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Sunday Worship 3 March | Sermon on the Mount: Salt and Light

I have said in the past that the church could do worse than listen to the Sermon on the Mount on repeat until we fully understand its meaning and live out its teaching. In 2019 we did a series on the Lord’s Prayer, in 2022 we heard three different translations or interpretations of the Beatitudes, and then in 2023 we did a series digging into those “blessed are...” sayings in more detail. This Lent we are going to look at a few other sections from that most famous preach.

Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. We will come to salt and light, but I want us to start by paying attention to the first two words of each of those phrases. “You are...” Not “you will be” or “you might be” or “you could be”. Simply “you are”. This is how God sees us, and these are the words that God speaks over us. We are salt and we are light. We are holy and we are blessed. We are God’s masterpiece and we are God’s beloved children. It is so important that we hear those words, especially if the world has spoken different words over us. I don't know who first said “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, but it’s complete nonsense. Words can be brutal, and the bruises they leave on our hearts can take longer to heal than the bruises visited upon our flesh. 

Perhaps you have heard of nominative determinism, the idea that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. There are plenty of silly examples - a firefighter called Les McBurney, a neuroscientist called Lord Brain, a lawyer called Sue Yoo - but there is something more serious that happens too. There is evidence to suggest that children become what they are called. Call a child stupid enough times and they will believe you, and they will stop applying themselves to learning, and they will become less intelligent than they were or might have been. Call a child fat before the age of ten and they will take this as an immutable reality, and they are more likely to develop unhealthy eating patterns, and they will be almost twice as likely to be obese by the time they are nineteen.

But if words can be bruising they can also be healing, and this kind of linguistic reinforcement can work positively too. Mike has taken to speaking a set of affirmations to the kids each day, and Miri is already repeating them to herself. “I am brave. I am beautiful. I am clever. I am kind.” She knows these things are true, and she is living into them more and more. She shares a treat and tells us it is because she is kind. She dusts herself off after she has fallen down and tells us it is because she is brave.

And it doesn’t just work for children, or when the things we are called are true to begin with. Some of you may remember that a few years ago we watched a clip from an animated film called ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. In the climactic scene, the villain loses his memory, and instead of taking this moment of vulnerability as an opportunity to defeat or torment him, the villagers he has threatened offer him redemption. They tell him that he is kind and generous and thoughtful, and that he loves his grandson Kubo, who in reality he has persecuted throughout the film. In telling him these untruths, they give him the chance to make them true. They give him the chance to become what they call him.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. However salty or bright you are feeling right now, you are called these things so that you can be them. What then does it mean for us to be salt and light? Here we really need to get into the mindset of Jesus and his first listeners, to understand what salt and light were to them.

Salt is so easily accessible today that it may seem pretty uninteresting to us, and indeed when we hear someone described as “the salt of the earth” we probably imagine them as solid and straightforward but certainly not anything special. However salt was one of the most important commodities of the ancient world, so valuable that it was at times a form of currency. It was used as a preservative, which in a hot country in the days before refrigeration could be the difference between eating and starving outside of the harvest seasons. It was used as a disinfectant in medicine and cleaning, which again made it crucial to health and wellbeing. It was used in religious ritual and symbolism, which was essential for the spiritual life of the community. And it was used to flavour food, which could bring joy as well as nourishment to the dinner table.

Salt not only protected life but it also improved it, and I think that is what Jesus is saying we are to do as the salt of the earth. We are to look after the world and to make it better, preserving what is good and cleansing what is not, bringing meaning and joy to our shared lives. There are a million ways that we can do that, but for those of us who walk in the way of Christ, at the centre of all of them is God. This is not merely about prettying up the world as we have it, but transforming it into the world as we are promised it. That's why Jesus warns us about losing our saltiness. It's not a threat, and it's that he wants to throw us out, it's that he wants us to stay salty, because the world needs us to be salty. There is an argument that the mineral salt made possible the development of civilisation. Why should we as human salt be any less ambitious?

How about light then? When we can have illumination at the flick of a switch, and rarely know darkness unless we choose it, we can easily take even light for granted. In a world before electricity, when light was natural or it was provided by oil and candles, I am sure there was a much greater sense of appreciation for it. And with no street lamps or neon signs blazing through the night, there would have been a much clearer rhythm of light and dark, and a keener understanding of the difference and shading between them. It’s little wonder then that light was so powerful in the imagination. It marked the beginning of creation and was a common metaphor for God.

There is a kind of creative energy to darkness - just think of Jesus' metaphor of a seed growing unknown in the darkness of the soul - so I don't want to fall into a dichotomy that says light is good and dark is bad without nuance, but light is necessary for sight and so it does speak in a particular way of revelation. As the light of the world, we have the power to reveal the truth of the world as it is, and the possibility of the world as it can be, bringing God's perspective to God's creation. That is why we need to be up on that lamp stand, not covered by a bowl, so that the world can see us, and in doing so both recognise and imagine itself.

I love the way the Message translates these verses: “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?...You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept.” There is responsibility of course, but there is also joy in these words. We get to bring out the God-flavours of the earth and the God-colours of the world, to show people how delicious and beautiful life is and can be. We should never dismiss or deny the sadness of the world, but we can bring something else to it, we can tell people that it is never the whole story, and in doing so we can offer hope of a better story. 

Salt and Light: a responsive reading (written by Chandra Cane)
It was a dull, tasteless thing — this life, before salt.
It was a dark, meaningless thing — this life, before light.
Then he came — we thought — to do many things; to our surprise, he called us, saying: “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
So he has called us, to be salt in this earth; to season and preserve all life with love.
So he has called us, to be light in this world; to dispel the darkness of hate and injustice.
So he has called us, from every nation, culture, and language — all purified by Jesus to be salt of every kind.
Some of us are sea salt, some rock salt, some finely ground — all purified by Jesus, and all beloved as we are.
So he has called us, from every nation, culture, and language — all gifted by the Holy Spirit, to be light of every kind.
Some of us are daylight, some candlelight, some flickering fire — all gifted by the Holy Spirit, and all beloved as we are.
He is come — through us — to do many things; to our joy, he has called us, saying: “Let your light shine before others.
It is a bright, joyful sunrise — his kingdom, coming with light.
It is a rich, welcoming banquet — his feast, seasoned with salt.
So he has called us, from every nation, culture, and language — all beloved of the Father, and in him we are alive.
So he has called us, from every nation, culture, and language; may the peoples see our good works, and give glory to God.

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