A sermon delivered at the Solemn Sung Eucharist service of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio. The propers are for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world.
What do salt and light have in common? Each of them works to enhance everything around them.
Salt is used to bring out the flavour of food, to nourish the earth, to melt the ice beneath our feet or our car tires; it has many uses, and each of them draws focus from the salt itself to the environment which it is improving and healing. Salt dissolved in water is an antiseptic and a balm. In one of the stories from the law and the prophets, Elisha casts salt into the stream near Jericho and the water is cleansed and the land that it irrigates begins to produce good food after a long period of famine (2 Kings 2:19-22).
Light, likewise, illuminates not itself but the space around it, and the faces, those images of God dimly revealed and deeply shadowed. Looking into the light itself may be contraindicated: never look directly at the sun; even reflected off cold snow, it can be blinding. But without it, we are lost. A candle set upon a lampstand sheds light upon the room in which it stands: the people, the well-seasoned food, the furniture, so that you don’t stub your toe on the lampstand, or the bushel in the corner.
Salt and light: this service, this outreach, this is their essence. They are vital, and they exist not to their own ends, but are part of God’s marvellous and intricately interwoven plan for the sustaining of God’s creation.
Another thing that salt and light have in common is that they can become dangerous. Salt, if it becomes too concentrated, causes all kinds of chaos, from kidney stones to the lifeless waters of the Dead Sea.
And in the example that Jesus gives, hiding a light under a bushel is not only counterproductive, but it’s really quite risky. If you put a candle or an oil lamp under a rush basket you are asking to burn down the entire house. If you set it under a ceramic bowl, it will consume all of the oxygen surrounding it before it burns out; it may even crack the bowl with its heat as huffs up all of the available air.
The light cannot exist only unto itself, or things will begin to go awry.
You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Jesus is telling his disciples something about our essence, the ideas that God had about us when we were created. That we were not meant to be and live only for ourselves, but made in the image of God, to point one another back toward the source of our life and all that is beloved.
Jesus goes on to say that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. And how does he sum them up, when he is asked later by a lawyer? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … You shall love your neighbour as yourself. One these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
To quote our Presiding Bishop, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.
Love, salt, and light: none of them is designed to serve itself. Each of them is essential to the order that God has created. Salt does not lose its saltiness when it is used to flavour our food. Light is not exhausted by its shining. Love does not run out.
But if salt has lost its saltiness, Jesus warns, then it is worth nothing. If we forget that even our righteousness is not ours to keep or to hoard, but it is to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), as we heard last Sunday – if we for a moment think that our righteousness is ours to keep, then we have lost our way.
No: like salt, like light, like love, it is ours to spend. As salt, we can make a difference for someone slipping on thin ice; as light, give hope and a hand to someone who is lost and afraid of the dark. It is our righteousness, if we understand ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, salt of the earth and light for the world it is our call to right the wrongs of injustice, to free the oppressed and the tormented, to heal the bruised, to bring the dead to life (Matthew 10:7-8). To bring the dead to life: to say their names.
We may say, but I am only a little pinch of salt, a modest candle.
But here’s another astonishing thing about what Jesus tells his disciples, and the crowd, pretty indiscriminately on the mountainside. He says, “You are the light of the world.” Who is the Light of the world? He is the Light of the world! He says it himself elsewhere (John 8:12): “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Salt of the earth, essence of creation, light of the world, love of God: he is telling us that he is with us, that we are not alone, that we were not created to be alone, apart from him, apart from God. He has shed his light upon us, dim and deeply shadowed images of God that we may be, so that we can see and taste God’s glory, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s grace among us.
You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. It is our call and it is our essence, to give thanks to God who created us; to follow Christ, who grounds us; to love God, to love our neighbours; thereby to change the world even one grain at a time, trusting that, in the words of the apostle, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [that is] what God has prepared for those who love him”. (1 Corinthians 2:9)