Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:13-14). Salt and light are your superpower. They are reflections within you of God’s ever-present grace.
Living in times of plenty, we take salt and light for granted. In the ancient world, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. 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. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20) And, of course, less than 150 years ago, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, made light nearly ubiquitous.
The first lesson to draw from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is 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.
Imagine how Jesus’s first followers might have understood being called salt and light. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. You, the poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened. The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, and the demon possessed. (Debie Thomas) We are salt and light. 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, to grow in generosity and wisdom which leads to personal and global transformation. (Debie Thomas)
The first lesson we draw out today is a benediction. The second is an answer to the question, who are my siblings in Christ? How will I know them if not by outward identifiers such as religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or color? The answer? Taste and see. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You become salt which makes life delicious 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…” says the prophet, Isaiah (Isaiah 58:8a). Taste and see. Your siblings are salt and light.
Paul’s meditation on the crucified Christ encourages us to learn from Jesus’ death what it is to be truly human. Truly human persons—grafted into the self-giving death of Christ—live differently in the world, according to “the Spirit that is given by God” (verse 12). The new human person in Christ is relocated in a large extended family embracing the whole neighborhood, including even the entire planet.
Yet another lesson we may take to heart is how to distinguish between good, as opposed to bad, religion. The righteousness of the holy exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, not by hairsplitting moralism or competition in good works, but through guidance of the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). We begin to approach the same capacity to act and to give, even as Jesus gave himself for the world. By contrast, any attempts to follow the way of Jesus that promotes violence, exclusion, racial, or national supremacy, and does not love neighbor has lost its saltiness and labors in shadow. Any religion which denies the grace of God reflected among outsiders has strayed from the way. Once our religion can no longer meet the test of its own ideals of love or justice –is not good. It’s failed. It’s this bad religion that is driving people to leave the church. Tragically, they flee, not to different congregations, or more enlightened denominations, but out of the church entirely.
Freedom of conscience. Uncoerced faith. Religious pluralism. These are evidence of good religion which tastes of salt and light. Despite the fact, admittedly, it can only ever be lived and embodied by flawed and broken people, good religion results in human flourishing. By this measure, the institutional decline from the 1950’s we all lament when everyone was in church maybe isn’t all bad. We should be less threatened by ongoing de-centering of Christianity, as in for example, the scheduling of children’s soccer games on Sunday—than by those now working to re-establish their own narrow version of religion through the exercise of political power and by rulings of the supreme court.
The War in Ukraine is but the most dramatic and violent example of this rip current of bad religion trying to bring a nation that wants to move toward democratic pluralism and freedom of conscience and say to them, ‘No. You will be Russian, You will be Russian orthodox. You will speak the Russian language—and by the way, you women will return to your proper subordinate position, and you queer people will fly straight or be eliminated. Likewise, the so-called freedom from indoctrination law playing out in Florida today has outed itself for what it really is—indoctrination. (Homebrewed Christianity, Welcome to the Post-Christian Century: Diana Butler Bass & Bill Leonard in conversation, 2/1/23)
The people of God are salt and light. Good religion does not fail Jesus’ test of loving neighbors and enacting mercy. Taste and see. One of the greatest and most inspirational Christian men of the 20th century was not a Christian, but a Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi. This January 30th marked the 75th anniversary of his death. Jesus disciple, Mahatma Gandhi, tasted of salt and suffering love. Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt. Indian citizens were forced to buy it from their British rulers, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also charged a heavy salt tax. Gandhi identified Britain’s monopoly on salt as a symbolic key to India’s freedom.
Marching 240 miles to the sea, Gandhi inspired tens of thousands of Indians to protest this unjust law with him. Picking up a pinch of salt from beside the sea, Gandhi was arrested. Hundreds more were beaten as they advanced on salt works. 60,000 people were arrested and Britain’s rule over India was in effect ended. On the eve of this freedom campaign, Gandhi said, “Mass civil disobedience will not come if those who have been hitherto the loudest in their cry for liberty have no action in them. If the salt loses its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?”
Taste and see. You are salt and light. That is our superpower. United in Christ, God fill us with these good gifts again and again to renew us in body and soul in order to love and serve one another as our Lord Jesus enables us to do.