This is the year of the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus is deeply connected to his Jewish roots. Matthew intends to convince his readers that Jesus is the Messiah and God’s kingdom or realm will be gathered through Jesus. In our day we don’t hear the word king or kingdom as Matthew’s first readers would have. The kingdom was Rome and the king was Caesar. To claim another king was treason.
Today we are hearing a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaks to the people gathered with him—many are Jews. He began with blessing them—blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the poor; blessed are the merciful. Today’s reading comes immediately after these blessings commonly known as the beatitudes.
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.
Jesus speaks to mostly Jews in this first public moment as told by Matthew. He speaks of a kingdom that is not Rome; a king that is not Caesar, but is God. The God he speaks of is the God of Israel—the God who guided the Jews out of slavery and into the promised land. Now hundreds of years later, they are once again slaves to an empire who cares nothing about their God. Life is fragile and they are nothing in the Roman Empire—nothing but a nuisance who are allowed to exist, and worship this God as long as they pay taxes and don’t cause trouble.
Imagine what it must have been like to hear Jesus—one of them—proclaim “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” The “you” is plural—not singular—you, all of you, are the salt of the earth. You, all of you, are the light of the world. It must have reminded them of the promise given to their ancestor Abraham—you are blessed and so you are to bless. In their circumstances they hardly felt blessed let alone able to bless anyone else.
In the Message, Eugene Peterson begins this passage with “Let me tell you why you are here.” How often I am asked, “Why am I here Pastor? What’s my purpose?” Here’s the answer:
“You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.” (The Message)
Take note: 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 both simply and directly, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." It is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.
Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or teen or adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she will live into the name assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.
Perhaps that is what Jesus was trying to do with those who gathered on that Galilean hillside long ago—call them good and useful so they would be able to be generous with their lives. Today Jesus says to us: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are to bring out the God-colors in the world. Keep open house; be generous with your lives.
While we like to believe we have come a long ways from the back waters of Galilee, our history bears the scars of the ways we have failed as humankind to be the kingdom God envisions. Those scars can open up fresh wounds yet today when words and actions serve to denigrate and degrade another person because of race, gender, economic status, class, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some of us bear scars of condemnation from others. Some of us bear scars of negative and hurtful experiences. Some of us bears scars of abuse and even though we’ve spent years in therapy, are still haunted by those demons. Some us bear scars of racism and even today are affected by it in our work places and communities. Hardly anyone is without scars of some kind. And still we gather this day to listen once again to the words of this itinerant preacher named Jesus. Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee and told a people scarred by life to be salt and light—that their purpose was to flavor the world with God.
I read this week about someone who had never been told they were the light of the world. Jesus declares today “You are the light of the world.” I say to you that we, St. John UCC, we are the light of the world. And since some expect a pastor to say that—why don’t you turn to one another and say, “You are the light of the world.” Go ahead.
So let your light so shine. There is a light that is within you that is good. There is a light within you that is of God. There is a light within you that needs to be seen. I think for a moment of the children in this world that have never been told that they are the light of anyone’s world, and it breaks my heart. I think for a moment of people stuck in abusive relationships, allowing their light to be crushed, and I want to cry. I think for a moment of youth that want only to hide and be as invisible as possible so as not to draw anyone’s attention, and it kills me to know that they have never been told, “You were created in the very image of God. The light that God created at the very moment of creation. That is in you.”
The kingdom God envisions is a kingdom of love. God still believes that kingdom is possible and we are the ones who will flavor the world with love. How do we know the kingdom of love is coming?
The kingdom of love is coming because:
somewhere someone is kind when others are unkind,
somewhere someone shares with another in need,
somewhere someone refuses to hate, while others hate,
somewhere someone is patient - and waits in love
somewhere someone returns good for evil,
somewhere someone serves another, in love,
somewhere someone is calm in a storm,
somewhere someone is loving everybody.
Is that someone us?
I believe it is so. Let’s do it.