Salt, Light, and Life [Epiphany 5A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:13-20

Salt, Light, and Life

Have you heard about the salt shortage?   It's a real thing.   All over Northern Ohio cities and towns are running out of rock salt.   The Morton Salt people are freaking out; they can't keep up with the demand.   One town in Northeast Ohio is using cinders on the road - "like they did 50 years ago."[1]   In many other places, only major roads are being salted.   The snowfall this winter has been overwhelming.   And there is just not enough salt.

This is a problem of course because untreated roads are dangerous.   It is nice to be able to stop at intersections – rather than just sliding right through them.   The salt shortage is a problem because our snowy world of commuters needs salt; just ask those poor folks in Atlanta.

Salt is, of course, versatile.   It has many important uses - not just to melt ice.   We use it to flavor and preserve food.   Apparently you can use it to clean surfaces and remove stains.   It is perfect on your animal sacrifices; that's in the Old Testament, a little bit on every one; you can look that up in Leviticus, if you like.  But perhaps, for us, it's most important function is keeping us alive.

We need salt for our survival.   Not in smother-your-french-fries-in-salt amounts, but we do need salt.   We need salt "because every single one of our cells contains large amounts of salt."[2]   Salt makes us go.   Salt keeps us alive.

And so does light; light keeps us alive.  Now, it seems like there is a light shortage every winter in Toledo – and in the rest of the state.  But, of course, we're not running out of light.  The light is gradually returning.  Each new day lasts a little bit longer.  Each new night is a little bit shorter.

Light is important to us for many reasons.  For example, seeing stuff – that requires light.  A light can be a beacon or prevent an airplane from crashing into a building.  But perhaps, for us, its most important function is keeping us alive.

Without light, there would be no us.  “Sunlight is the fuel of life, it provides the energy that maintains nearly every manifestation of life on Earth.”[3]  All of those living things to which our survival is tied, animals and plants, also rely on the light of the sun.  Light helps us see.  It keeps us sane.  But more than anything else, light keeps us alive.

Salt and light are both essential for life; we need them.  And this is what Jesus calls us to be; he calls his followers the salt of the earth and light of the world. 

To understand what Jesus is saying, it might be helpful to picture a world without salt.  And maybe the first thought is that food would be very bland, the roads very icy.  But the bigger issue for us is that human bodies require salt to function – and we cannot make the salt we need.  An earth without salt would be a very different place.

And what about a world without light?  Well, that would be very difficult to picture – mostly because we would not be able to see it.  But if we could, there would be no trees, no plants.  And without light, without plants, without the oxygen plants make, there would be no animals and no humans.  Very likely without the light of the sun, there would be no world to picture at all – at least no world remotely resembling our own.

The salt of the earth, the light of the world: it is an amazing calling.  Jesus actually trusts those of us who would be his followers, his disciples, a somewhat raggedy bunch, with his own mission.  In fact, Jesus thinks we are essential – essential to this world and to its future. 

Essential because you are the salt of the earth.  That is what Jesus said.  He did not say, “If you just do this or that...”  He did not say, “You will be or can be or should be...”  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  And then, though he was more poetic, he tells his followers to start acting like it.  Because the people of this world need salt.

Essential because you are the light of the world.  That is what Jesus said.  He did not say, “If you just do this or that...”  He did not say, “You will be or can be or should be...”  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”  And then, though he was more poetic, he told his followers to start acting like it; let that light shine.  Because the people of this world need light.

Now, we can't make salt; and we can't make light.  Instead, we are made salt; and we are made light.  By God.  For a reason.  For the sake of the world.  This is who we are.  Jesus says so.

But for Jesus, being salt and light is not an end in itself; the identity comes with responsibility.  What good is a light if it is hidden under a basket?

The message with which we are entrusted is too precious, too important to keep to ourselves.  And so if there is a salt shortage in Northern Ohio, it is only because we have forgotten that this Gospel is worth sharing. There is too much darkness in the world, too many people living in the shadows, to hide our light.

So we are salt; and we are light.  We are made to shine.  It's is a flattering image.  But, of course, Jesus is not being literal.  So what does Jesus expect of us?  What does it mean to be the salt of the earth?  What does it mean to be the light of the world? 

I think it goes beyond being nice; Jesus wasn't always nice.  And I think it means more than being polite – another area of inconsistency for Jesus.  I had a philosophy professor in college who used to ask us: “Is it better to be nice or to be good?”  We know the right answer to that question, but it is still not an easy one to answer because sometimes nice and good clash – and nice is more socially acceptable. 

But the Gospel is more than nice.  It shakes things up and turns stuff over.  It is life-changing.  And that is where we come in.  We are called to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  It is not enough to just be a light; Jesus wants that light to shine – to scatter some darkness.  The world needs more than just another inspirational catch-phrase, more than just a pat on the back.  The world needs the Gospel – the life-changing Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus has passed on his torch to us.  We are now the light.  We are the ones who are called to tell it and live it.  Jesus' words should be coming out of our mouths.  See, the world needs to see and hear some Good News: That God so loves the world.  That God still cares and heals and forgives.  The world needs to see and hear that God is the hope of the hopeless, the strength of the powerless, and the comfort of those who mourn.  That death is not the end and that God is making all things new. 

Our message is Good News – not just for us but for each and every person.  It has the power to change lives, to change the world. 

And it is in you.  Because you are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  God has a dream for this world and your role in making that dream a reality is essential.  Because you, me, us, we have been entrusted with the Gospel; Jesus has passed us the torch.  And so the work is now ours: Be the light; let it shine.