February 5, 2017
“Salt and Light”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
There once was an eight year old girl named Gillian who was awful at school. Her mother would get these notes sent home from school: Gillian fidgets all the time, she can’t sit still, she disturbs the other children, she can’t concentrate, she turns in homework late, we think she has a learning disorder.
There is something wrong with her.
Her mother took her to a specialist and Gillian sat there for 20 minutes, sitting on her hands, barely able to hold still while the doctor interviewed her and her mother about all her problems.
Finally the doctor sat down next to Gillian and said, “I’ve listened to everything your mother has told me and now I need to speak to her privately. Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long.”
As he left the room, the doctor turned on a radio that was sitting on his desk.
They went out in the hallway and the doctor said to her mother, “Just watch her” and the instant they had left Gillian was up on her feet, moving to the music.
After a few minutes the doctor turned to her mother and said, “Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to dance school.”
Gillian later told the story, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist.
Gillian Lynne graduated from the Royal Ballet School, founded her own dance company and became a choreographer, met Andrew Lloyd Webber and she’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.
She’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire.
Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.
There is a remarkable change that happens within us when we are told something completely different about ourselves –
when someone calls us a dancer,
or tells us we are graceful,
when we are told that we are creative or artistic and we never saw ourselves that way,
when we are named as funny or friendly or good-hearted, suddenly we see that we are, and when we do something we think, “I am creative, agile, well-spoken, brave.”
And, sadly, the reverse is true too. We can put on, like coats, the terrible things that people call us.
We’ve talked before about how important it is for us to get into God’s story, because the more we do, the more it gets into us.
That’s why we’ve started including a daily scripture reading for your non-Sunday days on the back of the bulletin. The more you get into God’s story, the more it gets into you.
I’m now knee deep into my spring semester of my doctor of ministry program and the book we’ve been reading spends pages and pages carefully dissecting how different theologians, different thinkers understand scripture, and the conclusion the author comes to after 200 pages of this is, that scripture works in our lives and in our church life in so many different ways.
And perhaps you already realized that (and lucky you, you did not need to read this book!), but what a remarkable gift the Bible is to us – the way it can move us and speak to us and read us and question us, and sometimes make us confused and concerned, but also speak to the deepest parts of our spirits.
This week has been dizzying, but for me, personally, sitting down and reading the daily lectionary readings, the four or five passages assigned for each day, it was like feeling grounded and whole again. So let me encourage you in this practice.
Back to Jesus, giving his big, long sermon on the mount.
Let’s place ourselves next to Jesus, and see what he sees, and to do that we need to go back a bit to before the beginning of chapter five in Matthew’s gospel. We are told that Jesus travels far and wide and encounters a great many people, people suffering from every kind of disease and sickness under the sun – therefore, he saw the poorest, the loneliest, the unloved and unwanted.
And he made them whole again. And great crowds followed him. And he goes up on a mountainside and from there he can see them all.
And what does he see?
He sees a people who have been oppressed – people who have been told they are less than, that they don’t belong, that God has forgotten them and abandoned them, every time they have tried to take back their power they have been crushed.
They are lost, like sheep without a shepherd.
And we see them with Jesus eyes, and feel compassion. Deep compassion.
These people need to be told a different story, given a new identity, just like when a child who thought she was a problem is told she is a dancer.
And Jesus says to them (my paraphrase here), “You are blessed. You might not quite believe me, but you are. And you might not believe me because no one has told you this before.
You are blessed. You thought you were weak, and that meant you were nothing. You thought that because you owned little, God had turned his back on you.
You thought because you got sick, that God had walked away.
You thought those good things you did, being merciful, not hurting back when you got hurt, being good and kind in small ways, you thought all these things meant nothing in the big scheme of things but they mean everything.
You are blessed. And not in some future time, but right now.”
And then the passage we read today follows right afterward and it just follows so perfectly that it is a shame we had to divide these verses up between last week and this week.
Jesus tells them something new, “You thought you were the problem, but you are blessed, and more than that – you are salt and you are light.”
One pastor blogged about his experience singing and dancing in his church’s production of Godspell. There is a song in Godspell called “You are the light of the World”
So in the production that the pastor was in, the actor playing Jesus walks out into the audience and has people stand up one by one so that the whole cast can sing to them, “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the city of God.” Finally, he found one last woman. She was sitting near the back, and they sang one more time, “You are the light of the world.”
The pastor writes, “After the show a woman approached me. She told me that she had a great time. She loved the music, and she was so glad she could come.
For years, she told me, she had a Playbill from the original Broadway production. She also had an album she had never played. For years she had kind of wondered what Godspell was, and when she saw us in the paper, she decided on a whim to come check it out.
I told her how happy I was that she was there, and invited her to come again to worship with us.
The next day I was talking to our head usher about what a great experience the show was. We were marveling at the amount of people that came, and how many people came that were not a part of our church.
I told him about the woman I talked to after the show, and he quickly realized that he knew who I was talking about.
“Yeah, I was talking to her at intermission. She seemed like she was looking for something, and I wanted to help her. I saw her and said, ‘You are the light of the world,’ she was one of the people that you guys sang to when [Jesus] got her to stand up.’”
She kind of laughed when I said that,” Tom told me. “And then she said, ‘No one has ever called me that before.’”
In the past I’ve always read Jesus’ words as if he was giving some kind of command which I would likely never be able to live up to, “Be the Light” and “Be the Salt.” You must work at these things, become these things. But it isn’t true.
Jesus is telling his followers and us what we already are, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.”
We don’t need to become something new, we need to see what we already are, uncover what is already there, and live it because it is true.
You are the salt of the earth.
There are so many layers of meaning to salt.
We can reach back through scripture to find them (and this is something we should do, by the way).
We read back to Leviticus and find that salt has to do with making sacrifices and we reach back to Numbers and find that salt has do with promises between us and God and being loyal to one another, and we find there that eating together was called “sharing salt” and that salt had to do with the things that hold us together, that bind us together in relationship.
And we reach back to 2 Kings and find that salt had to do with purification, with making things good and whole again, and we reach back to Job and find that salt bring flavor and life to things, and salt is a preservative – the thing that keeps things from going really bad.
Friends, this week I feel like I have been carrying a heavy burden.
My heart aches for the divisions in our nation, for the ways we speak about one another, our distrust and our judgement of one another and I hear God speak through these words to this very moment in our history together, this very moment in our lives.
You are the salt of the earth, we are the salt of the earth.
We can do this – when we want to drift apart from the people who sit next to us in the pews, or who live next door to us, or who share blood with us, when we want to push people away, Christ says, “You are the salt of the earth” – you are the thing that can keep promises and hold relationships together – you are the thing that can preserve this whole thing from going sour.
You are the salt of the earth. Hear it and believe it and live it. Amen.