Sermon / February 5, 2017 / Julie Hoplamazian /  Matthew 5:13-20 / 

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

Without letting the soundtrack to Godspell get stuck in our heads, let’s look at these two metaphors for a moment.

What is SALT? Well, perhaps a high school chemistry student would say it comes from the periodic table of elements, and it’s actually called sodium chloride. A chef might say it’s one of the most important ingredients in a kitchen. A butcher would call it a critical preservative. A city transportation worker or a homeowner would praise salt’s ability to melt ice and keep people safe in the winter months. Salt has a multiplicity of properties that make it very valuable, and perhaps indispensable.

What is LIGHT? To us in the developed world, light is something we assume as part of our everyday life. It’s hard to imagine a world without light at our disposal. Even the dark times of day are still lit up for us. Just step into Times Square at anytime of night – you would still think it’s day! But you don’t need nearly that much light to illuminate darkness – just single candle flame can be seen in darkness from 30 miles away. Light keeps us warm, too. The sun, a fire, light bulbs: they produce heat. Light, like salt, has many properties that we cannot live without.

Salt and light are indeed powerful elements.

And today we have these words of Jesus in the gospel – You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.

We need to hear this in 2 different ways.

One – YOU are the salt of the earth/ YOU are light of the world. In the Greek, the “you” is not singular. Jesus isn’t just pointing to you or me individually. YOU is the collective YOU – the body of Christ – the community of followers of Jesus. The body, as a whole, YOU, everyone in this room, YOU, everyone in the Episcopal Church, YOU, everyone in any church in the world – YOU, the followers of Jesus, are salt and light.

Two – You ARE the salt of the earth/ You ARE light of the world. This isn’t some future reality, or some sort of aspiration for people of faith. It is a present reality we are called to live into. Our salt may still be on a shelf in the pantry, but it is not flavorless; our light may still be hidden under a bushel, but it is not extinguished. This isn’t what you should be – it is what you are.

Now, here’s the thing. Salt might make your scrambled eggs taste a lot better, but if someone offered you a plate of granulated table salt, you probably wouldn’t pick up a spoon and start chowing down. If you bought a light bulb for your table lamp, you wouldn’t place the light bulb on the coffee table next to the lamp and expect it to work. You would have to screw it into the light fixture so it can produce light, and then you would need to place that lamp in the right place in order for it to light up the room.

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

Salt and light are not powerful or effective on their own. They only work when applied to other things.

If we’re ever unsure of what it means to be salt and light, we need look no further than today’s reading from Isaiah. This reading takes place after the Israelites have returned from their exile in Babylon and are resettled in the promised land. Things should be going well for them, but God’s people have lost their saltiness and brightness.

God’s message to God’s own people is this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Fasting – the practice of abstaining from food and other comforts and pleasures as a religious observance – is an integral pietistic practice not only in Judaism but in almost every major world religion. It is a means of showing dedication to God above all earthly desires which so easily distract us from our relationship with God.

The whole idea, really, is that it’s supposed to make you a better person and bring you closer to God.

And God’s disappointment with the Israelites’ fasting is palpable.

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

In other words: this fasting thing really isn’t working for you guys.

God’s people might follow strict religious observance, but they have replaced compassion, justice and mercy with meaningless, showy piety. And God is saying: What good is your religion when people around you are suffering and you don’t care or do anything about it?

Another way of saying this is: You’re fasting from the wrong things. The things you’re “sacrificing” aren’t costing you anything, and they’re coming at great cost to many, many others who are in desperate need of help.

What good is your fasting what you’re really abstaining from is kindness, compassion, justice, and mercy? How can you possibly love me, God asks, if the only person you really care about is yourself?

In a recent interview, the legendary Congressman and activist John Lewis was discussing the study, preparation, and discipline of the nonviolent resistance practiced by Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and 60s. He said: “There were small things like maintaining eye contact, wearing coats and ties and dresses, no slouching, no talking, being friendly and courteous. But there was also really serious role-playing… We went through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you… and we did go through the [role-playing] of saying that if someone kick you, spit on you, pull you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, ‘Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.’ Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back. We were trained. When we left to go on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die for what we believed in.”

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The fasting God calls us to is the abstinence from prioritizing our own comfort and sense of self-righteousness over the injustice and suffering that afflicts others. We may not have to die for it, but physical death isn’t the only way to sacrifice your life for the sake of justice for all. It means fasting from the heresy that the suffering of strangers is something that people of faith can ignore, from the blindness to the fact that poor, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed reside in the very heart of God. It means fasting from worshipping the idol of our own prosperity, from the callousness that compels us to say “Your suffering is not my problem.” It means fasting from the illusion that somehow we are all divided from each other, that our well-being is not inextricably linked with the well-being of others.

In the words of Congressman Lewis: “In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being… The [Civil Rights movement] created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.”

As the prophet Isaiah says:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. This is not a command from Jesus, but a commission: it is a sending forth with a holy purpose to love others, always. A holy purpose that Jesus himself modeled for us: a way of loving God and loving our neighbor that is rooted not in comfort, but in the sacrifice of our very lives. The sacrifice of anything and everything that does not allow the bonds of injustice to be loosed, the thongs of the yoke to be undone, the oppressed to be set free, the hungry to be fed, the homeless poor to receive shelter, the naked to be clothed.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And so, my brothers and sisters, God asks us: what is the fast that you will choose?