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Salt and Light

St Barnabas Ealing, the 4th Sunday Before Lent, 9 February 2014.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

When I was in advertising we would judge creative ideas by with this adage – don’t tell me, show me. Don’t just tell me that an ice cold Guinness is the reward for those who wait, show me. Show me the transcendent rewards of waiting. Show me patient surfers on a pristine beach in iconic black and white videography. Show me the tension of waiting and watching build to a cathartic moment in which the surfers rush across the sand and dive into the spray. Show me this moment of exhilaration as they are joined by a troop of white stallions in the towering and tumultuous waves. Then show me the joy on their faces as they celebrate the reward of waiting. I’m sure many of you remember this TV commercial. That’s probably because it was created by an ad agency that understood there is always more power in showing than in straight-up telling.

A teacher gives her class a “show and tell” assignment of bringing something to represent their religion.The first child got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.” The second child got in front of her class and said, “My name is Mary, I am Catholic and this is the Crucifix.” The third child got up in front of his class and said, “My name is Frederick and I am Anglican and this is a quiche.”

The Gospel reading we have today uses simple images of salt and light to evoke the power of showing and I want to explore that a little more deeply with you. But before we address the reading itself we must look at its place within the broader context of this Gospel.

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew comes immediately after Jesus has preached the Beatitudes. Now the Beatitudes describe the “what” of Christian discipleship if you like. That is to say, they are the consequences for those who choose the hard path of following Jesus and living against the grain of societies dominant values. Jesus is preaching to a people who are under the ruthless efficiency of Roman control. What’s more, these foreign occupiers have the local religious authorities in their pay.  The Judaism of the second temple tended to be legalistic and quite mechanistic – the purity of religious ritual and practice had taken the ascendance. This created a segregated world in which some people where clean and some people where unclean with nothing much in between. Social redemption was near impossible. So the value system of this culture was a heady cocktail of imperialism, wealth, privilege and self-interest blended together with blind religious legalism and prejudice. The most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the mentally and physically ill – were largely perceived with suspicion. “If this is what has befallen them, then it must be what they deserve. God has punished them in this way.”

So really, the “what” of God’s kingdom outlined in the beatitudes is a revolution, a revolution that overturns almost every sacred cow of the near middle-eastern culture  – those who are poor by virtue of their poverty alone shall become rich, those who are peaceful rather than the powerful will be exalted, those who truly love God will be favoured rather than those who observe faultless but empty religious practice. In preaching the beatitudes Jesus knew full well that he was laying out a manifesto that would threaten both the power of Empire and the Jewish religious authorities. This is a sermon with immediate consequences for the social order.

But if the Beautitudes are the “what”, where do we find the “how” of God’s kingdom? This is where our reading from the Gospel has its place.

The first thing to note is that the tone changes. In these lines Jesus goes from using 3rd person descriptions “Blessed are the poor”, “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are they” and so on, to first person injunctionsYou are the salt of the earth”, “Let your light shine” etc… With this gear change, the listener is given the signal that this is what we are to do, this is how we are to be, to live.

The second thing to note is the choice of metaphors. They are chosen probably because of their prevalence and relevance. Salt would have been an essential part of survival, used to provide flavour to food (especially bread) as well as to preserve it. The images of a city’s lights on a hill or a lamp on its stand pushing back the darkness would have been conjured quite vividly in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. Light like salt is a daily necessity.

Finally, the third thing to note is the order of the metaphors. Jesus begins with the image of salt and then progresses to the image of light. Salt was a very precious thing in the near Middle East. It was at times used as currency and it was common practice in Jewish culture to rub a newborn child in salt as a sign of purity. And yet, for salt to be of any value it needs to combine with what it flavours or preserves. In other words, its work occurs in an invisible but tangible way. It’s tangible because its saltiness is experienced even though it cannot be seen. So it transforms its context for the better, helping to enhance subdued virtues or to preserve existing ones. This is a fitting description of love, the spontaneous but overwhelming desire to invest in the best interests of the other without diminishing anything of one’s own identity.

Jesus directly calls on his listeners to be salt first, a modest but indispensible presence in their context steadily transforming it for the better. But he then directly calls on them to be light. Is this not a contradiction in terms? How can you be both like the self-effacing presence of salt and a city lit-up on a hill drawing attention to itself?

Well, we are called first to be salt and then to be light, in that order. You see, a people who are a presence of transforming love in their context cannot but help manifest God’s goodness. Jesus is pointing out here, once again, that the intention must not be to try and shine with our own generosity and talents but to hand them over to God in ways that resemble the working of salt so that the glory of love shines through us: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We will of course get this wrong. And we also need our work, talents and efforts to be recognised in order to be healthy and fulfilled human beings. But if our highest goal is to be recognised for what we have or what we can do rather than who we are in the lavish love of God, we risk losing our saltiness and worst still obscuring the potential light of our God-given humanity.  To coin a phrase: we must show in order that we may tell.  

Drawing these three characteristics of the reading together I’m suggesting that we are given the “how” of the God’s kingdom in the beatitudes.  The metaphors of salt and light are not just descriptions for us to meditate upon they are instructions to which we are called to respond. The meaning of these metaphors – the everyday extraordinariness of salt and light - should urge us to reconsider how we live and the real nature of our motivations. And the order in which Jesus gives them as well as the unspoken connection that he makes between them should remind us to steer our daily Christian pilgrimage towards the priority of ‘do’ first and ‘speak’ later. Better still, ‘do’ in order that God himself may speak through us.  

The connection between this reading and the beatitudes is incredibly important. The dispensation of justice and peace that Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes is very often reduced to a set of platitudes in Churches. You see, as the followers of Jesus we are called to be his revolutionaries of love. We too live in a world of inequality, injustice, despair and suffering. And am I not just talking here about places abroad like Syria or communities in our own country that are less affluent and seemingly less stable. I am talking about our very own parish. Our neighbourhood. Our street. Our schools. Our lane.  Christ commands us to be salt and light in these places.

Let’s remind ourselves of today’s lesson from Isaiah 58:7: 

Is (this the time) to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

I think the bottom line is this: we are the foot soldiers of Christ’s revolution of love. And in this famous sermon Jesus is saying don’t stand on the Lane proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand if you are not first living it yourself. Are we being salt and light to our neighbours, to the people who we look down upon, whose plight in life we may secretly consider justly deserved?

Who are the widows and the orphans and the poor and the lame and the sick on our doorsteps? It might be a neighbour who you have never met but you know they’ve just lost their spouse. You arrive, unprompted, with a meal. You are being salt and light. A friend who needs a lift to the hospital for eye surgery. You are being salt and light, a revolutionary of love for Jesus Christ. You make way for a slow person on crutches on the E2 bus. You are being salt and light. The revolution of love is seldom, if ever, televised.

Every person sitting in this church has what is needed to respond to Christ’s direct injunction: “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others.”

But you may be asking where to start. Well, after the service today there will be a reunion of the newly renamed St Barnabas Pastoral Network. If you are not already in a group please find Felicity, Angela or myself and we will arrange for you to join one. As the name suggests these groups are networks – a means of being connected with other people in the St Barnabas household rather than only on Sundays at Church. They are what you make of them: a forum to pray for one another, to offer simple acts of support to one another or to simply be at the end of the phone line for someone. Your group leaders role is to keep the group connected, beyond that, everyone is called to be salt and light to one another and very importantly to their local neighbourhood.

If it’s really our dream to see this church overflowing with people, a vital hub of spirituality, support and creativity in Pitshanger and beyond, start by simply offering random acts of kindness to one another and those who we would ignore.     That is how we co-operate with God in building a kingdom in which love usurps the throne of self-interest and the tyranny of loneliness and exhaustion so pervasive in London life and where compassion wins the day rather than social or financial privilege.  We can be salt and light. We can live out the radical power of our Gospel values rather than reducing them to polite platitudes we tell ourselves on Sundays.

Some final words from Mother Teresa:

Give Jesus not only your hands to serve, but your heart to love. Pray with absolute trust in God’s loving care for you. Let Him use you without consulting you. Let Jesus fill you with joy that you may preach without preaching.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

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