Sermon: Epiphany 5 Year A
February 9, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
Salt and light—two strong metaphors for how we as Christians are to live our lives out in the world. Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth, and then he tells them they are the light of the world.
As both a seasoning and a preservative, salt was a necessity in the ancient world and an extremely valuable commodity. Roman soldiers received a salt ration, the salarium, from which comes our English word “salary.” However, if salt became contaminated and lost its capacity to season and preserve, it would be thrown out as useless.
Jesus also calls the disciples the light of the world. They are to let their light shine before others.
Hiding a lamp under a bushel is as foolish as using salt that has no flavor. So, the disciples are exhorted to let their light shine in such a way that it glorifies God.
Salt and light: one has the power to preserve or save from destruction and the other has the power to illumine the mind and heart. Jesus elaborates on the demands of this challenge as he declares that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill the law and the prophets—to bring deeper meaning to that which had been spoken in the past. God didn’t give the commandments to see them broken, but so that they might be fully realized. Jesus, through his teaching and living in a manner that manifests the will of God, fulfills the law. This was the work that he was to do among the people for the salvation of the world. He calls for the totality of the law to be taught and followed.
But, he also calls his followers to a higher righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees, who may know the law, but are not committed to fully living it out. Rather, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be the light that illumines the human heart and mind, and the salt that preserves God’s message as they do God’s work of justice, mercy, and freedom in the world.
The Prophet Isaiah many years before called Israel to reject false piety and to shine as a light of justice and liberation. The people of Israel had returned to Jerusalem from exile, but the time of restoration had proven to be difficult and disappointing. Although they had been freed from captivity in Babylon, the land itself was under the control of the Persians. The anticipated era of peace and prosperity had not come to fruition, and the country was beset by chaos and violence.
The people complained that even though they performed the expected rituals, God did not seem to be present. Isaiah is summoning them to hear God’s judgments against them. They claim to honor God and to seek God’s presence. But when the people ask why God does not acknowledge their fasts, God responds by proclaiming the difference between that which God requires and that which they offer. Isaiah proclaims their fasts and holy appearing rituals as corrupt and self-serving, while at the same time they fought among themselves and ignored the needs of others.
In contrast, what pleases God requires repentance of their self-righteous ways and turning to God, not exploitation and oppression of others while simply keeping rituals. The reason for fasting is not to appear righteous. The ritual alone does not please God. Fasting should be characterized by genuine self-denial and humility that brings justice, liberation, and acts of mercy.
This is the fruit of true righteousness that fasting is to produce. When the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, and the naked are clothed, then the people will find salvation. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:8). Then God will be their vindicator and answer their cries. God’s promises to restore Israel will come to fruition when concern for the well-being of others takes precedence over empty ritual.
Likewise, Jesus is teaching his disciples and us that faith and attempts to be holy, or the appearances of being holy, are useless if our saltiness is gone or we have hidden the light of Christ within us.
Interestingly, the quality of salt has to do with “being,” while the quality of light leans more toward “doing.” Yet, the two, like Siamese twins, can be detached from one another only at great peril. The bottom line with both qualities is that they are valued by their effects, by what they accomplish.
So here we are, just after Jesus has taught the disciples about the Beatitudes, he tells them “you are salt and you are light.” You are to live in a way that draws people to ask questions about your life.
You exhibit a way of life that makes people scratch their heads—and somehow turn to God for the answer. This doesn’t necessarily mean a walk-on-water lifestyle—a power mystification—that seeks to change others. To the contrary, salt comprises one of the most inconspicuous and ordinary of substances. It is minute, and usually mixed with common things. It is down to Earth, and hidden most of the time.
Yet here, in its non-obvious ways, salt achieves its own effects. It flavors or preserves or heals or sharpens—silently. Ordinary, silent, and one other characteristic: salt is useless on a table across the room. It is also the nearness of salt that makes it useful, useful in the everyday-ness of life and relationships, as well as those out in the community and the world.
The noted writer on the spiritual life, Karl Stern, summed up this ordinary, close-range effectiveness of salt: “If the Gospel appeals to you, it is easy to come out against general social injustice, against the exploitation of the poor, in favor of pacifism, ethical vegetarianism, or any other ‘isms.’ But it is a thousand times harder to tackle problems of hostility, coldness, or injustice in the relationships with those with whom you are in contact every day. It is also much less spectacular.”
Be that as it may, the salt must still be salty. And the light must be no less than the very Holy Spirit of God shining in and through us, dispelling all kinds of darkness in our own hearts and minds, before the light can been seen by others.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk, known for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science, has defined spirituality as “aliveness—super aliveness.”
He goes on to say that this aliveness is derived from the Holy Spirit, the breath of all creation; and wherever we are alive on every level we are spiritual—particularly when we are caring for one another and for the world. The “super-alive” state to which he refers echoes the light of the world teaching of Jesus. We are to shine in the Spirit, to refract the light of God from ourselves to others.
I close with a wonderful story told by Brother Steindl-Rast, from the life of William Butler Yeats, a reality later reflected in his poem, “Vacillation.” Yeats is up in years, lonely, down and out, and in a crowd at a London coffee shop. And he writes, “My body of a sudden blazed.” His body came alive in the Spirit. He was given a spark. The Presence of God set him ablaze.
While our bodies will not always turn into burning bushes, we do need constant warming by the Light of Christ to experience the “super-aliveness” that comes from grace. To live this warmth, feel it, think it, and allow it to suffuse all of life is the way to become “a city set on a hill” for others.
How will you this day, be salt and light?
How will you this day flavor and preserve and shine so that God will be glorified?
For at such time as we are able to do so, we will realize God’s promises, as spoken through the Prophet Isaiah, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.” Amen.