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Salt and Light

Dr. David Evans

February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20


We are doing a deep-dive into the 5th chapter of the gospel of Matthew during the month of February.   The 5th chapter is the first of three chapters that comprise what the Church has come to know as the Sermon on the Mount.   This so called “Sermon” is really a series of teachings about how to live “Kingdom” values in a world that values everything and anything but the values Jesus teaches.

Last Sunday we saw how jarring the Beatitudes are to a world that values power and prestige and money.   The Beatitudes turn the values of the world upside down.   Today and for the rest of February Jesus will teach us how to live out Kingdom values in the world.   Hear the Word of God as it is recorded in Matthew 5:13-20:

A reading from the Gospel:

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

evans-davidThe Beatitudes show us a beautiful vision of the world as Jesus envisions it.    A world in which the values of God’s kingdom overshadow the values of the world.   It is a beautiful vision and it is a powerful vision.   But let’s be honest:   the values of the kingdom…righteousness, mercy, purity, peacemaking…are almost always overpowered by the values of the world.

The challenges facing the Church in Matthew’s day is the same challenge facing the Church in our day:   we are small in number and growing smaller every day?   We try to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord and we try to witness to an alternative vision of what it means to be human.   But no one seems to pay much attention to the kingdom values to which we witness.   And perhaps we have given over our lives to a losing cause.

Then Jesus steps into the picture and to his discouraged and overwhelmed and outnumbered and discounted followers Jesus says something pretty amazing.   Jesus says:

“You are the salt of the earth.”

In other words, precisely at the time the witness of kingdom people is being drowned out by the noise of the world, the values we live begin to flavor the world in ways that cannot be seen.

Then Jesus says:

“You are the light of the world.”

In other words, in a world that discounts all that we say or do, we are not to lose heart that one little candle held aloft in a world of hate can actually make a difference.

Here is the point I think Jesus is trying to get across to those of us who feel overwhelmed and discouraged and want to give up:   our witness makes a difference.   All those mornings you show up to UPLift matter.   All those evenings you drive downtown for Micah 6 matter.   Those times you testify before a Senate committee or the letters you write to a Congressman matter.   Every time you stand up for the poor or the marginalized or a child…it matters.   The little deeds of love and compassion to someone without hope matter.   Because what you are doing in that moment is flavoring the world with kingdom values.   What you are doing in that moment is shining the light of Jesus onto a world that desperately needs to see a different way to be.

Later on in our text, Jesus says:    “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you never enter the kingdom of heaven.”   In other words, we cannot settle for just being one of the crowd.   We who profess the values of the kingdom must always take the more difficult way.

So how are we called to live if we are to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”?   I was in Mrs. Price’s 3rd grade class at Central Elementary School in the mid-50s.   There was a girl in our class I did not know very well.  That likely meant she was bused into Central from one of the cotton farms that surrounded Garland in those days.  One day I heard a commotion in the back of the class and turned around to discover this girl lying on the floor thrashing around with her eyes rolled back in her head and saliva foaming at her mouth.

Like most everyone else in the room I was petrified.  I had no idea what was happening.   Mrs. Price ran down the hall to the nurse’s office and soon our school nurse was working on her while we stood around with our mouths hanging open.   Eventually Mrs. Price ushered all of us out of the room and onto the playground where we got an extended recess.

Of course all we boys could talk about was what we had just witnessed.  It must have been something like group therapy.  Soon, however, some of the boys crossed the line from shock to cruelty.  Some of them began to imitate the girl, thrashing around on the playground, mocking the symptoms of the girl’s epileptic seizure.  The human capacity for cruelty seems endless.

I just stood there.   One of the crowd.   I probably laughed.  But I remember it as nervous laughter.  I knew that something was very wrong with our behavior.  Perhaps I had listened to the gospel once too often.   Perhaps the values of the kingdom were even then beginning to become embedded in my 3rd grade heart.

Years later, leading a retreat for the church I was serving then, I told this story as a kind of confessional years after I sinned and fell short of the glory of God.   One of the retreat participants listened to my confessional.   Then Lessie recounted a scene in another small town elementary school in the South Texas community where she grew up.   She said a girl in her school had an epileptic seizure.    After it was over, the teacher of her 5th grade class gathered the students together and used the event as a teaching moment about compassion.   The teacher knew that the girl had experienced epileptic seizures in the past and knew that she was likely to have them in the future.   So she set about to teach her classmates about the disease and what to do if she had a seizure.

The students passed on from elementary school to junior high school.   One day in the school cafeteria the girl had a seizure.   The rest of the students were gawking as the ugly scene unfolded.  Yet spontaneously something rather miraculous happened.  Her classmates from her old elementary school joined hands and formed a circle around  her to protect her while someone helped her through her seizure.  It was a circle of compassion.

Some stories you never forget.   That circle around a little girl is a powerful metaphor for what it means to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”   You see, the capacity for human cruelty may run deep.

Yet there is another reality.  The reality of God’s compassion, a compassion that can overcome cruelty.

And, as Lessie’s teacher demonstrated, compassion can be learned.   I believe one of the really critical callings of the church of Jesus Christ in our day, and perhaps in every generation, is to provide just such a circle of sanctuary, such a circle of protection, such a circle of compassion for the “least of these” that God has entrusted to our care.    If we do not stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, who will?

This is who the church is called to be.   This is what it means to be the “salt of the earth”.   This is what it means to be the “light of the world.”    AMEN