Salt of the Earth, Light of the World

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
5th Sunday of Epiphany Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
Based on Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20

Sermon Text:
Last week Fr. Howard talked to us
about the beatitudes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
and he rightly identified many here as being
among those who mourn, and are comforted,
and among those who are merciful, who will receive mercy.
Sometimes when we hear these Gospel passages,
out of the greater context in which they sit,
we can miss who Jesus is talking to.
So it was great that Fr. Howard,
pointed out that Jesus is talking to us, His followers,
in the beatitudes.

And he continues today, continuing, if you will
the same sermon.
But like many sermons,
we have a part in which we are comforted,
and a part in which we are challenged to do something.
Somehow, the way this worked out,
Howard got to express the comforting part,
But I get to speak about the hard, challenging part.

Thank God, that Jesus often put his
challenging words in uplifting ways.
I'm not inclined to do that,
while I like to think of myself as a positive,
optimistic person, when I read things
I tend to focus on the negative side of things.

So when I read Jesus telling us,
you are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste
how can it's saltiness be restored?
It is no longer good for anything. . .
well I tend to see myself in that last part.

That particular metaphor has been
challenging to me ever since I first noticed it.
I think I was in college,
when I called my dad as I was reading that passage,
and said, “what does that mean, you are salt?”
He was kind of surprised,
because I guess he thought it was easy to understand.
Maybe you're with him,
but in case there are some of you who are confused as I was,
let me explain a little.

Salt is of course used for flavoring,
but in the world before refrigeration, it was used
for a lot more than that.
They were not concerned with melting snow
on the roads, so that's not what I mean.
Salt was used to preserve meats, fish and other things,
salt kept things from going bad.
I don't know if salt can really lose it's taste,
but I imagine, that when a salty mixture has lost it's taste,
that means there really isn't salt in there anymore,
and it is no longer good for preserving.
It can't keep things from going bad.
Recently I have heard Christians,
especially young Adult Christians,
taking this passage and saying,
Be salt to the world around you!
But when they say it, they are often talking
about bringing flavor, spice,
to the world around you. It's kind of a hip
way of saying, be different and flavor things around you.
But here, salt is much more important than that,
and it's a lot harder to accomplish.

You are the salt of the earth,
the way it seems Jesus is saying it here,
is really about saying,
you are the ones who keep the earth from going bad.
These days,
after the financial meltdown we've experienced,
and the struggles apparent in the uprisings
around the world,
It's very clear to me that the forces of corruption,
the people who are not concerned with being salt,
the people perhaps who have lost their saltiness,
if they ever had it at all,
are powerful.
It can feel like a futile battle,
to keep trying to preserve things,
when so many around us would rather
have their own way, and let things be destroyed for their
short term profit.
But our role as salt is significant.
Perhaps it is more significant than ever.
And yet, I can see where Jesus is coming from
in his message,
because working from inside the church,
sometimes I feel kind of insulated from those corrupting
forces.
We have the luxury of working mostly with people,
who are trying to do good,
who are striving to pursue ministry in Jesus' name.

But you all, working in the world,
and facing pressure from those above you,
or from clients to do things wrong,
raising families in the midst of so many bad influences,
you are the salt of the earth.
You are not being thrown out and trampled,
but mixed into the world,
as a few grains of powerful preserving salt,
in the midst of a very bland mixture.

How does that work in your daily life?
Well let me tell you about a way I discovered
the importance of Christians in the business world.
One of the biggest ways that you exercise your saltiness,
is by telling the truth.

After college I worked for a man named Michael
at a marketing research company in New York.
He was a member of my church,
and owned his small company.
He told me regularly how individuals at companies
who would contract work with him
would ask him to change the results of his research
before he presented it to their bosses.
That of course went against his ethics as a Christian.
If the person asked him to change the numbers he would say, “I'm sorry I can't do that.”
And when he sent them charts
he would send them in such a way
that the numbers could not be changed.
Sometimes his clients would call him and be absolutely furious, because the numbers weren't what they wanted
to present to their superiors.
But Michael would say to them,
`Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’
Thankfully, as long as I was aware of it,
that integrity, brought Michael repeat business,
because companies knew they could trust his work.

Michael was like a little bit of salt in his industry,
keeping the whole thing from going bad.
I imagine in your business you face similar decisions,
remember that you are salt,
and that the earth depends on you to keep it from going bad.
We could have used a little more salt,
in our financial industry a couple of years ago,
and we can certainly use it everywhere today.
The other thing Jesus tells us,
is even a little more shocking.
He said, “you are the light of the world.”
Wait a second here,
I thought Jesus is the light of the world!?!
Isn't that what epiphany is all about.
Well yes, it is,
but as we follow Him, and invite Him into our lives,
we take on His Light,
we come enlightened by Him.
You are the light of the world.

And of course, we know that
being enlightened with His light,
is not so we can hide it, as if under a basket.
We are supposed to brighten the darkness around us.
But how?
Well one of the best ways to interpret scripture,
is to let scripture interpret other scripture.
And that's what I see in Isaiah today.

That prophecy puts it in stark terms,
it brightens the contrast to black and white.
The bad news for me,
is that most of what is being criticized is
the practice of religion.
You could put in in today's terms, by
replacing fasting, which is not as prevalent as it used to be,
with going to church.
I'm sure you know people to whom this could be addressed.
“You serve your own interests, even when you go to church on Sunday, and then during the week
you oppress all your workers.”

“The fast” that God chooses,
the way God wants us to go to His Church,
is “to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.”
He says through his prophet,
“share your bread with the hungry,”
(not questioning whether they'll misuse it)
“bring the homeless person into your house,”
(not complain when they might live in your neighborhood),
give clothes to people who need them,
and don't hide yourself from your own kin.
That last one is tough,
because how often do we find ourselves,
trying to avoid those in our families, who really need help,
worried that we might get taken advantage of.
He's not saying we have to fix everything,
but not hide from it when we are confronted by the need.

Isaiah says,
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,”
The dawn is a much more powerful light,
than a lamp on a lampstand.
So in a way, Jesus is making it a little easier on us.
If we do all those things,
we will shine as brightly as the dawn,
but if we are faithful with what we are given,
we will at least be like a lamp on a stand.

And you know, the darker it is around you,
the less light is needed to make a difference.
When I've been exploring a cave,
the light of my little head lamp, scatters the darkness.
So if you're in an industry, or a family,
where it's close to pitch black, with all the disfunction,
with all the sin,
perhaps you can make a huge difference,
by doing something little and true, with love.
If you work in a bright place, like a school
where there are a lot of people doing good work,
maybe your lamp will seem like it doesn't add a lot,
to the brightness of the place,
but that does not make your importance any less.
In fact, in working with the neediest among us,
a lot more brightness is needed by a lot more people,
to overcome the pressure of the darkness.

But notice that all of that Isaiah talked about was not new,
all of those expectations are in the Law
that God gave to Moses.
And Jesus is saying, while he sets us free from punishment,
he does not abolish the law,
but fulfills it.
He requires our participation in the same
work that God has called his people to from the beginning.

So when there is injustice,
we are to correct it,
when people are oppressed,
we are to come to their aid,
when people need food and clothing,
we are to provide it.
Nowhere does God say,
first find out if they are worthy of your help,
and then help them if it's not too inconvenient.

If you are comfortable,
and they are not,
your light is to bring them comfort.
It's pretty clear,
but it's hard to do.

It would be so much easier to simply say,
well, I come to church,
and I am a good person.
And I don't hurt anyone, as long as they don't get in my way.
But that is putting your light under a basket.
And you know that when a light is under a basket,
it is eventually extinguished.

The way to let your light shine before others,
even better,
the way to shine like the sunrise after a dark night,
is to do seek out ways to make the world around you better,
and not shy away when the opportunity
to stand up for what's right comes your way.
Be honest and truthful in all your dealings,
and don't let deceit creep in,
for by doing that, you help preserve
the whole society.

And support one another in doing these things.
One bad apple may spoil a bunch,
but a little salt goes a long way.

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