A sermon for the Solemn Sung Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, on the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany; adapted slightly from the Rector’s Annual Meeting sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, that morning.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
These declaratory statements by Jesus to his disciples are pretty astonishing, when you think about them grammatically (and I am not the daughter of an English teacher for nothing).
Jesus says nothing of potential or possibilities. There is no suspension for a foreseeable future. This is definitive, and this is performative
You are the salt of the earth; because Jesus said so.
You are the light of the world; because Jesus said so.
Salt is not only for flavouring our food. When our salts get out of balance, or drop to levels too low in our bodies, we are in real medical trouble. Salt is essential to our life and to our health, and not only to our gastronomic happiness. Salt is elemental.
In the older church rites, salt was added to the rituals surrounding baptism. It was placed in the mouths of those being presented for the baptismal rite. That combination of salt and water – that is to say, the combination of you and your baptism – is powerfully good.
Salt, when added to water, is incredibly useful. It acts as an antiseptic. It draws out infection and soothes inflammation. The salt of the sea buoys up bodies and gives rest to weary limbs. If you put just the right combination of salts and minerals and whatnot into water, you find that you have invented Gatorade!
So when Jesus says that his disciples, when he says you, as disciples of Christ, are the salt of the earth is not only a matter of good taste. It is elemental. It is sacramental.
And Jesus, the Word of God through whom all things were called into being, beginning with the words, “Let there be light!”; this Word now tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”
That light: we take it for granted, most of us. Unless we are fully blind, we take care that there is always sufficient light to find our way into or out of trouble. When it is absent, this light, taken away, for most of us the absence of light is paralyzing. We are afraid to move. We are afraid to look into the darkness and see nothing. We are afraid, in the absence of light, of our own imaginations.
For most of us, light, almost as the air, is the medium within which we work, within which we function as whole and sensible human beings.
To call his disciples salt and light: Jesus is not naming nice qualities to which Christians should aspire. Jesus is saying that they, we, you, are essential to the continued well-being, health, and sanity of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Jesus also says not to waste these properties – and when you consider how vital they are, we realize our responsibility to use them wisely, and for the good of the world.
Salt does not exist for its own sake, but to serve the needs of the body, of the earth, of the world. Without salt, the body dies!
Of course, it is not the purpose of salt to make everything taste salty. It is not to take over the body, but to support the health and vitality of each person it affects. It works to strengthen the body that surrounds it. In cuisine, it works with the other flavours to lift their profile. In life, maybe that translates to elevating the truth of another’s God-given identity as a child of God. Salt, secure in its own saltiness, can allow the other to be; even to enjoy the differences to be found between individual creatures of God; and it is arguable that this respect for the individual, for the other, has rarely been more essential than now. Salt exists for the sake of that which is not salt.
Neither does light shine upon itself. Light does not exist to illuminate itself, but to light the way for the other creatures, to cause things to grow, to find to see, to recognize. Without light, the world is frozen into fear and madness!
There is a risk, mind you, in shining a light into the shadows; there is risk of uncovering sin, or discovering evil; but light is not afraid of the darkness, for light breaks open the darkest night and dispels it. And at least in the light, one can see what are the real obstacles to our health and salvation, and which are just monsters of our imaginations.
You are light, to declare to the world what is real and what is not; to show the world which way to turn; because you have the Gospel within you, the promise of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Way, our Life, our Truth.
Light does not exist to illuminate itself. Salt does not exist to season itself. Neither does the world exist to serve them; but salt and light serve the health, happiness, and well-being of the world.
Any time we are tempted to feel sorry for ourselves; any time we are confused about our purpose; any time we want to turn our back on the needs of the world, or expect the world to serve our needs first, we are to remember that we are salt. Jesus said so. We are light. Jesus made us that way.
Our purpose, our reason for being the church lies beyond ourselves, always and even beyond our understanding; for what does salt understand of the food that it seasons, or light see of what it illumines?
And this, of course, is where the metaphor may break down; because we are not only salt and light for the world; we are the world. We live and move and have our being along with every other creature that we season and for whom we light the way. We flavour one another; we shine a light for one another in our own dark moments. We are essential to one another.
A single grain of salt is soon lost and overwhelmed. A single lumen of light is limited by the darkness that surrounds it.
But when grains of salt clump together in one dish, they are strong; even overwhelming! And when light is multiplied, it can reach from the farthest heavens, break open the darkest night sky.
Our own needs are met by the One whom we call our Light, our Way, our Truth, our Life. He is Bread for the hungry, and Living Water. He is our health, and our salvation. And he invites us into his gospel work, to be good news for the rest of the crowd, the ones gathered on the hillside behind his disciples, waiting for a blessing.
Blessed are you, salt for the earth; baptized and poured out for the health and strength of the world.
Blessed are you, the light of the world, for by your light the world will see the greater glory, which is the glory of the Christ of God.