St. Paul’s Congregational Church
February 9, 2020
Matthew 5:13-20, Epiphany5A: The Salt of the Earth
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
The introduction of our worship theme for today from our Sunday School curriculum says, “Discipleship is an exciting and challenging task which calls out of us every ounce of creativity and energy we possess. Today’s readings show us how the faithful in different generations have struggled to distinguish between the ways of the world and the ways of God. The choices are not always as clear cut or simple as we might like them to be.”
Ain’t that the truth!
The introduction goes on: “Isaiah insists that God cares much less about how we observe cultic rules and rituals than how we live out our ordinary lives. Righteousness is not found in being religious but is seen when the oppressed go free, when bread is shared, and when all have a place are welcome. It’s when we live out this kind of compassion that we truly encounter God, and understand the joy that comes from discipleship. It is also easy to confuse the demands of the church with the expectations of God. Sometimes, of course, they are the same. But sometimes they’re not – and living faithfully does not mean simply following the rules and rituals that keep our religious traditions alive and well. It means daring to live with the kind of radical compassion that will put everything, even the church itself if necessary, on the line.”
We’ve seen some of that this week, haven’t we. We’ve seen what happens when disciples put everything on the line as they have leaned into their faith to help them make important decisions. We’ve heard bitter denunciations of their integrity, their faith, and we’ve seen the price they have paid. And we’ve heard a deafening silence from too many corners.
The introduction ends this way, “Disciples dare to be different; to march to a different drummer; to avoid easy answers. Disciples are more interested in compassion and justice than they are in keeping institutions alive. And disciples, like salt, act on the world the way salt acts on food: making it taste more like itself, giving it the zest and savor that God desires.”
Again this week I’ve struggled to find the words for a reflection for today – between the chaos in our country and my worries, even fear, for the future and direction of this church to continue its ministry, I have asked the question, God, could you please be a little clearer: to what, to where are you calling me, calling us as disciples here at St. Paul’s Church? My star word is patience – and it sure has been tested this week!
What indeed does it mean to hear, You are the salt of the earth. And at a time when the darkness seems overwhelming, what does it mean to hear, You are the light of the world?
We know today that too much salt isn’t good for us – but in Jesus’ time, it was expensive, rare, hard to get – a very precious commodity – this image helped those ancients understand that Jesus expected extraordinary, precious, high valued things from them – and Jesus expects the same from us.
Maybe we think of salt as seasoning – in terms of our Christian faith - providing spiritual seasoning that keeps life from being bland and unrewarding, gives our lives joy and meaning. Or maybe we consider salt a purifier – it was used by the Jews to purify their offerings to God. If we modern Christians are to be the salt of the earth, maybe we are to honor a pure and high standard in speech, thought, and behavior, taught to us by Christ.
Salt was also used to aid healing. Today we are called to promote healing through prayer, caring for others, loving kindness, and supporting the least, the lost, and the lonely – holding hands with one another, reaching out to each other in love and compassion.
And just as salt thaws ice on the roads, we can help melt the iciness of life – melting frozen relationships by applying the warmth of Christian love.
And salt the preservative – as followers of Jesus, we’re committed to preserving Christian principles that keep ourselves and others from going bad.
For salt to become effective, to do what it’s supposed to do, it has to be released from its container, doesn’t it. God can release us from whatever holds us back so we can truly salt the people of the earth. God can release us to make a difference in the world: giving hope where there is no hope; forgiving where there is sin; embracing where there is loneliness and despair; tolerating, where there is prejudice; reconciling where there is conflict; bringing justice where there is a wrong; providing food where there is hunger; giving comfort where there is distress or disease; bringing light where there is darkness. That’s our calling, isn’t it – to enhance this good and beautiful and often troubled world – precious in God’s sight.
And God can release us to be the light in the world – in fact, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. What a gift that is. We’re all here today because the light of God has come into our lives – from others who have showed us the way, shined their light so we couldn’t help but respond. Now, for us, the only question is what are we going to do with it? Are we going to show others the way? That light has been given to penetrate and overcome darkness. It’s given so we can do the work of God, here at home, in this church community, in the world, wherever we spend our days. It’s meant to be shared.
An old story worth repeating: Once upon a time there was a church that sat high in the mountains of Switzerland. It was a beautiful church that had been built with great care by the villagers who lived nearby. But there was one thing that the church didn’t have – it didn’t have any lights. You couldn’t just go into the church and switch on the lights like we can here. Yet every Sunday the people who lived on the mountain side opposite the tiny church saw something wonderful happen. The church bell would ring and worshippers would wend their way up the mountainside towards the church. They would enter the church and all of a sudden the church would light up brightly. How could this be?
The people had to bring light with them - so they each brought lanterns. When they arrived at church they would light them and hang them around the church on pegs set in the walls, so the light would spread all around. If only a few people came to church the light would be very dim because there would only be a few lanterns. But when lots of people came to church there would be plenty of light. After the service the villagers would take their lanterns home. At this time, to those who watched from a distance, it was as if a stream of light poured out of the church and over the mountainside. For many it was a sign that all was well: God’s light was with them and in them. The only time the little church lit up was when people were there. That's when it truly became a church. That's when it the light shown most brightly. But the light didn’t stay inside – it moved out into the world to bring that warm glow of God’s love into the community, the light of the world has come to empower each of us to do God’s work.
So it is here today - we carry in us the light of God - and we gather here - this place truly becomes a church - a place in which God's light is seen and shared.
Frederick Buechner sums all this up and challenges us when he says, “Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, live this truth forth. Be the light of the world, he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be. That is what Jesus tells his church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other. Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that — no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead — then it is not being what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that.”
What lantern do you bring to this church to make its light continue to shine brightly? What lanterns, what lights, are we hiding in the shadows, that if we release them, will overcome the darkness? And what light are you carrying forth when you leave here? We are the light of the world! Don’t hide it!
We of today’s St. Paul’s Church have been the beneficiaries of so many of those who have gone before us - all those who have loved this church and have for generations – what is it that we will leave for the future? Are we just trying to hang on or are we looking ahead? Let’s not hide our light under a bushel – but put it on the lampstand for all the world to see! Bring your lanterns! Let this sanctuary glow with the love and courage and peace that God gives to each of us – all we have to do is accept it and then we can’t help but share it!
Soon we will scatter out into the world where we’re called to share that light. What will our neighbors see? Learn about us? What good works do we, will we, provide to this good and beautiful and broken world that will provide glory and praise to the God who calls us, who loves us, who is always with us!
I challenge each of us to remember the words of our theme introduction from our Sunday School curriculum: “Disciples dare to be different; to march to a different drummer; to avoid easy answers. Disciples are more interested in compassion and justice than they are in keeping institutions alive. And disciples, like salt, act on the world the way salt acts on food: making it taste more like itself, giving it the zest and savor that God desires.”
Are we brave enough to live this out? Are we creative enough to find a way to live this out? I pray we truly shine with the light in the world – may we share his light that we might bring hope not only to each other, but to those who see us. So may it be today and all days.
Let us pray: loving God, we thank you for Jesus, the one who lights our way. Help us to follow him and be people who show your light to others. In his name we pray, Amen.