jewish Christian community
seeking to maintain absolute obedience to the letter of the Law,
probably in opposition to a more liberal interpretation
such as those represented by Stephen (cf. Acts 7:48 ff.; 8:1)
and later by Paul (Galatians 2:2-6; 11-16; Acts 15).
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975] 104).

So this warning is about Matthew’s early church
hanging on to tradition and heritage, yes,
but also to identity.
We’re not going to let go of who we are.
Y’all are the salt of the earth; the light of the world.
Don’t let go of who you are.

So I’ve been wondering.
What else do we enter on the wings of metaphor with a warning?
Mawwiage.
Less metaphor perhaps than ideal,
but we have a sense
of two people who complement each other
emotionally, spiritually, mentally, sexually, don’t we?

Now does it always work out?
No.
And even when it does, it’s an ongoing negotiation, right?
An ideal that runs into two specific people,
and their set of particular circumstances
and so runs into hard and complicated—
runs into negotiations.
We tell our youth that, don’t we?
And then we see.
Is this an excuse?
Does that necessarily compromise the ideal?
No. Not at all.

Do we give up the ideal?
Absolutely not!
And we have here couples married—
the Chins and Stocksdales, 68 years;
the Hefflers, 57 years;
the Denhams and Trockenbrots, 55 years;
the Roberts, 52 years;
the Browns, 51 years;
the Iwatas, 48 years.

We also have folks whose marriages didn’t work out.
The negotiations didn’t work.
The marriages were not salvageable.
And the question then becomes,
not, why or how did you blow it,
but were you salt and light in the midst of not living up to an ideal—
in the midst of letting go of a dream?
Because you can do that gracefully,
or be ugly.

Three things I pulled from the internet this past week
of particular interest to me
in light of both today’s scripture,
and our peculiar cultural reality.

One of the folk singers I like
posted comments on his facebook page
in the ridiculous aftermath of the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad.
How many of you saw it?
Coke put together a marvelous ad
of different people of different ethnic backgrounds
singing “America the Beautiful” in their different languages—
illuminating so much of the beauty of our country—
even as the response to the commercial has undermined that beauty.

So folksinger Peter Mulvey wrote, “When Jefferson offered his library
to replace the one that burned (along with the Capitol) in 1814,
the Congressional delegation assigned to assess his collection
complained that a quarter of the books
were in foreign languages, ‘which cannot be read’.
Their actual words.
Near as I can tell, yahoo-ism has been running in the veins
of this nation since its inception.
A testimony to how well democracy works:
you can run the engine on one-third pure yahoo
and still get a country that can cough up Ella Fitzgerald,
Jim Harrison, Los Lobos, Martin Scorsese, and baseball.”
(Peter Mulvey, facebook, February 3, 2014).

Now I happen to think Peter’s overly optimistic.
I think we’ve got and probably have always had
a good bit more than just one third yahoo!
But the ignorant and fearful
get as much of a vote as anyone else.
No one’s voice is silenced no matter their prejudice.
As frustrating and scary as that can turn out to be,
there’s something profoundly affirming in it.
Y’all are all the light of the world.
Even if some of those lights aren’t discernible
from underneath the bushels with which you’ve covered them.
Y’all are all salt of the earth.
Even if some of you are apparently so afraid
of being mixed in with the rest of the meal
that you’d rather be ground into the dirt.
Makes it all the more important
for salt to know its place—
for light to know its place.
Makes it all the more important to ask
what flavor tastes more like God?
What light illuminates the kind of world we want to live into?

In the aftermath of that rather non-competitive Super Bowl,
I was remembering when the Ravens played the Broncos
in divisional playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl last year,
and the Broncos lost, after being 38 seconds from winning.
After the game, Peyton Manning, his wife,
and their 21 month old at the time,
waited about an hour and a half for interviews to conclude
to congratulate Ray Lewis.

And after the Seahawks beat the Broncos in this year’s Super Bowl,
Manning sought out Seahawk cornerback, Richard Sherman,
to ask about his high ankle sprain.

Do you know Manning has said he ranks his priorities as:
“faith, family, and education, then football.
For me generally it had always been the big four:
faith, family, friends, and football.
And … as important as football is to me,
it can never be higher than fourth.”

On prayer, he has said, “I pray to keep both teams injury free,
and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability.
But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games,
except as winning might influence the character of some person or group.”

In my opinion, Peyton Manning is a bigger winner
than many of the Super Bowl winners,
and that our culture doesn’t recognize and celebrate that
says more to the detriment of our culture
than our culture can possibly say to the detriment of Peyton Manning.

Finally, there was a lot written in the aftermath
of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death.
A lot of interesting and important conversation
about addiction and mental health
with which we do such poor care.
But Tom Junod, wrote the article
“Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret,”
which was posted February 2, 2014,
on Esquire on-line.
in it, Junod writes, “[Hoffman’s] metier was human loneliness —
the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do
with high-noon heroism
and everything to do with everyday empathy —
and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge.
He held up a mirror
to those who could barely stand to look at themselves
and invited us not only to take a peek
but to see someone we recognized.”

And we’re offered in one of the least of these—
an addict—
offered a profound insight into Jesus,
who, I believe, knew human loneliness—
the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do
with high-noon heroism,
and everything to do with everyday empathy—
and the necessary blessing of human self-knowledge,
who holds up a mirror
to those who can barely stand to look at themselves
and invites us not only to take a peek
but to see and know ourselves as loved—
created and named good.

Y’all are all the salt of the earth.
Y’all are all the light of the world.
So strive to be the best of who you are.
Don’t let fear and anger distort you.
Don’t allow the call to flavor
turn into the demand
and expectation to determine taste.
Don’t turn the light into something
you think you should shine on someone else.
This faith business is about the life you lead,
not the one anyone else does.
It’s about coming to believe
that the life you lead is powerfully
a part of God’s work.

So don’t ever let go of who you are.

Keep adding the flavor of love
and illuminating the interconnectedness of creation,
and the love that binds it all together.

Who Jesus is and what Jesus says
offer us the affirmative challenge:
to risk being who we were created to be!
To not conform to the world
that seeks to shape us into less than we are,
but to earn the blessing of our true nature and being
that will always always always
seek to bless others in grace and hope,
faith and love.

Know that who you are is God’s gift to creation.
And that being who you are,
in the fullness of ever becoming who your are,
is your gift to God.

So I thought I was done.
But a friend sent me this poem this morning
as the best example she knows of salt and light.
It’s called “Like Lilly Like Wilson
by poet and middle-school teacher Taylor Mali:

“I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I’ve ever seen.
So, like, bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson Like.
Until I declared my classroom a Like-Free Zone,
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to think before I . . . say anything.
Imagine that, Lilly. It’s for your own good.
Even if you don’t like . . .
it.

I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed
to adopt children.

I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.
She’s having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
‘They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.’
And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,
‘Well, that’s a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?
That’s what I want to know.’

And the eighth-grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-born baby’s face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.
‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.’
And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?

I want to say all this but manage only,
‘Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!’
So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.”

One eighth grader.
One youth.
One mom.
One dad.
One family.
One church.
Sprinkled together into our world

making delicious.

May it be so.

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