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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Salt Shakers and Burning Lamps

        I found it interesting that these images of salt and light come to us out of the gospel today. Just this week many in our region were starkly reminded of the value and necessity of both of these elements in our world.
About the time that I began seriously contemplating the words of these texts, I was also reading headlines from the newspaper like, “Salt Stores Diminished,” and “Predicted Storm May Pack a Wallop, While Salt Supplies Dwindle.” Salt, this precious commodity, has been both bane and blessing for many of us recently. It was just a little over a week ago that I think I must have washed half of the Eastern Shore’s annual supply of salt off my car. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience lately, because it seems as though we’ve been surrounded by SALT these past few weeks. Salt on the roads, salt on our cars, salt being tracked through this building and our homes, salt sprinkled on sidewalks. A nutrient I usually like to simply enjoy in my food has become a valuable source of protection against snow and ice.
And so, as evidenced by the anxiety with which these dire predictions of a looming salt shortage were made this week, and the fact that winter may not yet done with us, this image of salt struck a certain chord this week.
If you’ve been placed on a salt-free diet or had salt inadvertently left out of your recipe, then you have another reason to acknowledge that salt is something we really don’t want to be without. Salt by itself is, well, just salt. But salt added to food brings out its flavors. Salt used as a preservative keeps meat and other foods from spoiling.
Yet, this element has held a different kind of meaning and power throughout history, particularly in Jesus’ time.
Mined out of the earth, the ancient SALT industry could make empires rich, as they rationed and taxed it. Control of salt stores could determine which side was victorious in war, and, at different points in history, salt has been the currency of commerce. In Jesus’ day, (as it is still today in some parts of the world), salt was necessary for the preservation of food—having it or not made the difference between life and death. While in the recent decades our society has over-dosed on sodium and many of us are now on low-sodium diets, both then and now, SALT is an essential ingredient of life, present in every cell of our bodies, and useful in so many ways.
And yet salt on its own is, as Cardinal Suhard once wrote, hopeless, unhandy, unmanageable, and inedible. “You can’t do anything with salt alone; in a time of famine, you cannot eat it; in a time of drought, you can’t drink it; it only would make things worse. Salt alone is no good; it makes the field unfertile, it kills life, it preserves death, it is heavy and useless. It becomes useful only when it is used as Jesus indicates in the text today, mixed up with other things, and he explains as well how we should mixed up. We are not salt, we are the salt of the earth, we should be mixed up with the reality around us.”
That other image named in our text, light, is another element whose value we can especially appreciate this week – especially when, amidst yet another winter storm and frigid temperatures over a million people throughout this region lost power. Last night over one hundred thousand of them spent their fourth night in the cold and dark last night, due to power outages from the storm. For many, no power meant no light, no heat, no plumbing. For utility crews, downed trees and wires brought urgency to the dangerous work that has kept them out working in miserable conditions for long days and nights, trying to restore electricity to customers throughout the region whose homes and lives are endangered by the loss of power and resultant lack of light.

So, while we might be focused on the issues of power and what it means to be without it, what does it mean when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world”?
In both cases in our text today, Jesus uses the plural “you” in this continuation of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount which we began last week. These words from the Gospel of Matthew beckon to us, they call and commission us as a community of Jesus’ disciples. The Sermon on the Mount comes from a section in Matthew’s gospel that serves as a sort of training manual for those who follow Jesus; through these words, we learn more about the ways of discipleship. And so, by use of the second person plural, Jesus is telling us that together, “Ya’ll are the salt of the earth. Ya’ll are the light of the world.” It is the value and promise of the community of disciples that is being lifted up.
These are words spoken not simply to individuals living on the fringe, but specifically addressed to a community shaped in identity and mission for the sake of Jesus Christ, through God’s gift of grace.
Last week we read the verses just before these, known as the beatitudes. You might remember that in those verses, blessings were declared upon the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and so on. By God’s blessing, saltiness and light - are already theirs by God’s grace. Despite the hostility of your world, you all are salt, you all are light.
And so I ask you, are you feeling particularly salty this morning? Is your light shining brightly? Jesus tells us, You are light, meant to shine, not to be hidden under a bushel, but meant to be seen by others.
Let us remember what salt and light meant to the people of Jesus’ time. Salt and light were both precious commodities; both sustain life, neither can be produced easily on one’s own, they are gifts of creation that require careful ingenuity to access and conserve, and they make all the difference for life.
In first century Palestine, the image of light was pregnant with meaning. Just think of how many times, especially in the past weeks, we have noted the images of light and life in our scriptures. Isaiah promised the “great light” that would shine in the darkness. And now Jesus is using these elements, salt and light – essential, life-sustaining elements, to convey something of extreme value to the people who surround him, those who are listening to his teaching.
Light in the Body of Christ is created and shared when God’s work is done and God’s love is shared. The Holy Spirit of God gives and sustains that light, by God’s grace. The light is meant to shine. It is meant to be seen through the words and deeds of Christ’s disciples, meant to be seen and witnessed in community. The words of verse 16 are spoken within the baptismal rite as one member of the community shares the light of Christ with the newest member of the Body of Christ: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.” I wonder if we shouldn’t change the way we say these words, to reflect the communal aspect of this light – it is borne I community; as children of God and members of the Body of Christ, we are never alone in shining or casting this light.
You, people of Grace Lutheran Church, are salt and light. Through the cross of Christ, you have been made valuable, you are precious, you are powerful. And, like salt and light, you exist for the good of others. Like salt and like light, you are meant to be intermixed and intermingled with the world—you weren’t created to work alone, or to exist for your own well-being. Combined with other elements, salt preserves, adds flavor, melts, cleans, stabilizes…makes a difference. Combined with other elements, light illumines what was hidden, makes visible the unseen. But here’s the thing: Jesus says, right here and right now, you are salt, and you are light. And, yes, there are of course many ways you are still becoming the salt and light Jesus desires for you to be, but there are also many ways you are already salting and lighting our world. I see you, salt and light, being what you were created to be, when you gather on Sunday morning: sharing caring conversations with one another, reaching out to those going through tough times, offering words of welcome to those who are here for the first time, sharing tithes and offerings to support the ministry God is doing in and through this congregation.
As the Body of Christ, as community working together as salt and light, I see you providing meals for the lonely, providing clothing and essentials for migrant workers, offering the use of this building for groups from the community around us who need a place to meet, contributing to the Souper Bowl of Caring, providing meals and gifts for our poorer brothers and sisters in Easton during the holidays.
But here’s the really remarkable thing about salt and light: neither are controlled very well. You start shaking that salt shaker, and the salt particles land where they will, often ending up everywhere. Road salt melts the ice then clings to your car, your shoes, the floor, anywhere you don’t want it to be. A single candle lit on a dark night can be seen 30 miles away. No, salt and light are not easily contained…but, sometimes, that can be a very good thing.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May it be so. Amen.

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