Matthew 5: 13-20
When I was in elementary school, my father and I had a coin collection; we shared the passion of looking for and categorizing coins. Many of them went in cardboard sleeves in a protective book. What I remember most was him saying to me either, “We need more light in here!” or “Will you see if you can read that date?” When I read the date to him, he’d say, “You have good eyes!” I’d beamed at him through my horn rimmed glasses I’d worn since 3rd grade. I didn’t have good eyes as much as I had young eyes. When we were on the church cruise last week, Mary Ann pulled out her phone light to read many menus, as did a number of other passengers. As we age, we especially appreciate good lighting. Just last week I went to the store and came home with my sunglasses on, having set down my regular glasses. “My glasses are in this house somewhere!” I declared. I began to look for them in the house, but with sunglasses on, everything was dark. When I took my sunglasses off for brightness, everything was very blurry. Getting older has its challenges!
Jesus said two interesting lines in his Sermon on the Mount on which I want to focus today. One is, “You are the salt of the earth.” The other is, “You are the light of the world.” Stephen Schwartz, in his musical “Godspell” based on Matthew 5-7, worded them this way: “You are the salt of the earth; but if that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got much in its favor. You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.” Rhymes are great ways to remember verses. Here is the other wording from “Godspell:” “You are the light of the world. But if that light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. You gotta stay bright to be the light of the world!”
Let’s talk about light first. Jesus has entrusted his followers with sharing his light in the world. It was the late Rev. Peter Marshall, who I mentioned in our Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service, who said he couldn’t stand the painters who depicted Christ as gentle, slender, and weak. As he said, the Christ of the gospels was rugged, a carpenter, a man’s man, one who could stand toe to toe with anyone. Jesus was a bright hot light against injustice, arrogance, and corruption. I believe Jesus deliberately said, in his early in his ministry, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12.) But here, in his pep-talk, he shifted his words to tell the crowd: “You are the light of the world.” You know that old style flashlights I showed our children today? And the new style? I can’t believe that Jesus wants us to be light in the world like old dim bulbs. What good are those? They add almost nothing to our ability to see. It’s like asking coal miners to go down into their mine with no light or asking submersibles to go deep underwater in darkness. I can now tell many cars that are older when I encounter them on the road at night; their headlights are cloudy and dim! Jesus, like us, has no use for people to take his light into the world without his original brightness! “You are the light of the world!” he said. Dim lights, darkened by not getting recharged in Bible Studies or sermons, can do little to change the world. And the messages from the world can put shades or filters on his “Light.” How do you take the pure light of Christ to others? First, know your Bible and what Jesus said, so others cannot make you doubt what you believe. I really don’t see how people can charge their light by just attending a Christmas or Easter service. Second, let the light be used not just to illumine, but also to transform. We ask others to follow Jesus, not just to know about him. Virtually everyone Christ encountered came away changed. Our lights grow dim if we equivocate the message of light by letting the world put a bushel of doubt over it. On the years we’ve had Confirmation Classes, we asked those young teenagers to stand before the congregation and answer this question: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” I their answer was “Jesus Christ,” we asked them to say it in a loud voice. Sometimes adults reaffirm their faith and they timidly respond with “Jesus?” No! As one man enthusiastically said when I asked him, “Do you believe Jesus is your Lord and Savior?” he responded “Sure! Don’t everybody?” Such wonderful innocence. No, everybody doesn’t. But others will not be persuaded to consider Christ as their Savior by people who shrug, whisper, or nod their answers. Be the light of Christ to others.
Here is the other line Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth.” These days that message can lose its punch. We can go pick up a pound of salt for less than a dollar. But salt also was used not just as a seasoning, but also as a preservative. With no refrigeration, meats that were salted would last longer. So, if we are to preserve something, what might that be? I’m struck by the historical words presidential nominees have declared on their election day as they raised their right hand and said: “I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I hope you heard that in that oath those who crafted it believed in preserving the Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson himself who amplified the use of that word when he wrote to John Adams on September 12, 1821 saying: “”Should the clouds of barbarism and despotism (despotism is when a country’s ruler holds absolute power) again obscure the science and libraries of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” We would do well to still be guided by the Founding Fathers words. There are others in our world who also seek to preserve things; think of the Amish, who seek to preserve their way of life. Think of conservationists, who seek to preserve the forests or the seas. I also think of the jars of preserves my grandmother used to keep in her cellar, allowing fruit canned “in season” to be preserved and eaten out of season. Could Jesus be asking his listeners to preserve his teachings so they could be told to others? You may know that salt becomes useless once it is polluted with dirt. Jesus might say: “Keep the words I gave you preserved and pure; then they will always have their original meaning and potency.” We need to preserve the message of Jesus so that it can always be offered to new generations with the same power and potency. Here’s an example of how to preserve the faith.
One of my ordination questions proposed the following situation: youth leaders were going on a weekend retreat were asked by the youth if they could have Pizza and Cokes and treat it like a communion meal. The question ended with these words: “Give your answer and defend it.” Here was my answer: to make pizza and coke into the Sacrament of Holy Communion would fail to preserve the faith. Jesus had specific words: Lifting bread he said, “take eat, this is my body, broken for you.” “And “this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” Through the years people have used unleavened bread, leavened bread, and gluten free bread, but they have still used bread. During prohibition, most Protestant churches changed from using wine to grape juice; some have changed back and some haven’t. A preacher in a country church was explaining what I just explained to you and then he added, “In Jesus’ day, our Savior certainly used wine.” A woman in the congregation scowled at him. He saw it and asked: “What’s the matter Mrs. Jones? Didn’t you know that Jesus used wine at the Last Supper? “Yes,” she retorted, and then said in a loud voice, “And I’ve never forgiven him for it!!”
We seek to preserve the sacraments that Jesus told us to continue doing until he comes again, and to see that the message is not polluted by the world. Be light! Be salt! Jesus needs us—the body of Christ—to carry his message with conviction and purity of purpose. Then we can change this darkened world with his light and bring the original precious message of Jesus that was preached on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the United States of America and beyond. Make it so!
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 9, 2020