February 9, 2020, Ya’ll Are the Light of the World, Matthew 5:13-20 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon click here: Z0000177
In 1630. John Winthrop, who was a Puritan lawyer and Governor of the newly established Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave a famous sermon that is generally known as the “City on a Hill” sermon – taken, of course, from Jesus’s words in the gospel of Matthew that we just read.
“[T]he only way to avoid [the shipwreck of God’s wrath], and to provide for our posterity,” Winthrop wrote, “is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. ”
Winthrop gets a lot of things right in this sermon, clearly. He envisions a community of mutual sacrifice, righteousness, justice and faith. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, saying “You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world, the city set on a hill” surely Jesus had those very qualities in mind that Winthrop was talking about – all those attributes Paul identifies as the “fruit of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.” Jesus would surely agree that being the salt of the earth and the light of the world means to delight in each other, to make each others’ conditions our own, to rejoice together, to mourn together, to labor and suffer together.
The problem with Winthrop’s sermon is not so much how he understood what it means to be salt and light. The problem is that when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Winthrop heard it as a political statement. As one of the founding fathers of this new colony in a brave new world, Winthrop heard the words of Jesus as a mandate to form what would be basically a new Israel, a government established on God’s principles, a political entity that would be an example to the world, both in righteousness, but also in power because it would have the backing of God himself.
And Winthrop’s idea of a Christian nation is something that became embedded in the DNA of the American Church. We have struggled from the very beginning – from before the beginning, really – to disentangle the cords of Church and state. Winthrop’s mindset is at work today wherever the Church seeks to be a Christian influence by acquiring political – and financial – power, in order to enforce what they see as “Christian” values.
The problem, of course, is that instead of bringing about the reign of God on earth, his people have ended up at war with one another. One “side” targets issues like abortion and sexual immorality. The other “side” targets issues like poverty and inequality. And the end result right now seems to be a fragmented Church, using the strategies of the world as weapons against our brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of a city on a hill, enlightening the world, and giving glory to God.
I want to look closely today at what Jesus said, so that we can better understand what he is saying to us, as his Church. First of all, when Jesus says “You,” the “You” is plural. He is not speaking to individual lone-ranger Christians, shining their lonely little light and sprinkling their particular grain of salt by way of being Christ in the world. In a time when the Church has done and is doing so much to discredit herself, it is a powerful temptation for God’s people to think it would be better to go it alone. And we are, of course, always responsible to be faithful as individual Christians. We have each a unique gift and a unique calling in response to the love of God. But Winthrop got it right when he envisioned a faithful community. “You all,” Jesus said, “if we were Southerners we’d have the helpful plural pronoun “y’all” to translate this idea – y’all are the salt of the earth. Y’all are the light of the world.”
Surely Jesus used the image of a city intentionally here. We’ve all had the experience of driving down a dark highway at night. And then you notice a pinkish glow in the sky, distant lights reflected on the low-hanging clouds in the sky. And then, suddenly, a blaze of city lights comes into view; the collective life of some big city. Jesus was drawing us a picture of a collective gathering of people and not just isolated individuals – what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he talked about the Church as “the beloved community.” Jesus was speaking of his beloved community, which isn’t a human community empowered by political influence and big money. It’s a community of God’s children infused with the divinely transformative power of His love.
Jesus always chose his images carefully, purposefully, skillfully. He chose the two images of salt and light to describe the relationship of his beloved community to the world around it. So it is important for us to think about what exactly salt and light do; why they are important, and how they work. In our time it’s hard to grasp, I think, just what was so special about salt. Salt is so readily available to modern man that most of us have to take pains to avoid having too much of it. But in ancient times salt was a precious commodity. Salt was considered one of the essential elements necessary for life. And even though we are over-supplied with salt in our day, we know why it was so important. It was treasured for adding flavor to food – and if you’ve ever been on a salt-free diet and had to eat your eggs without salt you understand that pretty well. And we know salt was also needed as a preservative in a culture without many other methods of keeping meats and other perishable foods from spoiling.
The great value of salt, then, is that it is different from the elements around it. Salt enhances the flavor of foods because they aren’t salty; it adds something new and different. Salt preserves meat because when it is sprinkled on fresh meat it draws out the water molecules and replaces them with salt molecules, which inhibits the natural process of the meat breaking down and rotting, as it would naturally do, especially in a hot climate. Salt is valuable because it’s different.
On the other hand, salt is no good to anybody if it stays in the shaker. Salt only enhances the flavor of foods if it interacts with the foods. Salt only preserves meat if the molecules interact with the molecules of the meat. Salt is only good if it is unique – Jesus said it himself, if salt isn’t salty, what good is it to anybody? But salt is only useful in interaction with others. That begins to give us a pretty good picture of what Jesus is saying about his beloved community. If Christians are indistinguishable from the rest of the world, if we’re just another political group out there lobbying for our own special interests, we have lost our saltiness – we are of no use to anybody. But if we huddle inside the four walls of our holy buildings to keep ourselves pure – then we are also of no use.
In the same way, the power of light lies in its opposition to darkness. A lit candle in a brightly-lighted room is barely noticeable. But that same candle, in a dark closet, shines light into every corner.. Open that same dark closet door into a sunlit room and the light comes flooding in every time. You’ll never find the darkness pouring out into the room and quenching the sunshine. So, just as salt is salt because it is different from everything that is not salty, light is light because it is other than darkness. But the image of light adds an extra dimension to what Jesus is saying, because light is infinitely more powerful than darkness.
Furthermore, Jesus tells us, what crazy person would light a lamp in a room and plop a bowl over the top of it? Then the room would be just as dark as it was before the lamp was lit. Just like salt, then, the power of light comes from its interaction with the darkness. Light is light; that’s the nature of it. But it is of no use at all when it is hidden away. Light is only useful when it shines out, banishing the darkness.
So, we are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We, here at St. Philip’s, along with St. Andrew’s and the Free Methodist Church and the United Churches and every other body of Christ in every time and place of this world: we are the beloved community of Jesus Christ. We are the city set on a hill. And Jesus challenges us today to consider how we’re doing – not so much as individuals, but as a whole community; how salty are we? How shiny? What effect are we having in the world around us, that is so much in need of the unique, salty wisdom of God’s perspective, and the shadow-banishing power of his light? What can we be doing to be saltier and brighter still?
And we can only consider these questions as a community, because the first and foremost mark of our witness to the world around us is how we love and care for one another. Jesus said to his disciples, “All men will know that you are my disciples if you have love, one for another.” We are one family with different backgrounds and political opinions and races and genders and personalities united purely and simply by nothing other than the love of the Father. That is a kind of love that makes us unique in a world where people can only understand banding together in tightly-knit like-minded groups with self-serving agendas. It’s pretty salty.
Being light, then, has something to do with our willingness to go into those places where there is darkness; even into the very strongholds of darkness. What light can we, we St. Philippians, as a little local community of people, bring into the darkness of fear and lies and the them-versus-us mentality that surrounds us? How can we bring light into the poverty of our neighbors, into broken families, into people suffering from mental illness and addictions? There is so much darkness that sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, until we remember the power that one little candle can have in a room full of shadows.
I’ve quoted this before, but it’s worth quoting again, I think: William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the second World War, said of the Church that it is “the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” As God’s adopted children we are no longer citizens of the kingdom of this world; our belonging is not here. We are in this world but not of it, as Paul said. But we have a purpose for being here. We are the salt of the earth when we embody the other-worldly savor of his grace: of forgiveness instead of vengeance, of meekness instead of pride, of service instead power. We are the light of the world when we allow ourselves to be broken on behalf of the world around us, so that the light of Christ can shine through us. “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”