5th Sunday After Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a). Jesus used two memorable metaphors of grace in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I don’t thing modern people really know what he meant. Sure, maybe you’ve experienced what athletes call “hitting the wall,” so you know how awful it feels for your body to run out of sodium. Here in Chicago we all know how good it feels to finally come into some sunlight. But in a time when salt and light are both cheap and abundant, much of Jesus’ meaning gets lost in translation
Reading a two-thousand-year-old book requires us to take a step back in time. We must ask what the plain meaning of Jesus’ words would have been to those who first heard them. How does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ message to think back to a world in which salt and light were precious and rare?
In the movie Castaway, the character played by Tom Hanks is sitting in a private jet clicking a butane lighter on and off, on and off, over and over. He is flying home after years alone on a deserted island where he survived a mid-ocean plane crash only after many miserable attempts and with great effort by learning to make fire. Firelight was the only light humans could make in Jesus’ day right up to the recent past of the industrial age. Light came primarily from the sun, moon, and stars. But, Jesus said, you and I are light too.
Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” It was used in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, to disinfect wounds, stimulate thirst, treat skin diseases, and seal religious covenants. Roman soldiers got paid in salt—hence our English word, salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals. And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)
Salt and light are precious. Modern people miss out hearing much of Jesus’ message in world where salt and light are cheap and plentiful. Imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt and light. “Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount. The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened. The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. (Debie Thomas)
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah helps sketch out Jesus’ meaning a little further. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You are the salt to make life savory when you see the naked and cover them. Your light shines in the world when you do not hide yourself from your own kin. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8a) You are salt and light.
This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food. By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.
Now 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Civil rights movement fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.
Many slaves freed after the Civil War lived into the 1940s. Their stories are preserved in a work called, “Unchained Memories,” about the daily horrors of slave life from those who lived to tell of it — included relentless work, horrendous housing and diet, the denial of education, sexual violence, and even religious violence. They tell how their “slave masters” hoped to use the Christian gospel to keep slaves passive.
It is one of the most counter-intuitive facts of our history that blacks adopted the religion of their white oppressors, a religion used as a weapon in their oppression. It was because the slaves, like the first disciples before them, weak and downtrodden as they were, heard and saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They heard Jesus say that they were salt and light. Their lives had dignity and meaning beyond their economic worth. They were precious. They were siblings in Christ regardless where they came from or who their family was.
Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Kim phoo fan tea) is 58 and living outside Toronto, Canada. She is a well-known author and activist of children who have experienced trauma, but that’s not why she’s famous. There was a time when everyone in America, regardless of age, would recognize her photo. It’s an iconic image hard to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm near her village.
Third degree burns covered 50 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live. After 14-months in the hospital and 17 surgical procedures, including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. Yet because her skin doesn’t have any pores she cannot sweat. It makes her feel tired. She has headaches. She lives with pain every day. “It filled me up with hatred, bitterness and anger,” she said. (Kim Phuc’s Brief But Spectacular Take on pain and forgiveness, PBS Newshour)
Ten years after her ordeal, she wanted to take her own life, because she said, “I thought after I die no more suffer no more pain.” It was Christmas that year when somehow, she stumbled on a copy of the New Testament in the library in Saigon and read it and became a Christian. She says that, “Since I have faith, my enemies list became my prayer list.” She realized that praying for her enemies meant to love them. She said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you? (Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008) Kim Phuc’s
We are salt and light. “Jesus’ words are about who we are and what we do. How we do it and the effectour lives may have upon the wider world. The salt and light in you can never be stolen from you, beaten out of you, or spoiled even by your own misdeeds. You are imbued with the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, and growth leads to personal and global transformation. Salt and light, Jesus said. This is the source of your dignity. This is the source of your power.” (Debie Thomas)
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a benediction upon the whole world. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude, nor latitude that divides all living things from the blessings bestowed by God. As in highest heaven so it is also on earth. We are siblings in Christ—children of salt and light.