A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
February 9, 2014
Psalm 112:1-9; Matthew 5:13-16
I’ve never considered myself a picky eater. Not really. But there are some foods I simply don’t like, foods that I know would be good for me but I just can’t get past the taste of them. If our youth are listening at this point – and, of course, that’s not a given – this is one of those cases where you need to do as I say, not as I do. Or maybe I should say, as I don’t.
I don’t eat turnip greens nor lima beans. Cabbage is out of the question, and grits… well, I’m a southern boy, but I’ve never had a liking for grits. It may be because we often had those foods on the dinner table when I was young, and I was forced to eat them. As an adult, given a bit more freedom and discretion in regard to my culinary habits, I have chosen not to partake of them.
Another dietary idiosyncrasy of mine is that certain foods require additional salt… whether they’ve already been seasoned or not. Mashed potatoes, green beans, green salads – and by the way, if those items sound like the menu for First Sunday Lunch, you would be correct – I can’t eat them without first seasoning them with a bit of salt. I know, I know, I would be better off if I didn’t do that, but just the sight of them makes me reach for the salt shaker.
It is said that when J. C. Penney considered young men for management positions – and in his day they were all men – he would take them to lunch. If they salted their food before tasting it, he would either not hire them in the first place, or if they worked for him already, he would not promote them. He found their actions to be presumptuous, and in his way of thinking that did not make for good corporate management material.
I could not have worked for J. C. Penney. There are just some foods that scream for salt.
And why not? Salt is certainly easy to find and not terribly expensive. Probably the most famous brand, Morton’s, at the local Kroger just this week was going for 76 cents for a large 26 ounce container. And there are plenty of other brands as well. Salt is easy to find and not hard to buy.
That was not necessarily the case in Jesus’ day. Salt was fairly rare, and to find unadulterated salt rarer still. And forget about iodized. They had no idea what that was. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, and even though every known language, then and now, has its own particular word for salt, in the Greek, the language of the New Testament, it is the root for the word salary.
So what exactly did Jesus mean by referring to his disciples as the “salt of the earth”?
And the “light of the world”… why did Jesus call his disciples light?
Before we attempt to answer those questions, let’s zero in on a couple of other words Jesus uses. First of all, he says “you.” “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Who is you? It is generally thought he was looking directly at, and speaking to, his disciples, those who had left family and professions behind to follow him. But now, after two millennia have come and gone, it is most difficult to hear these words without sensing Jesus’ penetrating eyes looking directly into the hearts of each one of us who takes these words seriously. So you is you, and you is me. You is all of us. We are the salt of the earth, from Jesus’ perspective, and the light of the world.
And he says “are”… “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Not will be, not might be, not even “I want you to be or should be.” The verb is not future tense, it is present. Nor is it dependent on our ability to be good. It is a God-given reality, a matter of divine grace, and there is no way we can get around it. We cannot escape it, we cannot avoid it or try to slip around it, explain it away or certainly deny it. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Still, what does it mean?
A couple of things about salt… First of all, salt is hidden. Once it does its work, it penetrates the surface of whatever it is being sprinkled upon and cannot be seen. It can only be tasted. That’s good and bad. It’s good – really good – when it’s used on mashed potatoes… and popcorn. I always like extra salt on my popcorn. But pour salt on an open wound and you won’t have much appreciation for it, let me tell you. Not at first anyway.
But more often than not, salt does its work without a great deal of notice. When you put it on your food, you don’t want to taste the salt necessarily. Instead, you want to enjoy the food upon which it has been applied. The purpose of the salt is to enhance the flavor of whatever you are eating. You want the salt to be inconspicuous.
And when you realize that in Jesus’ day salt was also a symbol of the covenant God had made with his people – the Jewish people referred to Torah, or the law, as salt – you become aware that Jesus is sending a direct message to those who are now carrying on his work. By the time Matthew records these words of his Master, Jerusalem has been destroyed and the temple is in ruins. Jesus’ followers are now just a small remnant of the once growing, exciting movement depicted in the Book of Acts. No longer are thousands of people being added to the church because now they are being persecuted for being Jews first and Christians second. They often meet secretly, doing everything they can to continue Jesus’ ministry without losing their lives in the process. It was a delicate tightrope upon which they walked high above the ground, and there was no safety net.
Sometimes I feel the same way when it comes to the church today. When I first started out as a pastor, in many respects church was still at the center of peoples’ lives and activities. Now, some forty years later, there has been a seismic change in the attitude of many people, not only about the church but also about the Christian faith it portrays. Get out the tightrope and pull away the net. Once again, we are finding ourselves increasingly to be the remnant of faith. We live in a time when salt and light are truly needed.
Now contrast the qualities of salt with light. While salt is hidden, and does its work behind the scenes, so to speak, by its very nature light is revealed… although, it doesn’t draw attention to itself but to what it illuminates. It doesn’t take much of either one to get the job done. Just a bit of salt is all that is needed to enhance the flavor of food and a tiny candle can bring light to a cavernous darkness. Still, salt is not to be seen while light is. Jesus is telling his disciples – and you and me – that we are to be both. There’s a sense in which we have to work quietly behind the scenes in order to penetrate our world with the message of God’s grace in Christ, and there are those times when we have to get out the light so others will see the presence of Christ in us.
The real gift of discipleship is knowing when and where to do both.
Think of what Jesus’ disciples had going against them. Not for them but against them. Compared to the presence of the established religion, not to mention the occupying forces of Rome, they were a thimble of water in a vast sea filled by those who either opposed them or didn’t even take notice of them. And they met in small homes. They gathered together in secret. They whispered quietly of Jesus, who had called them to be his followers and was crucified for his efforts. Yet, they also spoke boldly of his resurrected presence in their midst. And everywhere they went they told this incredible story to anyone who would listen, who would give them an ear just for a moment. They were salt and light.
They sprinkled their salt into the open wound of a hurting world, into the bland food of those who had found no meaning in the other religions – of which there were many – dotting the landscape. Everywhere they encountered darkness, they brought with them a candle of hope, and enlightened those who were in their presence. They found themselves indeed to be salt and light.
We admit, a lot of mistakes have been made in Jesus’ name since he walked this earth. Wars have been fought in his name, political power has been wrought in his name, children have been abused by those who represent his name, and the church throughout the world has done a great deal of harm in his name.
If you are a visitor today, I will inform you that our church, this last year, celebrated our centennial. One hundred years of life and service have no doubt given witness to some hurtful things that were said, some things done that were less than grace-filled. But in the midst of all this, a little bit of salt just here and there, and a small light in the darkness of a hurting world, and what you see is the earthly presence of a heavenly kingdom. And in these small crevices of hope and grace, you find the Spirit of Christ.
And to think, it all started with fishermen and tax collectors, with slaves and blind people and lepers, with sellers of cloth and tent makers… common folk like you and me. But with just a pinch of salt and the light from a tiny candle, the world literally was changed. And despite the sins and flaws of God’s people, those who are sick have been healed, hearts are graced, and souls are touched by the redeeming presence of God.
If salt loses its taste, it cannot be restored. The only thing it is good for is to be thrown on the ground where people trample it underfoot. If light is put under a bushel basket, where no one can see it, what good is it? If there was ever a time for the people of God to be what Jesus said they are – and notice again, he did not say ought to be, but are – it is now.
If you are tempted to think that you don’t have it in you to be salt and light… that that’s what this church pays its ministers to do… that somehow it takes ordination in order to do and be such… may I encourage you with all my heart to start your thinking all over again. There are some things you can do that I cannot do. The same goes for the Revs. Munns and Staley. You’re the ones who are out there in the trenches, meeting every day with people who are searching, even if they don’t know it, for the grace that comes only in the redeeming presence of Christ. You are the ones who rub elbows with those who may very well be on their last leg when it comes to hope. You’re the ones who work with and fellowship with and live life with those who think it’s just fine to disregard eternal things… to their great detriment.
It is when you encounter these people that you are salt and light… again, not that you need to be or ought to be salt and light… that you are salt and light.
The late Carlyle Marney tells of his first church job, “for which anybody ever paid me anything,” he says. It was 1938, and he was asked by one of the church leaders – “one of our fine contributors,” is the way he put it – “to assist in the rehabilitation of a drunk that he very much wanted well.” Why did he want him well? Because, when he was sober “he was worth thousands a year on the telephone, selling stuff. Sober he was great; drunk he stayed under the bed, and I attended him,” says Marney. “I was young then and had lots of energy; and I attended him. Drunk or sober, I attended him. But I failed utterly though I wore out the carpets in the old Homestead Hotel.
Years later I preached in the old place, and my former drunk was taking up the collection! He was a deacon! It had done no good for me to priest him! I was a hired hand who could do nothing. His boss had done it! He had learned to love him and live with him and save him.”1
Have you ever wondered just how you are salt and light? I can think of no better way to describe it than that… to love and live with and save those whom we encounter.
Salt and light, salt and light. YOU ARE. Now go… go.
Lord, help us to see what we are, and then to live in light of it, being your presence wherever we go. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1974), p. 16.