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Let Salt Be Salty -- Matthew 5:13-20 (5th Sunday of Epiphany)




This morning’s Scripture brings us familiar sayings – “You are the salt of the earth” – “You are the light of the world. Don’t hide it under a bushel. Let your light shine.” Those sayings have become part of our popular culture. We say that someone is “salt of the earth” to say that they are good, dependable people – what my Jewish friends might call a “mensch” – “Oh, so-and-so, well, they’re salt of the earth.” And letting your light shine – I can’t help but think of the song This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine, which I bet most of us could sing by heart. Like the Beatitudes, these are beloved, life-affirming sayings. And as with the Beatitudes, there is even so much more going on here in the Gospel of Matthew.

We are continuing on through Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Remember last week – we experienced the Beatitudes. Jesus is born into a troubled world – a world of oppression and power-over. He’s baptized, God’s own beloved; he begins to heal our broken places; and then Jesus proclaims: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” – a Brave New World is breaking forth even now – into the midst of the crumbling old order. And Jesus goes up on a mountain, sits down to teach – and says, “This is what that Brave New World looks like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are the meek, and the merciful.

Blessed are those who thirst for hunger and thirst for righteousness.


Jesus announces a Brave New World, characterized not by power-over and abuse, but by mutual power and mutual care, and he says, “Blessed are you, when you live this out – right here, right now.” This is who you are in Christ.


And then, in his next breath, in this morning’s Scripture, Jesus goes on: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Now notice that the “you” here is plural, not singular.[1] It’s spoken to us all – you all are the salt of the earth. Notice also that it is descriptive. It’s not a command. Jesus is saying something that is – something that’s a fact – about us. You are the salt of the earth. And notice that salt is useful.[2] Then, as now, salt was an elemental seasoning – you add a little bit and it flavors a whole dish. Salt is a preservative. Salt is necessary for life.


And so Jesus says, “If salt loses its saltiness, how can it be salty again.” Salt is created to be salty. Let salt be salty.


But remember the “you.” With this elemental image, Jesus is saying something about us. You are salt of the earth. Let salt be salty. In this Brave New World, this is the fact of you. Your identity – my identity. Be who you are created to be – be ones who live out this Brave New World in relationships of mutual power and care for the blessing – the seasoning – the life of the whole world. Or as Amy-Jill Levine says, be salty “to season, and preserve, and make the whole world alive.” You are the salt of the earth. Let salt be salty.[3]


Same thing with light. “You are the light of the world.” Light is from the very beginning. In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” Light, too, is necessary for life – for plants to make oxygen, for us to see and breathe and thrive.[4] Light shows us what is. Light illumines even the truth we’d rather not see. Matthew has already pointed to the light – with the star the Magi followed – and with the echo of the prophet’s words – “the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” For Matthew, Jesus is light. And here, Jesus says to his disciples, “You all are the light of the world.”


“Salt of the earth,” “light of the world,” as he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something about us. And then, he connects that – he says something about himself. “Do not think I have come to abolish (or tear down) the Law and the Prophets. I have come to fulfill them.” What you are seeing here – what you are hearing – is fulfillment – all the words of the Law and Prophets fulfilled – actualized – being realized – in Christ – in this moment. Whoever does and teaches what I am saying here lives that out. The Brave New World breaking forth into the crumbling old order – we actualize that when we live it out. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let salt be salty. Let light shine.


Emerson Powery pulls it all together like this, “Who are the ‘salt of the earth’? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world. Who are ‘light of the world’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.”[5]

You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.


Be who you are created to be.


At the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned “This Little Light of Mine.” It’s a catchy little song that, in the 1950s and 60s, was embraced by the Civil Rights Movement and became what’s known as a “Freedom Song.” A few years back, NPR featured the history of the song in a series on American anthems.[6] No one really knows who wrote This Little Light of Mine – it was around in the popular culture – it’s easy to sing. That’s what makes it ideal as a “Freedom Song.” Freedom Songs are usually simple tunes, with lyrics that make it possible to adapt the words to the particular moment – the particular cause.

Songs like This Little Light of Mine were not only embraced, they were learned and taught as what Candie Carawan calls “nonviolent weapons” of the Civil Rights movement. The songs were taught at the Highlander Folk School, which trained up activists in non-violent direct action. Carawan – who was married to the music director – says it like this: “Freedom songs are a way to speak to power in a way that’s not going to get you shot... It’s a way to say, “Here we are. This is what we think. This is what we feel. But you know, we’re singing it.”[7]

Freedom Songs empowered the Freedom Riders and protestors who faced the very worst of white power. Legendary activists like Fannie Lou Hamer recorded them and passed them on for others to use.[8] (You may remember back last May, we talked about how Fannie Lou Hamer led folks in singing Freedom Songs about Paul and Silas in a Mississippi jail.)

Freedom Songs had (and have) a particular power. Rutha Mae Harris remembers that they “helped steady protestors’ nerves as abusive police officers threatened to beat them or worse.” Freedom songs have both assertive and protective power. Harris says, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. You start singing a song, and somehow those billy clubs wouldn’t hit you.”[9] It was a moment where you could almost out-sing the powers.

This Little Light of Mine had that same impact more recently in the movement to respond to and oppose the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, VA. You may remember, back in 2017, white supremacists and Nazis and all manner of right-wing extremists descended on Charlottesville, with their violence and hate.

Counter-protesters went there, too, to stand against those particular evils. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou was one of those leading and participating in the counter-protest. At one point, they faced a group of white supremacists chanting, “You will not replace us!


The counter-protest plan had been to stand silently in opposition – a powerful nonviolent strategy in itself. But Rev. Sekou looked around, saw Nazis marching past, felt the tensions rise – and he said he knew something had “to change the atmosphere,” before things got physically violent.[10] And so he started to sing, “This Little Light of Mine,” not softly and sweetly, but steadily, with strength and conviction. And others joined in. They’ve got this on video, and the white supremacists look entirely bewildered. Their hate-filled chants just fade away, as This Little Light of Mine grows stronger and stronger.[11] This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine, Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.


Now, I want to say, that I thought of showing the video – and a link to the whole NPR news story will be in the footnotes of my sermon if you want to experience it.[12] But I had one of my best friends staying with us this week – she works for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which steadfastly opposes hate and hate crimes. And with her counsel, I’ve decided that we won’t play the video here because it includes white supremacist voices – we won’t give any platform to white supremacist voices. We will speak truth about the evil they do and say in the world, but we will not give a platform in this space for their voices and their hate.


Rev. Sekou and the counter-protestors when they sang “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” they in fact let light shine. They actualized not only the song they were singing but the truth it embodies.


In the midst of the crumbling old order, a Brave New World is breaking forth even now – a world of mutual power and care, embodied in the humanity and dignity of all people. You are the salt of the earth. Let salt be salty. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine forth.


We’ll sing This Little Light of Mine in just a moment as we come forward for communion. When a roomful of mostly white folks sing a song that comes to us from African American traditions – particularly in Black History month – we need to give some thought to what we are singing and how we are singing it and why – to make sure we aren’t appropriating it. We need to ask, What does it mean in their context, and how might we honor that in ours, with full credit, gratitude, and integrity?


In our anti-racism work, we are learning about the systems and structures of American racism, and how we have participated and benefited from those systems – the same systems that Civil Rights activists continue to oppose. We are learning together how to stop, and how to join the work of dismantling, rebuilding, and repair. When we sing This Little Light of Mine, I’m going to let it shine in this context, it means that

· we will shine light on those systems and structures, even if it means that we shine light on our own participation;

· we will shine light on how those systems have been constructed to benefit white folks and to harm people of color.


And we’ll do that

· whether we are shining that light on national issues, or on the inequitable housing patterns in Marin County,

· we will do that when we are naming disparities in wealth that flow from racism-based systemic disparities in opportunity,

· we will do that when we are shining the light on policing practices and cultures that continue to harm and kill black women and men –


When we sing This Little Light of Mine – if we mean it – we must sing a commitment and a willingness to change. And so when we sing it in just a moment, I’m going to suggest that we sing it not lightly – but as a song of steady commitment and humble resolve – remembering that in communion we profess that what we are experiencing in our bodies and in our lives is the Real Presence of Christ.


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes with healing power in his hands, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven – the reign of God – is at hand. A Brave New World is breaking forth even now – a world of mutual power and mutual care, embodied in the humanity and dignity of all people and love for all creation.


You are the salt of the earth. Let salt be salty.

You are the light of the world. Let your light shine.



© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] For insights into the salt and light imagery (and more) and for general background on this text, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2020); Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati, OH: St Andrew Messenger Press, 1996); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Eric Barreto, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-513-20-4 ; Emerson Powery, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-513-20 [2] See Barreto, Powery, supra. [3] See Levine, p.46. [4] See Levine, pp. 48-51. [5] Emerson Powery, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-513-20 [6] See https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance [7] Id. [8] Id. [9] Id. [10] Id. [11] See id. [12] See https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance


Photo credit: Thomas Lipke used with permission via Unsplash

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