This is the manuscript version of a sermon preached Sunday, February 5, 2017 at Bellwood and St. Luke’s United Methodist Churches. It is the second in a series on the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the first. This sermon is based on Matthew 5:13-20.
Today, we continue in our sermon series exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. As we look at this week’s passage, I invite us to remember the main questions we’re asking of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: 1) What does Jesus show us about the character and kingdom of God? And 2) What does Jesus show us about how to live into the kingdom of God?
Last week, we looked at the Beatitudes as Jesus’s descriptions of the kingdom of God, rather than prescriptions on how to live. Crowds of people on Jesus’ culture’s fringes – those who were in need of healing, those who were diseased, and those who were suffering – had gathered around to hear him, and, presumably, await healing. Jesus proclaimed that God blesses them – regardless of their perceived worth or merit for such blessing. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated that God’s kingdom, of which they are a part, is one of blessing and inclusion.
This is one way to read the Beatitudes that emphasizes our first question of what God and God’s kingdom is like. However, we should hear in these descriptions an invitation to live into this kingdom of blessing, which starts to get at our question of what it looks like to be God’s kingdom people. As Jesus continues in the Sermon on the Mount, he begins to blend descriptive statements and prescriptive instructions. Today’s passage begins this shift.
Immediately after proclaiming a wide-reaching blessing, Jesus calls the people in the crowds a couple of interesting names. He tells them, “You are the salt of the earth,” and then he says, “You are the light of the world.” As I read this, it brought up two different questions for me, and, because we’re hearers of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I’m assuming that we can hear Jesus as saying these things to us. First, what did they or we do to be called “salt” and “light?” And second, what does it mean for them and us to be “salt” and “light?”
We are, as a nation, do-ers. We are people who value hard work, diligence, and individual freedom. We hear Jesus call others “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” and two things almost simultaneously flash through our minds: optimistic determination and self-doubting despair. We hear him say they’re salt and light and we think, “Okay, tell me the steps to be salt and light and I’ll get it done,” because we assume the myth of the self-made person, of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Or, we hear him call people salt and light in such an honorable tone and we think, “I could never be salt and light; I’m just not good enough, I’m not holy, and I don’t know what to say or how to do it,” and we doubt ourselves.
But in this, let’s think about that crowd again. They didn’t go through a set of entrance exams at the mount amphitheater. They didn’t all confess Jesus as their personal Lord and savior – nobody was doing that in his first weeks in ministry. And only a small group of them had left their other jobs to follow him as his disciples. Jesus called them all salt and light as an act of grace, an act of God’s love.
The crowd didn’t do anything to be blessed as salt and light. It was an act of God’s prevenient grace. This is an idea central to United Methodist’s understanding of God’s saving activity in the world – which we call “grace.” Prevenient grace is the idea that God’s grace goes before us, drawing us toward Jesus and bringing us to a point at which we can confess to follow and believe in Jesus as our savior – our way to live in connection with God. (This point of choosing to confess and follow Jesus is what Wesley called justifying grace.)
Jesus is talking to crowds of folks who haven’t done anything particular to receive Jesus’ blessing of being salt and light. Yet, Jesus says they’re salt and light. They didn’t choose to follow Jesus and then miraculously become salty. Jesus didn’t have a receiving line in which, after each person filed by and pledged allegiance, he blessed them with light. Jesus is making a claim about whom God created them to be, and how God has already worked in their lives. They are salt. They are light. And, as hearers of his sermon, so are we.
And this brings us to our second question: “What does it mean to be salt and light?” In calling us salt of the earth and light of the world, Jesus has shown us God’s prevenient – going before us – grace. Jesus has shown us God, but here, we need to be careful. If our image of God only benefits us, then our image of God is too small. Salt is best used for the benefit of something else: food. Salt doesn’t sit on my shelf and think, “Oh, I’m so good and salty. I’m glad Matt just leaves me here to sit next to the other spices.” Instead, salt is best when it’s used, for my food and the food of all who eat with me. Salt benefits something beyond itself. Similarly, light is good in relation to its usefulness. I don’t leave my closet light on all day thinking, “I’m sure the light will like being on, in there all alone.” Instead, we turn the lights on so that we can see, so that we can do the things of life, so that we can function. Light benefits others.
So, when Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” he’s saying, by God’s grace, we have a mission for the good of others. And this brings us to Wesley’s third type of grace: sanctifying grace. This is the process through which God makes us holy, righteous, and Christ-like. This idea of God’s activity connects the first half of today’s passage to the second half, in which Jesus talks about the Jewish Law (or Torah) and righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. If the first part of the passage is about God’s grace going before us and giving us a mission, the second part is about sanctifying grace – about God making us holy and Christ-like. In talking about righteousness, Jesus is showing us the natural progression of life. First, we begin to recognize that God blesses us – simply because that’s who God is – and gives us a mission to be salt and light. Then, as we commit to follow Jesus, God forms us more and more like Jesus. God empowers us to be salt and light for the good of others.
So, we might ask, “How do we embrace being salty and light?” The list of ways we’ve seen this enacted in our community is long, but here are a couple. We are salt and light when we support the backpack program and provide for other needs of the public school children. We are salt and light when we make an effort to cheer on and encourage students in every aspect of their lives from activities to academics to church involvement. We are salt and light when we invite others to bible study or worship. We are salt and light when we offer someone a fair, honest, transparent deal. We are salt and light when we befriend those new to the community and when we help families engage in worship together. We are salt and light when we support ministries like Genesis House and Epworth Village. We are salt and light when our compassion for others leads us to participate in, support, and lead community programs. We are salt and light when we check on people who are homebound.
Each of us interacts with different people on a daily basis. Each night at our dinner table, our family asks three questions, one of which is this: “Who’d you help today?” It’s been a challenge to remember that we exist for sharing God’s grace. I wonder if it would make a difference if we consciously approached each day with this prayer:
Jesus let me be your salt, enriching the lives of others; let me be light that reveals your presence for others.
Jesus blesses us with a mission and empowers us to share God’s grace with others, in every facet of our lives. The challenge is for us to remember who we are: we are salt and light for the good of others. Jesus blesses us with a mission to be salt and light as we become more like him. And Jesus empowers us to share God’s grace with others, at every step of the way. May we live into who God has already created us to be: salt and light for others.
In preaching this sermon at St. Luke’s, I included the following story by David Lose from his essay, “God Bless You.“
When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers, Dr. Cleophus LaRue, would regularly address me as “Dr. Lose.” Eventually it made me uncomfortable enough that I said to him, “But Dr. LaRue, I haven’t earned my doctorate yet. I don’t think you should call me that.” “Dr. Lose,” he patiently responded, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be!” Blessing. Unexpected, unsettling, nearly inconceivable, yet blessing nonetheless. [emphasis added]
I included this story as an example of claiming or believing in God’s sanctifying grace that continues to transform us throughout our lives. Dr. Lose’s story expresses God’s naming of us, which includes not only who we’ve been and who we are, but also who, in God’s time, we can become by God’s grace – with God’s help.