Salt and Light

Lessons: Matthew 5:13-16

Barry White, not the R&B singer with the low, sultry voice, but a fifth grade English teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a different, elaborate, personalized handshake for each and every one of his students. Every. Single. One. His morning ritual is to “shake hands” with each student as he or she arrives to class in the morning. Says White: “They know when they get to the front door we do our ‘good mornings,’ and then it’s time to go … I’m always pumped up and then we start doing the moves and that brings them excitement and pumps them up for a high-energy class.”

This is one of those times I wish we had a good, reliable video set up. It is amazing and inspiring to see White and his students do these intricate handshakes, each one different, each one inspired, says White, by the student’s personality. White came up with the idea watching LeBron James, who does the same thing with his teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers. “You see that bond and how close they are,” White says. “I wanted to bring that feeling into the entire 5th grade.”

I’ll put a link to the video of Mr. White and his class in the sermon on our website. What you’ll see is how one man’s enthusiasm and gifts are being used in the right place with the right people at the right time. The kids light up. He lights up. They start class knowing how much Mr. White cares about them, each one of them. As the principal of White’s school says, “When kids know their teacher cares, they are attentive, engaged and driven to be successful.”[1]

Mr. White brings what Jesus would call his salt and light to his classroom. These few weeks before Lent, our Scripture passages come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, a collection of Jesus’ most important teachings. In the chapters before this, Jesus caught the attention of the crowds by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Kingdom of Heaven, Matthew’s term for the Kingdom of God, is what our world would look like now if we lived as though God ruled our hearts and lives. To the extent we live that way now, the Kingdom of God is present. To the extent we don’t, it’s a long way off.

Jesus calls his first disciples from the task of fishing for fish to the task of fishing for people.   And then, according to Matthew, he climbs a mountain followed by an enthusiastic crowd, and sits down to teach his newly called disciples. It’s the disciples that are the primary targets of his instruction on life in the Kingdom of God. This morning’s verses follow the Beatitudes, which Diana read for us last week, and which describe so beautifully God’s dream for the world. But at the close of the Beatitudes, Jesus starts talking about persecution. These disciples have a lot ahead of them. Maybe sitting on the hillside on a sunny afternoon, the disciples can’t guess what’s coming. But Matthew wrote this gospel a generation or so later, so he knows.

So Jesus gives the disciples a pep talk. He encourages them – he puts courage in them. In today’s verses, he tells them, “You are salt. You are light. You bring your flavor, your zest, and your brilliance, your radiance to this world, to your discipleship, and to the work of pointing the way to God’s kingdom.”

One point is really crucial in understanding this passage: Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be…” let alone “You’d better be….” Rather, he is saying, “You are.” You already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.[2]

Jesus is making a promise, not a command.[3] We so often think of God as the lawgiver, the rule enforcer, the judge, setting expectations we rarely can live up to. But this passage, like last week’s, is about sheer blessing. You are salt. You are light.

But of course, it doesn’t stop there. Jesus chooses these images because they make a difference; they change things for the better. Salt flavors things; light dissolves the darkness. We are called to live our identity as salt and light in a way that it makes an impact on the world around us – in a way that reveals God’s kingdom. For Mr. White, that means greeting each fifth grader with a different handshake that communicates to the students that their teacher believes they are salt and light, too.

What does it mean for you?

But maybe before we answer that question, we need to deal with a more basic question. Do you know you are salt and light? Do you believe you are? Or do you doubt what Jesus says? Do you figure Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant you? Do you think that Jesus might have been mistaken? Do you hesitate, wondering whether or not this is the right time or the right place? Have you convinced yourself that you can’t make a difference, that your voice can’t make a difference?[4]

For just a minute, think about your life over the last couple of weeks. Yes, you – you and your actual life. Think of the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light. Think of your words of encouragement to others. Think of your faithful work on the job or with your children. Think of the volunteering you’ve done. Think of the prayers you’ve offered, or protests you’ve been a part of, or promises you’ve made and kept. The times you showed up for someone, or for something important. Any of these things may seem, in and of themselves, small. But please don’t forget: small is what God most often uses to change the world.

You are salt. You are light. How are we salt and light for these times – for the new political reality in our country? Depends on whom you ask, doesn’t it? No matter how we vote or what our political affiliation, we are still salt, still light. And we are to shine. We are not to hide our light under a bushel. Writes Karoline Lewis: “For too long, especially in the church, many of us have allowed our light to be hidden, even extinguished. And when that happens, so goes the truth of the Gospel along with our own.”[5]

Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, reports that she had never marched for anything in her life until a couple of Saturdays ago when she joined the Women’s March. Some of you were part of that march while others of you might wonder what the big deal is, how marching, even a march that excited the globe and included over 3 million people, can make any difference. Lewis gives the best explanation I’ve seen.

She writes, “The Women’s March was many things for me, but one thing was certain – it may have been the first time in my life that I truly believed Jesus’ words: “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Not that I didn’t believe Jesus – but that I didn’t believe he believed in me. As Reverend Amy Butler (lead pastor of Riverside Church in NYC) says, ‘Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy. And protest can be prayer.’ I have never marched for anything,” continues Lewis. “Why? I have asked myself that question a lot these past months and so far, there is no indication that this interrogation will subside. But at least I know what I will do now. … I will no longer stand by and let the Gospel be taken over by those who seem to have a louder voice. … I will no longer hide under a bushel afraid of what people might think. …”

“So,” writes Lewis, “I marched. I marched for the Gospel I believe in – the Gospel that tells me I am enough and insists that others are as well. The Gospel that says God needs me to be the salt of the earth. The Gospel that encourages me to speak up for those who have been silenced or have yet to find their voice. The Gospel that won’t let me stand on the sidelines but pushes me out into the world God loves so that others might know they are loved and welcomed and worthy. … The Gospel that is not a viewpoint. Not an opinion. Not an alternative fact. The Gospel that is a truth-teller.”… [The Gospel that] is a call to action, a plea for resistance, when others are content to stand on the sidelines. “I don’t know the man” is not an option these days. We know Jesus. And we need to preach Jesus.”[6]

Yesterday at the meeting of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, Jillian Robinson and I brought a resolution to presbytery to urge the President to rescind the executive order regarding refugees and immigrants from certain largely Muslim countries. As I told the Presbytery, we were not breaking new ground. The Stated Clerk of our denomination,[7] our Office of Public Witness,[8] the Presbyterian Mission Agency,[9] and San Francisco Theological Seminary[10] have spoken out against this order, and the Presbytery of New York City passed a similar resolution last Tuesday.[11] We were merely speaking up to say this is what it means to be Presbyterian, this is what it means to know Jesus, and preach Jesus. The resolution passed, and I want to give a shout out to Cornelia Cyss-Carter, pastor at Tomales and Two Rock Presbyterian Churches. She reminded us that as a German immigrant, the failure of Christians to step up and speak up when they see injustice is close to her heart. And also a shout out to Veronica Goines, pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian, who told us there’s a saying in the Black Church: “Never give the devil a ride, because pretty soon he’s gonna want to drive.” Her point was not who is a devil or even that there is a devil; just that a “wait and see how this turns out” approach doesn’t work when you know you’re faced with injustice. I report this to you to let you know that yesterday, our presbytery practiced being salt and light for these times.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world!”   Now, he says to his followers – and this includes you, my friends – “You are the light of the world!” You are the light of the world. You are salt of the earth. Be the light. Be the salt. The world is watching. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Article: Eliza Murphy, “Teacher Has Personalized Handshakes With Every One of His Students,” February 1, 2017, https://gma.yahoo.com/teacher-personalized-handshakes-every-one-students-200526323–abc-news-topstories.html?cid=social_fb_gma; Video only: http://www.wcnc.com/news/education/teacher-has-individual-handshakes-with-every-student/394516216.

[2] David Lose, “Epiphany 5A: Promises, Not Commands,” January 31, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-5-a-promises-not-commands/.

[3] Lose, ibid.

[4] Karoline Lewis, “Just Be It,” January 30, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4807.

[5] Lewis, ibid.

[6] Lewis, ibid.

[7] J. Herbert Nelson II, January 28, 2017, http://www.pcusa.org/news/2017/1/28/stated-clerk-opposes-order-banning-refugees-entry-/.

[8] January 30, 2017, http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2017/01/urgent-take-action-for-refugee-now.html.

[9] Sarah Lisherness, http://info.pcusa.org/t/ViewEmail/i/9306C40E14FECD27/D7FBBDD3D363056F907C5D7C792C0FF8.

[10] http://sfts.edu/sfts-statement-refugee-ban/.

[11] Gregg Bekke, “Presbytery of New York City urges president to rescind order on refugees,” February 1, 2017, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbytery-new-york-city-urges-president-rescind-order-refugees/.

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