I preached this sermon at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, February 9, as part of Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall Month. I also preached it at my congregation Sunday, February 16.
Today’s Gospel text is one of those passages that I have a hard time grasping. Not because what Jesus says is particularly spiritually challenging – though it is, of course. My problem is much more pedestrian than that. I simply don’t like salt. Okay, I’m American. I love salt. Potato chips. French fries. But I pick the salt off my pretzels. I “forget” to add salt to vegetables when I cook them. I don’t like to add salt to my eggs. When people come over to my house and ask for salt, I often have to go looking for it. Yes, I know. I’m a weirdo.
So when Jesus tells me I am the salt of the earth, it seems an entirely unnecessary thing to be. And all salt really evokes in me is a desire for chocolate.
My tastes aside, when you start to think and read and ponder what Jesus is up to here, his words are not only challenging, but the kind of words you can hang your spiritual hat on, so to speak.
We often re-tell this part of the Sermon on the Mount as though it is part of a series of commands, as though Jesus is telling his disciples to be something that they aren’t. Or to be it in a better way. Be saltier. Be brighter. But that’s not what he says; he says you are the salt; you are the light. He tells them what they already are. Reminding them of the gifts they already have. The qualities they already possess as functioning, participating members of God’s Kingdom. Their already-present identity in the image of God.
He is telling us: you already are the salt. You already are the light.
This part of the Sermon on the Mount is “Sheer promise and declaration” from Jesus. Jesus doesn’t command; he commissions those listening “actually to be salt and light, to be the persons they’ve been called to be.”
Pastor David Lose puts it this way: Jesus calls those listening “to season and preserve the world, to let their light shine so that others will see their good works — yes, good works! — and glorify God. Jesus isn’t asking them to earn their salvation, of course, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given them as a gift.”
We are invited alongside God’s work. Not only are we invited, we, really and truly, are commanded – no, commissioned – to work alongside. To get to work. To be the real living breathing working moving presence of God in our world – in fact we already are just that.
I opened up my computer to work on this sermon. I pulled up Facebook because I’m really good at procrastination. I mean, I’m really good at research. Luckily for me my procrastination led me to this – another pastor, surely working on this same passage mused:
“When, If, Until, Unless – these words are the enemies of grace.” We use these words a lot, don’t we, to excuse away our own inability or unwillingness to participate in God’s work? I use these words all the time to excuse a host of inactivity.
I’ll be a good person when I find all the answers, if I do these certain things. I don’t have to start being like Jesus until I’m a grown up. I’ll be ready to work for God’s Kingdom unless the basketball game is on. When. If. Until. Unless. These are enemies of God’s grace and the Gospel.
The verb tense here is present – you are. Not you will be. The passage begs the question, does your life – do our lives as a community – make a difference? Not will they. Not in Heaven. Not when, if, until, or unless, but here and now? Are we living, worshiping, working, confident in God’s grace and being agents of flavor and light in the world – making a difference?
I really like how the Message translates these verses. Listen:
Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.
What a beautiful way to reinterpret and redefine the metaphor Jesus uses.
How do we know if the flavor and color we add are of God, though? Keep this passage in the context of what comes before – flip back a few verses to the Beatitudes – we know salt and light when we know meekness, peacemaking, mercy, poverty of spirit. We know God-colors and God-flavors when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.
Jesus does offer a warning here – don’t lose your effectiveness. Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t find yourself under a bushel – a dark place, for sure, but not one where light is particularly useful. What is your bushel? What is it that renders you ineffective?
We all have our bushels. As individuals – and as a community.
“Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to […other people, other churches]. … Or perhaps the bushel is self-absorption of internal conflicts. … Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds.” All of these things prevent our lives from being light – from introducing the God-colors to the world around us.
The passage from Isaiah today finds the prophet trying to dig his people out from under their own self-made bushels.
In Isaiah, we find the people returning to their homelands and wanting to rebuild. Not surprisingly, they are more than a little nostalgic. That, and more than a little in shock. They miss the old ways, they long for life to be put back together, but are at a loss – how can they put the pieces back together of their old lives, their old rituals, their old worship, when they can’t even find the broken pieces shattered around them?
They do what they can. They have done what they can, and yet, despite their best efforts to do the right things, they sense God’s absence. They perceive that God has not kept the faith – while they have. They have fasted, they have sacrificed, they have done all the right things and been really good at not doing the wrong things. Or so they think.
Isaiah’s words are a call to action – or a call to new action – out from under the bushels of self-righteousness and religiosity. His words serve to remind them of who they are. They have been fasting in effort to earn God’s favor, and Isaiah offers them a new way to fast: “a new set of relationships within ongoing life.”
Instead of fasting from food or drink; instead of fasting as a means of self-denial, God calls them to a new kind of fast, a fast from denying others: “a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.”
The fast God chooses is right in line with the words of Jesus. God does not call us to be in relationship with God for our own sake. In truth, we cannot be in relationship with God and God only – we “cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other.”
One of the things that strikes me most uncomfortably between the types of fasting here is the means vs. the ends. For the people’s part, fasting is a means to an end. They believe by fasting they will earn God’s favor.
If they fast, then God will answer their prayers. If they follow the rules of piety, then they will find salvation.
They follow this logic and find themselves even more removed from the light of God – from the presence of God’s holiness. The kind of fasting to which Isaiah calls them is not a means to an end, but a gift to itself. The fasting is about restoring right relationship with other people, and thereby right relationship with God. This is not in order to re-earn God’s favor, but because other people are worthy in and of themselves. We ought to treat people with justice and generosity because they are worthy of God’s kind of love and hospitality. The only ends that matter is not something we earn, but our reflection of God’s own self.
In Isaiah, the people perceive unanswered prayers. They perceive a silent God. Despite all their best efforts it seems that darkness is their home, and brokenness is their God-given (or at least God-abandoned) reality.
I have much more of an inclination, a desire, to be like Isaiah – to want to point out the false worship I see, to observe with righteous indignation the falsely placed hopes in self-righteous fasting. I see the ways that we are like the people in Isaiah: all the ways we tell ourselves – if I do this – go to church, read my bible, have a quiet time – or if I don’t do this – cuss, drink, dance – then I will know I’m favored. I hear how Isaiah would respond to this.
Instead, the challenge for me this week is to be more like Jesus. (Which is really cliché to say, because, really, aren’t we all always challenged to be more like Jesus. I digress.) I am challenged to be more like Jesus to hold up false worship and false idols in tension with the naming of who we already are. We don’t need to do these things because we are already salt and light. We are commissioned by these words to go and season, preserve, flavor the earth. To shine a light in corners of darkness. We can do that – not when, if, until, or unless, but because we already are salt and light.
God expects partnership and participation. We are not to be idle. We are not worthless. And just as Isaiah and Jesus affirm – we are useful only and as far as we are useful for, with and alongside others. We are useful when we bring out the God-flavors of the world, and when our light illumines the God-colors of the world. When we speak peace, mercy and justice in the world of violence, retribution and oppression – when we shine the light and hope of Christ in the darkest corners of despair and death – we are salt and light.
We do not fulfill our purpose when we make sacrifices only for God, or when we fast with the intent to earn our way somewhere – when we keep false appearances of piety, but ignore the real need. How can salt do its job sitting on a shelf? How can light do its job if it does not get right in the midst of the darkness?
When we invite, and allow God to be present among us, and when we respond to God’s call to work alongside God, we find light, we find God’s holiness, we find our own usefulness in bringing out the flavors of the world, as light in dark places.
If we are salt and light – the very presence of God’s Spirit in the world, then are our salty and bright lives the very voice of God when others face their own darkness? When others wonder about the presence of God, the silence of God in the face of their lament, their pleas, their wonderings, what if we really do, by building just relationships, we speak the very peace and righteousness of God? Not in any kind of savior-complex, but in our presence. In our willingness to be the salt and be the light Jesus calls us, in our willingness to be useful, in our willingness to go to the dark places, our lives bear the very presence of the Holy One.
We don’t bring out the God-flavors and colors by following rigid rules of piety – not saying certain words, or ascribing everything to simplified clichés. This is a faith bigger than Pinterest-worthy sayings. We bring out the God-flavors and God-colors when we seek out the lost, when we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of liberation and compassion, when we go to the darkest places and sit, shining our little lights, until the light itself wins out.
Salt is poured out – just as Isaiah urges the people in verse 10: “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” We are to pour out of our very selves out the works and presence of God – liberation, generosity, compassion. Our light, then is a light of freedom, grace, love. And not later – now.
Be emboldened by this good news, friends, that Jesus is talking to us – we are salt and we are light. Not if, when, until, or unless, but we are. Go and be – go and show the world God’s colors – even into the darkest places.
And see, this is my kind of evangelism. Maybe you’re like me and you get a little squeamish when the conversation starts about evangelism. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the word. And I don’t even want to reclaim it anymore. But this passage, if it is about anything at all, it’s about evangelism. Not door-to-door stuff. Not street corner stuff. Not even relationship-in-exchange-for-salvation stuff. It is evangelism that seeks to flavor the world with God’s love and grace – simply because that is who we already are. We are already loved and free, so we move in the world out of that identity and to share that identity.
Go be salty. Go be light. In fact – you already are.
 David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.
 Rev. Erin Wathen, Facebook Status, 2.4.14. https://www.facebook.com/erin.s.wathen/posts/10201459054774882?stream_ref=10
 Amy Oden, “Commentary on Matthew 5.13-20,” Working Preacher, RCL, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1901
 Amy Oden, “Commentary on Isaiah 58.1-9a [9b-12],” Working Preacher.