by Daryl Byler
February 19, 2006
Matthew 5:13-16; Ephesians 5:8-9
One of the fastest growing crimes in this country is identity theft, where someone gets your Social Security or drivers license or credit card and uses your identity for all sorts of financial gain or mischief. The Bible says we are created in God’s image. But the world engages in identity theft. The world tries to steal our true identity by telling us that we’re only valuable if we are always busy, or have lots of money, or you name it. Revival is about reclaiming our true identity as followers of Jesus.
We are God’s children – beloved; adopted into God’s family; revealing God’s character by the ways we act. We are God’s temple – a sanctuary where God dwells; a place where all who so choose can experience God’s holy and healing presence; a sanctuary where all can find safety, welcome and embrace. We are to be a place where dividing walls are torn down and all have equal access to God.
And in the text for today, Jesus offers us two more images to help us understand our identity – salt of the earth and light of the world.
The setting for the Sermon on the Mount was likely a hillside near Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Jesus appears to have been speaking primarily to his immediate disciples (5:1-2). But it is also clear that crowds were listening in because, at the end of the sermon, Matthew notes that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching.”
In the text for today, Jesus offers two vivid images of the church. He says that the church is the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (5:13-14). Jesus did not say that we should be salt and light. He said that we are salt and light. This is our inescapable identity, our very nature, as God’s people. When we become Christians, God’s powerful Spirit joins us to the body of Christ and we become salt and light.
The way that Jesus describes this, it requires more effort to deny our identity than it does to live it out. We have to lose our saltiness. We have to cover up our light. Another way of saying this is that our natural state as Christians is to be salt and light. Our unnatural state is to be tasteless and hidden.
So what does it mean for the church to be salt and light?
Salt does many things. Once a year, the MCC Washington Office makes homemade ice cream for everyone in our building on Capitol Hill. As you might imagine, this has become quite a popular event. All of you who have made ice cream know that you add lots of salt to the ice to lower the freezing temperature, which helps the ice cream harden more quickly.
But I doubt that lowering the freezing temperature is the image that Jesus had in mind – unless his point was that the church’s role is to help make sure that cooler heads prevail in our violent world. In addition to lowering the freezing temperature, salt also preserves and purifies.
But the image that Jesus seems to have foremost in his mind is that salt seasons or adds taste – because he seems concerned about salt losing its taste. “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Jesus asks (Matt. 5:13a).
My best guess is that Jesus used the metaphor of salt because salt changes or transforms. Salt transforms bland food into tasty food. Salt transforms good food into even better food. It brings out the full flavor. Jesus likely had in mind that the church, empowered by God’s Spirit, would be a transforming body. It would transform enemies into friends; sinners into saints; and evil into good.
In short, salt would season and bring out the best in all things. That is the role in the church – to bring out the best in others and in all situations.
The second metaphor that Jesus uses to describe the church is one of light. This should come as no surprise. In the Old Testament, Israel was described as a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). Jesus described himself as the light of the world (John 8:12). And now, Jesus says that the church is to be the light of the world.
Light is a powerful image. The smallest amount of light overcomes darkness. I remember being struck by this fact one year at summer camp. One evening during campfire at Pine Lake, someone went way across the lake and lit the tiniest of candles. But this small light was visible across the expanse of the lake. Darkness cannot overcome light. Light always overcomes darkness.
In the same way, the church is to be a visible presence in the world. It is to bring hope into the darkness. It is to offer guidance in a world that seems stuck on sin and brokenness.
What does it mean practically to be salt and light? In my job with Mennonite Central Committee, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel in the United States and abroad. Here’s some of what I’ve seen and heard. Salt and light are needed in our world because:
1. People are afraid. In Washington, D.C. people are terrified about another terrorist attack. Last week dozens of people were evacuated from one of the Senate office buildings because an alarm indicated that there was nerve gas present. Since Sept. 11, our nation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for security – metal bollards and concrete barricades now ring buildings in Washington. And while the United States accounts for only four percent of the world’s population, it spends more than the rest of the world combined for military operations.
To be salt and light in a fearful world, we need to live as a people of faith. We need to demonstrate that we trust God for our security. We need to take risks to reach out to enemies. We need to help people imagine new ways of thinking about security. The MCC Washington Office has been talking with legislators about steps our nation could take to enhance human security without using violence.
2. People are angry. In the last several weeks we’ve seen major demonstrations around the world in response to Danish newspaper cartoons that made fun of the Prophet Mohammed. The anger is just the tip of the iceberg. Many are angry at Western governments – perhaps most prominently at the United States. People in many countries don’t believe the United States treats them with mutual respect. They are angry about U.S. military dominance and trade policies that seem to benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak. They are angry that the United States supports bad governments like the regime in Saudi Arabia – in order to keep U.S. oil prices low.
To be salt and light in an angry world, the church must address injustice – both locally and globally. We must show what sharing looks like in a world bent on selfishness. We must live more equitably. In the United States, we consume more than three times our fair share of the world’s resources. The world has enough for all, but not if one nation take much more than its fair share. We must advocate for government policies that are fair and just for all people.
3. People feel hopeless. Many people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina feel hopeless because their lives have yet to return to normal. They have no idea if their houses will ever be rebuilt. And when I travel abroad to places like the Gaza Strip, people feel trapped in their poverty. Hopelessness often leads to despair and acts of violence.
To be salt and light in a hopeless world, the church must help create opportunities that restore hope. That’s exactly what Jubilee did in setting up a Red Cross Service Center here after Katrina. You listened to peoples’ stories and helped connect them with available resources. That’s what you do with the Community of Hope Tutoring Program – providing hope by helping students return to grade level. That’s what Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) intends to do in New Orleans – support the development of 100 or more small businesses. Of course, ultimately, the church points people to the hope we have in Christ.
4. People are tired of conflict. I traveled into Lebanon in 1995. A fifteen-year-old civil war had just ended. Not because the issues were resolved, but because people were simply exhausted by fighting.
That same year, I had opportunity to attend an event in Washington, which was sponsored by the White House. At it, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine all spoke. They acknowledged that they were tired of fighting and a new way forward must be found. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, and the peace process began to unravel.
To be salt and light, the church needs to model reconciled relationship and find ways to transform conflict.
We recently hired a young Sudanese woman – a Bluffton College grad – to work in the MCC Washington Office. Angong has been telling us stories about her home country. It seems that cows are highly valued in Sudan and that two tribes began to steal one another’s best cows. In the process of trying to retrieve their stolen cows, violence broke out and young men from both tribes were killed. The conflict continued to escalate until one day the women from both tribes gathered at a shared well and began to share their stories of grief. They agreed upon a plan. They would no longer cook for their husbands or bear children with their husbands until their husbands agreed to work out the conflict. “What is the use of having more children,” they lamented, “if they are only going to be killed in fighting?”
After about a month, the men in the two tribes agreed to talk. A peace hut was built – as is the tribal custom – and for weeks, each man was allowed to share his grievances. Then they developed a plan of reconciliation. Angong says they used a process outlined by John Paul Lederach in his writings. An accord was reached, and the fighting has stopped.
The fall issue of Courier, the publication of Mennonite World Conference, includes a series of stories about how churches around the world are attempting to follow Christ in the way of peace. One story comes from the Mennonite Church in Angola. There, a congregation owned a large piece of property and planned to build a church, a school and a health center. But before they could get the finances in hand to begin construction, several families from the community who opposed the church’s presence, decided to build homes on the church’s property.
The congregation wrestled with what to do. They did not want to go to court. Rather, they wanted to live out the biblical principle of loving one’s enemies. So finally, in conversation with the two families, they church agreed to buy the two houses, providing the funds for these families to build elsewhere.
“Today,” says the Courier article, there is a Mennonite school on the church’s property, which has enrolled 1,200 children from the neighborhood. Many from the community are also active church members. Relations are good.” (Courier (Vol. 19, No. 3 ).
To be salt and light means that we live with faith in a world that is afraid. That we act justly in a world that is angry. That we create opportunities in a world that is hopeless. And that we point people to the way of peace in a world that is tired of conflict.
May we reclaim our true identity as followers of Jesus. We are God’s children. We are God’s temple. We are salt and light.
I’d like to close with a prayer by former Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador more than 25 years ago:
The Long View
“It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”
–Archbishop Oscar Romero