Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
It seems like many people I talk to feel out of kilter, adrift, and disoriented. Maybe the pictures of people being turned away at airports under the temporary travel ban on certain Muslim countries hit home because in some sense we feel troubled, alienated, and dispossessed as America we knew it seems to be eroding. . . I imagine that for people who support what is going on, the protests and demonstrations seem confusing. People are supposedly getting what was voted for, why are they agitating so passionately? In any case, many feel disoriented.
In a 1995 commentary about the Isaiah lesson for today, a Biblical scholar remarks, “There are clues here about rehabilitation of a society in disarray!” [Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on NRSV – Year A, Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, and Newsome, p. 129] How appropriate for us today!
In the book, The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty, which won the Man Booker prize, unusual for an American, the father of the main character, a psychologist, an eccentric sort, tells his son, “You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself?” [p. 250]
So in this time of shifting sands beneath us, we turn to the scriptures with these questions: Who am I? and How do I become myself? In the lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells us that we are salt and light. Notice we are told that Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world.” [Emphasis added.] It doesn’t say, if you do this, then you will be the salt of the earth. If you believe that, then you will be the light of the world. It doesn’t say, you could be the salt of the earth. Or you might be the light of the world. It says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world.” [Matthew 5: 13,14] That is who we are.
We are here today, in this church, some of us Christians, some Jewish, some Buddhist, some agnostic, some atheist, some “other,” because somehow, in some way, we have experienced the stirrings inside us telling us that we are salt and light. We have been called to, as theologian Carter Heyward puts it, “. . . join Jesus and many others in giving God a voice, giving God an embodied life on earth.” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year A: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 66] We are here to enflesh love.
Now we know who we are. So we turn to, “How may I become myself?” How do we function as light and salt? How do we embody Divine love in the world, the world that we are in, the world as we know it, the world that is shifting under our feet, the world that seems to be becoming more and more divided?
From both Matthew and Isaiah, we hear that our calling is to make a difference in the world. We are to take action in the public realm. To make a concrete response to public issues, to human need, to dehumanization, oppression, and poverty. One scholar says it this way, “. . . the direct, immediate engagement with self and neighbor with clearheaded awareness of systemic issues.” [Texts for Preaching, p. 129]
I know that you are not the crowd that needs to be convinced of our call to do good in the world, make a difference, and show God’s love for all people. But sometimes we need help moving from our minds and hearts to our hands, feet, and wallets.
This week, I was inspired by the Rev. Bernard Lafayette who spoke at the University of South Florida. Rev. Lafayette was an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In his last conversation with King on the day King was killed, King told Lafayette that they needed to take the movement from civil rights in the United States to human rights around the world. He told Lafayette that the agenda was to go global with nonviolent direct action. And Rev. Lafayette has spent his life doing just that leading workshops on nonviolent action around the world, including in Israel, Niger, and Columbia where he had to laugh when they referred to him as a “gringo.” In his remarks, Lafayette reminded us: “Don’t sit on the couch, the rocking chair, the floor, and grieve. . . Don’t be weak and pitiful and just complain. . . Don’t wait and see what’s going to happen next, make something happen. . . Look for cracks in the system and use your crowbar to pry. . . Don’t burn down the bus station.”
In these times of great challenge and peril, it can be hard to be salt and light, to be ourselves. We can feel so out of step with what is going on around us. In the face of fake news, alternative reality, deceit, lies, delusion, and the complexity of every problem that we face, we must resist the temptation to crawl under a rock! We are needed to be discerning and responsive, following in the way of Jesus. We know that to be salt and light is to act with love. It is, as one commentary suggests, to embody “unheard-of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity, and love of one’s enemies.” [Texts for Preaching, p. 136]
It’s a challenge at the best of times. To do this, to embody “unheard of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity, and love of one’s enemies,” to be salt and light, we want to keep three things in mind.
One is feed the soul. We need to be sure that we are feeding our souls and nourishing our spirits. This means coming to church, daily prayer, turning to scripture, meditating, journaling, walking the labyrinth, going on silent retreat, whatever it is that keeps you connected and grounded in the transcendent, the Divine, the greater good, the larger reality. Feeding the soul is critical to being salt and light.
And we want to keep in mind that there are many people who may feel the urging of God, the sense of the transcendent in their lives, but they are not connected to a faith community. They have not yet found a way to feed the soul through a church or religious community. They may be needing that connection now, and it is up to us to let people know about this church and invite people to see what is here because it may be just what they need to help them be the salt and light they are called to be. So don’t be shy about mentioning the church to your friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Let them know that being part of this church grounds you in your world view, your activism and your service. Invite others to come and see. This is another way of giving food to the hungry and clothes to the naked; it is meeting the core human needs of others.
So, we maintain our ability to be light and salt by nourishing the soul and that can take many forms. We also want to be clear that as we seek to stay grounded so that we can radiate Divine, universal, unconditional love, we may need to ration our intake of negativism, hate, and delusion. Yes, I am talking about turning off the news. Spending less time on Facebook and Twitter. Giving the radio a rest even if it is National Public Radio. And maybe even limiting exposure to certain people – friends and even family. The constant frenetic pace of unfolding events can lure us into being almost voyeuristic – we want to see what is going on. We don’t want to miss anything. But we have to exert our power to limit the negative material we allow to enter our beings or it will take us over. We are in danger of being overwhelmed, drowned, and held hostage. We want to maintain our freedom to stay true to our Divine calling as salt and light. We cannot let our light be put out and we cannot let our salt be trampled underfoot. So we must take responsibility for what enters our minds and hearts just as we do with our bodies. I know that I listen to NPR far less than I used to. I have stopped catching up on Twitter before I go to bed because I get too worked up to sleep well. And we need to be well-rested and in good form, physically and spiritually, to be the salt and light that we are needed to be right now.
So, we need to feed our souls, limit negative influences, and lastly, confront our fears. Much of what is going on around us is fear-driven. There are economic fears. There are fears of those who are different. There are fears of other countries. There are fears of losing freedoms. There are fears of hastening environmental collapse. There are fears of violent attack. There are fears around access to health care. Every day, there are more things for us to be afraid of. And when people are afraid, they give up control and power. And the darkness grows.
We are salt and light. Salt and light are naturally occurring, part of Creation, of God. Their power is derived from the Divine. As salt and light, we are powerful. Think of living without light. Or life without salt. We would die. Salt and light are images of power. Power that stands down fear.
In his remarks on Thursday night, Rev. Lafayette spoke of fear. He said, “You have to overcome the fear of death. Then you can operate nonviolently. You are going to die anyway. Don’t wait. Do some good. The greater fear is that you’ll die before you do some good.”
We are salt and light. We are to fulfill the vision presented in Isaiah:
“to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
To share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house:
when you see the naked, to cover them. . .” [Isaiah 58:6-7]
We are needed in the world as the embodiment of God working for reconciliation, justice, compassion, and peace. For each and every individual. And for the whole Creation.
As we revisit the poetic words of the prophet Isaiah let us remember what is promised. He tells the people to give up their hollow, showy piety, and to get down to business caring for others, and creating a just society. In other words, be salt and light. But when the people are true to their God-given nature, when they fulfill God’s desires and intentions, then they experience the fullness of life. The prophet tells us:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly,
God will guide you continually
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.” [Isaiah 58: 10-11]
When we are true to ourselves, when we are the salt and light we have been called to be, we find our deepest joy and strength. We find our highest good. We find our healing and wholeness.
The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal shares the responses of a community of campesinos in rural Nicaragua to stories in the Gospels. It was written in 1976. In her response to the teaching about being the salt of the earth, Dona Adela, a little old woman, calls to mind the preservative properties of salt. With a weak voice, she says: “We are the salt of the world because we have been placed in it so the world won’t rot.” [p. 94] And we can add, so that we don’t rot with it. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.