The Rev. Helen Havlik
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 9, 2020
Matthew tells us that one day, while crowds listen in, Jesus speaks to his disciples about what it means to follow him. Last week we heard that those who follow Jesus are to be aware of their sins and to mourn for them; they’re to be humble, hungry for righteousness, merciful, focused on God and on peacemaking. They are to challenge the status quo by word and action, risking criticism and even persecution. What my followers look like, Jesus says, is salt and light. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 5, beginning with vs. 13. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Last Sunday I mentioned visiting the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel, where a church has been built on the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. While most of our group went into the church, I was drawn to the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, to a spot underneath a tree where I could pull out my Bible and read Jesus’ words to his disciples. It was a holy moment as I heard him speaking to me: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. With such a pat on the back, I sat up a little straighter, feeling quite proud of myself. But a few minutes later, when our guide asked someone to read these words out loud to the whole group, I realized my mistake: the “you” is plural, not singular. Jesus is speaking to his disciples as a whole, the fellowship of believers, aka the church. He had shifted focus back in vs. 11, when he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” That “you” is plural, too—and it continues through our reading today, as Jesus adds a couple of cautions to what he’s told us so far about being his disciples.
He starts with salt and light. Two of the most common things in the world. And, in the right amounts, both are necessary for life on this planet. Their main importance is in how they relate to their surroundings. Salt preserves and seasons food, melts ice, helps maintain water balance in our bodies. Light pushes back the dark and helps plants grow and give off oxygen. We depend on salt and light for life —without them, we’d be in trouble. That’s just how important Jesus’ followers are to the well-being of the world so he uses salt and light to describe the way his disciples are supposed to live in relation to the world. Like salt and light, how they relate to their surroundings changes their surroundings. A chain reaction takes place as people see in us how God is dealing with this world. Jesus offers a way of life that blesses people—life as God intended it to be, where, as the prophet Micah said, we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Sound too good to be true? Jesus never wore rose-colored glasses. He knows us too well and here’s where he says something can go wrong. Salt can lose its ability preserve and season, only to be thrown out as just so much dirt under our feet. What Jesus knew as salt isn’t the pure sodium chloride we use today—this was a combination of sodium chloride and other minerals that could easily be ruined if it got wet—the NaCl dissolved in water, leaving behind something that still looked like salt, but was actually just tasteless minerals. (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott, p. 60) In Jesus’ words, salt that had lost its saltiness.
Clarence Jordan, a New Testament scholar and preacher, says Jesus uses the image of salt not to describe his disciples but to remind us we’re called to a new way of life that’s different from the world so that we’ll have an impact on the world. Jordan says, “Whenever tension ceases to exist between the church and world, one of two things has happened: either the world has been completely converted to Christ and His Way, or the church has watered down and compromised its original heritage. In the latter position, the church, due to its weakness, loses its influence and is discarded.” (Sermon on the Mount, p. 26) Jordan’s talking about a Church that may look like a church but doesn’t practice what Jesus preaches. Like the Church in the United States in the 1800s that supported slavery or the German Church that refused to speak out against the Nazis. Today he might be talking about a Church that feeds the poor, but doesn’t worry about unjust labor practices. Or a Church that does political action to keep churches tax-exempt but won’t speak up for humane treatment of prisoners.
Jesus warns his disciples they will be tempted to go along with what everyone else is doing, not make waves or risk controversy, even among themselves. Yet there’s no way around it—no one hides light under a bushel. The church of Jesus Christ, like it or not, is a city on a hill that cannot be hid. People watch us to see how we behave and listen for what we say. They want to know we practice what we preach—that we love one another, treat each other with kindness and respect, even when we disagree, and that this love extends beyond our walls. Because we’re followers of Jesus Christ, whatever we do and say matters.
And, finally, if we’re thinking that following Jesus gives us special privileges—that our salvation is assured and so we don’t have to follow the rules like everyone else, we better think again: Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Janice Catron says that “God’s law (or teaching) provides instruction on how to honor God and others, especially through social justice.” She also points out that “this form of love fits with Jesus’ teaching… it’s part of our holy calling.” She says the Hebrew word we normally translate as “law” actually means something closer to teaching or instruction. These writings, known as Torah, are “God’s way of guiding us toward attitudes and actions that help create the realm of God here on earth…. [They] are divine instruction designed to show us how to live in a way that will let us receive the blessings of peace and wholeness, both as individuals and as a community.” (An Abiding Hope: The Presence of God in Exodus & Deuteronomy, p. 63) This is exactly how Jesus understands the Law—which is why he didn’t come to change a word of it. He came to be the Law. To be the first to live the way God intended all people to live. The Law teaches us who God is and who we are and what God expects of us—not as rules we follow or else, but as the right path for us to travel as we seek peace and wholeness and share the light.
There’s more to being salt and light than reading scripture while sitting on a hillside overlooking a beautiful lake. Someone has written that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus envisions a “different world, marked by unheard-of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity and love of one’s enemies.” Sometimes what people see in us isn’t what Jesus intended. Churches can be insensitive to the needs around them—sometimes we keep quiet when we should speak. Sometimes church families argue among each other and hurt each other. And all of this gets around. People learn about Jesus Christ from what we say, and even more, what we do. And the mark of a Christian isn’t that we don’t make mistakes, but how we handle it when we do.
You are salt—stay true to who you are as my disciples. You are light—be people in whom God’s glory shines. Jesus is just getting warmed up—he’s called us to be his followers. The question is, will we stay with him?