Salt & Light
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 9, 2020
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
It seems that Isaiah is dealing with a real conundrum. Imagine a preacher/prophet who’s leading a congregation and every Sabbath he looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every modern-day preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this, right? Well, evidently that is not the case for God is quite distressed at the people’s shenanigans. Yes, they’re crying out to God, fasting and praying, but they’re doing it for their own selfish motives. While their religion looks tasty from the outside, it’s really a recipe for a rotten life—lacking flavor, lacking purpose.
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks, who went for a walk one day in the forest. Before long she happened upon a house. She knocked on the door, but no one answered so she walked right in. On the table there were three bowls of porridge which looked and smelled delicious to Goldilocks, who was, by then, rather hungry. So, she tasted the porridge in the first bowl but was taken aback, “Oh, this is terrible. It has no flavor at all.” Then she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “Yuck! This porridge is too salty. Who could possibly eat this?” Finally, she tasted the last bowl of porridge and proclaimed with great delight, “Ah, this porridge is just right,” so she ate it all up.
In this adapted beginning of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, clearly, salt matters: too little leaves a dish empty of flavor, too much makes it inedible. But just right—well, that makes all the difference in the world.
Matthew’s gospel again places us in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that begins, we noted last week, with words of blessing. Now Jesus turns to the matter at hand which is how to live into a blessed life—how to live holy lives—how to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God. To all those gathered around, Jesus proclaims, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” To say that believers are the salt of the earth implies that we are to bring flavor and healing to the world. To say that believers are the light of the world indicates we are to help others see a ray of hope in the midst of darkness.
In Advent Readings from Iona, I happened upon an amazing story that goes like this:
A boy lived in an isolated house on a hill. A God-forsaken place for a young man. But one thing fascinated him. Each night he would look out into the darkness and see a light. It was far away on a hilltop, but this sign of life gave him hope.
One day he decided to go in search of it. It was a long and lonely walk, and it was already dark before he reached the outskirts of a town. Tired and hungry, he knocked at the first door he came to, and explained his search for the mysterious light that had always given him hope.
“I know!” replied the woman who had answered the door. “It gives me hope as well.” And she pointed back in the direction from which he had come. There on the horizon, was a single light shining. A sign of life in the darkness. The light from his own home.[i]
You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.
As a pastor, I wrestle with what it means for us to be salt and light for one another and for our community. Undeniably, the level of stress and dis-ease around us is skyrocketing. Listen to friends, family, coworkers, teenagers, parents, grandparents—people are anxious. What are we to do? What is the church to do?
Reflecting on this weekend, it is easy to see how we are saying yes to Christ’s invitation to be salt and light for the world. As a church with a little less than 100 active members, we went out into the community to host the 24th Annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance for 3700 people. We prayed. We baked. We carried to and fro. We blew up balloons. We greeted. We checked coats. We scanned tickets. We handed out t-shirts. We poured beverages. We set out cookies and cookies and more cookies. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. In addition, we hosted the First Friday Contemplative Service—a worship opportunity that draws folks from our church as well as those in our community who are Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and even some who have no affiliation to a church. Together, we prayed and sang and examined Scripture and sat in silence and dined at Christ’s table. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. And if that is not enough, yesterday we met for Pub Theology at Georgia Beer Co. Routinely, strangers find us on Facebook or via the newspaper, and they are curious about this brave ministry the Presbyterians have dared to bring to Valdosta. This week’s discussion was on Kobe Bryant, the Halftime show, Christology, and the Coronavirus—so, as you can imagine—our conversation was lively. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.
Surely, there are people in our community who are looking for hope. Will they find it because of us? Will they find it among us? One woman, who was hesitant to be a part of a faith community, tells the story of why she began attending a church—a place that ultimately became essential to her life. She writes,
Once I began going to church, the age-old religious rituals marking the turning of the year deepened and gave a fuller meaning to the cycle of the seasons and my own relation to them. The year was not only divided now into winter, spring, summer, and fall but was marked by the expectation of Advent, leading up to the fulfillment of Christmas, followed by Lent, the solemn prelude to the coming of the dark anguish of Good Friday that is transformed in the glory of Easter. Birth and death and resurrection, beginnings and endings and renewals, were observed and celebrated in ceremonies whose experience made me feel I belonged—not just to a neighborhood and a place, but to a larger order of things, a universal sequence of life and death and rebirth…
Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems—if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time—but it gave me a sense of living in a large context, of being a part of something greater than I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential.[ii]
You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. Regarding your faith, what is essential to you? What brings you hope? Where are you nourished when your soul needs refreshment? I hope you find something you need here in the church, and I hope that by being here, you are inspired to be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever you go.
Imagine a preacher who is leading a congregation and every Sunday she looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and singing and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this! As the body of Christ in this place and time, we have the ability and the privilege to point people to Jesus. And churches great and small have a part to play. Oh, we will do it differently—that’s part of the tapestry of God’s beautiful plan. But if being just right in the eyes of God is our goal—if we want to be salt—we need to taste the dish we are serving up. If we want to be light—we need to be open to new ways of sharing the gospel. It’s a tall order, but with the love of God, the example of Christ, and the strength of the Holy Spirit, the church has been equipped to fill it. Oh, that God would gaze lovingly upon First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta and proclaim, “Not too little—not too much—but just right!”
[i] Brian Woodcock & Jan Sutch Pickard, Advent Readings from Iona, December 17 reading.
[ii] Dan Wakefield in Returning, quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 478-9.
*Cover Art “Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain