Becoming What We Are
Text: Matthew 5:13-16
I love to talk about God. I suppose it is an occupational hazard. Hang around me and sooner or later we will be talking about God, even if you don’t think about God very often, even if you think there is no God to talk about.
One reason I like to listen to theologians is because they love to talk about God. They ask questions about God that I have not thought to ask or they ask them in ways I have never considered asking. They even also explore aspects of God that I was told not to explore as a child or a teen, and sometimes, even, as a Seminary student.
Some theologians, though, leave me scratching my head or hunting for a definition. Some seem to pride themselves in using the most complex and obscure words in order to convey that ultimately God is unknowable. In reality what is ultimately unknowable is the meaning of their words! The best theologians, I find, avoid making language more difficult than it needs to be. They choose their words wisely, even playfully, to set us on a path of new discoveries about God and ourselves.
Most theologians, most preachers, would benefit from paying greater attention to how Jesus chooses his words and to the words he chooses. In our text today, Jesus is preaching what we know as the Sermon on the Mount and he chooses two words to talk about how you and I can reflect the love of God in the world, or better yet, how you and I can be the love of God in the world. The words that Jesus uses are not obscure or arcane; they do not require a dictionary. They are commonplace words, words that are often on our own tongues – salt and light.
“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. “You are,” Jesus says. He is not promising that one day, if you and I live right, mind our spiritual manners then we might strive to be “salt,” strive to be “light.” He is not asking us to take on a new identity that we create. He is asking us to become what God has already created us to be.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Mention salt and my mind races. I think of a delicious childhood memory while cranking an old-fashioned ice-cream maker and spreading salt atop the machine to melt the ice below. I think of watching my grandmother preserve everything imaginable with salt. I think of a special Guatemalan salt that Beth Neville and John first introduced to me, a salt with a distinctive flavor like no other salt I have ever tasted. I think of one of my best friends who spreads salt on everything he eats like fire fighters spread water on raging fires.
I also think about the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear when the aged king asks his three daughters to quantify their love for him. The older daughters, Goneril and Regan, who ultimately will betray their father, flatter him with hyperbole. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, who truly loves him declines to engage in such silly, selfish speculation. When Lear insists upon a response she offers a curious reply, “I love you…as fresh meat loves salt.”
The prideful and insecure Lear is not pleased with Cordelia’s response. In fact, he is so offended by her answer that he casts her out of the house and divides the kingdom between his two remaining daughters. Only later in the play does Lear come to understand that meat does love salt and usually people love meat only if it is salted. He also comes to learn that false praise is hollow and then is ultimately reunited with the virtuous but ill-fated, Cordelia.
“Become what you are,” says Jesus, salty people, people who speak the truth rather than babbling some sorry sad imitation of the truth; people who take time to sit down and listen to a friend in need when there is no time to sit down and listen; people who give away dollars that good sense tells them to hang on to for a rainy day; people who forgive even those who have no interest in their forgiveness.
If ever I have served a community of salty people, I am looking at them right now. Telling Cove to be “salt of the earth” is like telling a bird to fly. Of course, on occasion, you and I lose our saltiness, our flavor and we mess up the dish. Most often, though, as I watch you care for each other, care for this good earth, care for those who are often long forgotten, care to make sure no one feels like they are beneath the love of God or God’s people, I am humbled to be pastor to such a salty crew.
Atop Mount, Jesus also preaches, “You are the light of the world.” If anyone should know the truth of those words, it is Jesus. Even a cross could not stop him from shining light into a world that had plunged into deep darkness. Easter is the continuing reminder to the church that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s light shows best against the darkness; she "hangs upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" (I.5.44-45). Juliet also associates Romeo with a light that illuminates the darkness. If Juliet dies, she wants Romeo "cut in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night/And pay no worship to the garish sun" (III.2.22-25).
Jesus and Shakespeare can say what they will, but you and I know that there are times when, for whatever the reason, we hide our light or run low on batteries or the bulb bursts. “There are times, I am certain,” writes John Buchanan, “when we are not at all sure we have any light to shine, when we are feeling inadequate and without energy or resources or any particular ideas or skills. I understand how we sometimes come to that conclusion, but I don’t believe it is accurate. I believe God gives each of us, deep in our hearts, light to shine somewhere, somehow, a gift, a skill maybe as modest as our ability to love a child, a neighbor, a stranger, but it is ours, our light that Jesus asks us to shine in the world for him.”
Buchanan says it well. And, if I had one bone to pick with Cove, it would be in the light category. Not that you do not shine your light clearly, generously, lovingly, imaginatively; you do. In fact, your light is almost blinding at times. No, my one bone to pick is that you sometimes underestimate the light of God that is shining in you and through you. So, sometimes, you keep your light on low worrying that you might overstep your welcome or push your faith on others not asking about it or barge into someone else’s life with a taste of God’s love when they may not be ready.
Let me offer another way to think about that reticence to become what you are. What person stumbling about in the dark would not give their eyeteeth for a light to lead them out of that darkness or for a light that would stay with them when there is no ready path out of the dark? What person who now has to follow a strict salt-free diet would not give their eyeteeth to be able to use an extra-large salt shaker to make something lifeless come alive?
“Become what you are,” says Jesus, and give thanks for the gifts God has given you to do so. “Become what you are,” says Jesus, and watch what God does through you.
“Become what you are,” says Jesus, and as you do, eat this bread, drink this cup, and go out into God’s beloved world to shed some light and to spread some salt. And, it is my great joy to join you on the way.