Epiphany 5a, February 5, 2017

February 6, 2017

Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20


13 “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. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 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. 16 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. 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


I love salt. I probably fall under the category of being a salt fiend. I don’t like low-sodium canned goods, and I think it would be easier for me to eliminate meat from my diet than salt. I love meat, but I love to put salt on it. I don’t know if I would like it very much if I couldn’t put salt on it. Now I’ve also got high blood pressure, which could be a big problem, but I’m so grateful that there’s this little pill that I take each morning that keeps my blood pressure under control in spite of my love for salt. There may be people who eat more salt than I do, but I would compare my love for salt with that of anyone else. So I find this morning’s imperative to be the salt of the earth a compelling message.


Of course there are a number of uses for salt, so there are a number of ways for us to interpret what it means to be the salt of the earth, but I like the idea of living as such a valuable substance. And one way for us to take this is to think of ourselves as those who bring out the goodness of others. In a sense, we are to enhance the flavor of other people.


When I was in campus ministry I witnessed a situation that I hope never to forget. One of the best things that went on at the UALR Wesley Foundation, was the way in which it functioned as a crossroad. I encouraged people to simply stop by and hang-out, and it became a place where new friendships were formed and sometimes former connections were reestablished. So I was visiting with a former student named Mickey one day who had dropped by for a visit when a current student named Charles wheeled in on his electric wheelchair.


I introduced them but it turned out they had previously encountered each other. Charles wasn’t aware of their connection, because it had occurred right after he had had the accident that put him in a wheelchair. He was at UAMS, and that period of time was largely a blurr for him. Mickey was working there as an orderly at the time, and what he witnessed made a powerful impression on him.


Mickey said he had never seen such a remarkable parade of people stop by to check on anyone. Mickey and Charles didn’t officially meet at the hospital, but after seeing all of the people who dropped by to check on Charles, Mickey said he made a vow to himself. He didn’t know who Charles was or what he was like, but he decided he wanted to live the kind of life that would be so well appreciated by other people. I think Mickey was already a pretty nice guy, but it gave him a new sense of focus and resolve to be a good friend and family member.


We don’t always know how we affect the lives of other people. We can be powerful influences on other people without even knowing it. And it can be the small things that we do that can have powerful impacts. As we all know, a little salt can go a long way. I’ve owned up to being a salt fiend, but I’m not really somebody who drowns my food in salt. I just like a little salt on everything. And I think that’s a good way for us to think of discipleship. We don’t always need to make large productions of our efforts to follow Christ. We just need to let Christ inform all that we do.


Just as a little salt can bring out the flavor of a great piece of meat, a little salt can turn some of the most bland foods in to really nice things to eat. You know, I love to smother a hot baked potato in butter and sour cream and cheese and peppers and olives and of course salt, but I also love to pick up a cold left-over baked potato and eat it with nothing but some salt on it. And I think there’s a lesson there about discipleship.


When Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth I think he’s telling us we can help create opportunities for abundant life regardless of what’s going on in life. As surely as a little salt can turn a bland starch into a memorable late night treat, I believe a person of faith can provide great hope and comfort in the midst of any situation.


Many people know of the courageous and bold leadership that Dietrich Bonhoeffer provided during his work as a pastor in Nazi Germany. At great personal risk he provided guidance for people of faith who sought to resist the evil ways of Hitler’s government, but what’s not so well known is the simple pastoral care he provided during the last few months of his life. He was imprisoned during that time, and following the war the survivors who were with him in prison as well as some of his guards testified to the way in which Bonheoffer provided them with simple forms of comfort. He brought a form of life into a very deathly situation. He provided some salt for a tastless situation, and it made things better for everyone.


Of course, there are many different uses for salt.  Really salty water can gag you or make you sick, but it’s so good to gargle with when you have a sore throat.  Using salt for a medicinal purpose is not as appetizing as the seasoning image, but it does carry with it the idea of bringing relief and healing, and that is certainly an aspect of discipleship as well.  There are some obvious wounds and sore spots in this world that would benefit from the application of some disinfecting salt solution. There are a number of ways for us to be the salt of the earth, and we disciples need to engage in some strategic thinking about how we can enhance life and heal wounds.


There are many lessons that can be drawn from the salt proclamation, but maybe the most important thing for us to keep in mind is the way in which it’s value is derived from how it’s used. Salt has very little value in and of itself. We aren’t just called to be an inert substance that can kill about anything, but on it’s own can’t keep anything alive. As salt of the earth, our value is in how we relate to one another.


But Jesus didn’t just want us to think of ourselves as salt. He also called for us to think of ourselves as the light of the world.


Because we have have had the good fortune of encountering the grace and peace of Jesus Christ we have become equipped to be the bearers of that same grace and peace. Jesus hadn’t been around his disciples long before he told them they were the salt of the earth and light for the world. Hearing the words of Jesus and following his teaching is all that we need in order to become these essential elements.


Embracing the image of discipleship as light is a timely image right now because the world of lighting has undergone a revolution. A trip to the lighting aisle of any store reveals a whole new world of lighting options. You can still find relatives of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs, but those have largely been replaced by a newer generation of lighting devices. You probably don’t need me to recall the recent evolution of lighting in the USA, but think about how this has played out over the last few years.


Thomas Edison’s style of light bulb served us well for over a hundred years, but the truth is that such bulbs actually create more heat than light. When you see an incandescent light bulb you are witnessing a tungsten wire having enough electricity pass through it to make it glow, which means it has reached a temperature just over 4000 degrees, but it doesn’t burn up because it’s in a vacuum and there’s no oxygen to enable it to actually catch on fire. It was an ingenious invention, but it’s not the most efficient way to generate light, and fortunately we’ve become more sensitive to the value of energy efficiency.


Fluorescent bulbs have been around for a while, and they are much more efficient because they create light by passing electricity through a gas that glows under very specific circumstances. It took a while for scientists to figure out how to package that process in a bulb small enough to screw in to a conventional light fixture. These compact fluorescent lights or CFLs were an improvement, but they contain a trace of mercury vapor in each bulb – which is a toxic substance, so they didn’t prove to be an optimal solution to our lighting needs.


And that leads us to this new form of lighting that has largely replaced both incandescent and compact fluorescent light bulbs. Light Emitting Diodes or LEDs have found their way in to our world. I don’t really understand the science, but what I do understand is that they are even more efficient than CFL’s, they’re more resilient, they’re smaller, they don’t create much heat, there are no toxic disposal issues, and they can create some cool colors.


LEDs have revolutionized the lighting world, but there is a sense in which we’ve had some LED’s on hand for the last 2000 years. Jesus didn’t think to call his followers LEDs, but that’s what he wanted us to be – light emitting disciples. You may have been wondering when this science lesson was going to turn back in to a sermon, and this is that moment because I see a lot of similarity between theses two types of LEDs. You pass a little energy through a light emitting diode and you get some colorful light in an efficient and resilient manner, and I’m thinking the same can be said of a light emitting disciple.


You touch a light emitting disciple with some power from the Holy Spirit and the world becomes a more illumined place. We are called to be the bearers of God’s light, and that calls for us to be both the recipients and the transmitters of that form of grace that can be well described as light. And we need to be as wise as those people who are constantly researching the way to make a better light bulb. We need to think about how we can be more efficient in our transmission of God’s grace in to the world. How can we be more resilient and colorful and enduring in our work to share God’s love? It’s a beautiful thing that Jesus has invited us to be.


We’ve been challenged in two very different ways, and there are innumerable ways for us to live out these divine possibilities. Some of us are more salty than others. Some of us burn a little brighter than others. But we all have our opportunities to be the bearers of God’s gracious presence to people who are needing a taste of heaven and some light on their path.


God be with us as we seek to embody these powerful words of Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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