Salt of the earth

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in an election year …

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the light of the world.

You are God’s gift to creation.

This month during our coffee hour formation we will be talking about spiritual gifts, how to discern them and how to use them; but let’s start here: you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are God’s gift to creation.

Many of us, perhaps especially those of us raised female, have been taught too long to be oh so humble and self-effacing; too much salt spoils the soup, and too much light is glaring. But no one lights a lamp to hide it under a bushel, and the prophet Isaiah rails against a people that practices false humility, pretending to bow down before God, piling on sackcloth and ashes while in their hearts they hide greed and anger, violence and vengeance, the fruits of selfishness and pride.

Instead, Isaiah advises, turn yourselves inside out. Instead of feeding your own piety, feed your neighbour. Instead of building up your capitol, build shelter for your homeless neighbour. Instead of clothing yourself in self-righteousness, cover the cold and the shivering. Instead of locking in your own security, open the prisons, release the captives, and loose the bonds of injustice.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.

You are God’s gift to creation, after all.

I notice, by the way, that the list that Isaiah puts before the people bears a striking resemblance to the list that Jesus sets out in the parable of the sheep and the goats, when the king separates those who clothed the naked and fed the hungry and visited the imprisoned from those who did not even notice their needs. And both of them, Isaiah and Jesus, are preaching a political message, about the end of oppression and the elevation of equality, about the mercy and justice of God, and that new world order, the kingdom of God.

You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

You are God’s gift, God’s political campaign contribution. You are God’s PAC.

The last time we looked at this passage together, I noted that

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.

Even salt that is thrown out and trampled underfoot is useful, we know from our experience, for helping us to get a grip when the roads are icy and it’s hard to stay upright.

We know that the next several months in this country will be difficult and fraught. The twin temptations to pride and to silence, to excuse our pride with piety and our silence with false humility, will be strong.

But you are the salt of the earth, baptized with water and seasoned by Word and Sacrament. You are the light of the world, lit on fire by the Holy Spirit. What a gift God has given through you to the nations!

By keeping our salt, ready to speak God’s truth in a world of spin, we can help keep our grip on reality, the truth that matters, the justice of God. Don’t hold back, Isaiah advises: announce to my people their rebellion. Point out their sin.

But not with quarrelling and violence. Not with finger pointing and evil words. Advocate for equality, but in doing so, do not lose your own humanity, however funny the meme, however cheap and tempting the shot. Do not spoil your speech with insult and injury against anyone. Respect the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we disagree; do not insult the image of God within them. Love your enemies, as Jesus might have said elsewhere. Take care of their tender dignity. But salt your speech with truth. Be unafraid in countering sin with the mercy and justice of God, oppression with the glory of Christ crucified and risen.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, your healing shall spring up quickly. Sunlight, too, is a powerful disinfectant, a cleansing element, as well as a guide and a comfort.

You are the light of the world, sent to shine with the knowledge of Christ, to lift the gloom and make it like the noonday sun. It is not a glaring, harsh light. It does not hurt or blind the eyes of those whom it seeks to illuminate. But it is clear, and unwavering. That means that we must be careful of where we find our illumination, our information.

If we are to have a reputation for clarity and truth, for keeping a grip on reality and salting a pathway, not a slippery slope, but the road to righteousness, then we had better make sure that the story we are sharing on our social media feeds or in the barber shop comes not from a Russian troll bot, but is a true word worthy of the Word of God, the Christ for whom we are named Christians. Sources matter.

And why does it matter that what we say and share is trustworthy and true, and kind and dignified? We live in a weary and cynical world, where trust is hard to come by and even harder to restore once lost or damaged. Checking that the stories we share, the stories we tell are trustworthy and true matters first because Jesus is the Truth, so untruth is antithetical to him. But also, if your neighbour knows that you have been taken in by the latest conspiracy theory or doctored meme, their trust in your discernment of Christ and his true doctrine may also be damaged. At worst, they may suspect that the very gospel we proclaim is just one more conspiracy theory.

When “Paul” wrote to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and true, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” he was believed because Paul was known to be a trustworthy and true source. (1 Tim 1:15)

We are the salt of the earth, Jesus says, so we must develop a discerning palate for what is good and in accord with the justice of God which is always merciful, which is never in error but which errs on the side of grace. We are not to lose our salt over anything less.

We are the light of the world, Jesus says. We must be unafraid to uncover dark corners and disinfect our internal newsfeeds with the Sonlight, the Christlight. Eschew false humility, dispense with hypocrisy. Take pride only in Christ crucified, and trust in his resurrection.

You are the gift of God to the world. We are called, as Christians, as salt and light to represent Christ to a cynical and weary world. We have seen a vision of the kingdom of God, the release of the captives, the relief of the oppressed, the justification of the maligned and misunderstood, the mercy of God. That is our gift from God in Christ.

So guard the flame. Salt the soup. Shine as a light to the world, and always to the glory of Christ crucified, our risen and ascended Saviour.

You are salt: be bold. You are light: be illuminating. You are God’s gift: live with love. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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