February 5, 2023 – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 5:13-20

You may have noticed this morning that there were portions of the lessons that were in brackets.  This happens occasionally when the lessons are on the longish side, as they are today.  It’s as if the creators of the lectionary wanted to make allowances for worshipers that might not have a long attention span, and so gave permission to the worship leader to cut the passages short.  (pause)  You notice we read all the verses.  (pause)  Aren’t you glad I think so highly of your attention span?  No?  The truth is that I am generally loathe to cut scripture short.  Except, ironically, I wish that we hadn’t had to read the second paragraph of the Gospel lesson this morning.

Here’s why I say this:  we tend to remember best what we heard last.  And the last things that Jesus says in this passage make me nervous.  “Anyone who breaks any commandment, even a relatively minor one, will be last in the kingdom.”  And it gets more ominous.  Jesus says that “if we’re not more righteous than the religious leaders, who were experts in all the rules and regulations, even the obscure ones, if we’re not better at keeping the commandments than they are, then we’ll never get into heaven.”  See why I wish we had stopped earlier?  It’s not that I think Jesus was somehow wrong in calling us to a high standard of accountability.  But we remember best what we heard last. And what we heard last makes me wonder what more I should be doing as far as keeping the commandments . . . and that’s not where Jesus started in the previous paragraph.

Jesus leads off the first paragraph with these words:  “You are the salt of the earth.”  Not “You should be the salt of the earth.”   And he says, “You are the light of the world.”  Not “If only you would do x, or do more x, or be more x, then you would be the light of the world.”  Being salty and bright is not something we should be, it’s something we already are.

Not feeling too salty this morning?  That’s okay.  Let me remind you of just how salty you are!  In the ancient world, salt was incredibly important.  It was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration.  Think salt cod, which I have to say I don’t remember ever seeing in the grocery store before moving to New England, and though I’ve never tasted it, just looking at it . . . yuk!  I’m very happy to have a refrigerator!  But refrigeration wasn’t around in Jesus’ day, and so they used salt.  Also in Jesus’ day, salt was used as a healing agent.  I learned about the healing power of salt as a kid when, at the beach, with my legs covered by mosquito bites that I had not been able to keep from scratching, my mom would send me into the water, which though it stung, did take away the itch and helped them to heal.  And of course, in Jesus’ day as now, salt was a flavor-enhancer.  I read a story about a class of preschoolers whose teachers worked with them to make chocolate chip cookies.  The teachers convinced the kids to wait to bite into their creations so they could all taste them at the same time – which they did – and then simultaneously made faces and spit them out. They tasted terrible.  It turns out, they had forgotten to add the salt!  Even though chocolate chip cookies don’t taste salty, the salt that goes into making them somehow makes bittersweet chocolate morsels sweet.  Salt is a flavor enhancer.

You all are salty because of the Holy Spirit, which you’ve had living in you since the day you were baptized.  The Spirit within us, like salt, acts as a preservative – keeping us fresh, giving us energy and strength, and when we encourage one another by that Spirit, we preserve one another’s lives.  Just like salt, the Spirit within us has healing power.  Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is always with us, giving us comfort and peace, and when we give comfort and peace to one another, we take part in the healing of the world.  And as salt is a flavor enhancer for our food, so the Spirit is a flavor enhancer for our lives, waking us up to the blessings within and around us; and when we show God’s blessings and give God’s blessings and become God’s blessing to each other, we greatly enhance one another’s lives.  Because the Spirit is within us, we are most definitely salty.

And we are bright, and for the same reason that we are salty . . . because of the Holy Spirit within us.  Individually, we may not feel too bright.  We may feel as if our flame is sputtering, and anyway, what can one small light do in the midst of all the darkness in the world:  the heaviness we feel from climate change and racial inequity and poverty and conflict and all the other forces that dampen our spirits and shade our light?  What can one dimly burning Christian do?  Well, . . . a lot.  Especially when we put all our sputtering lights together.  As an example, I counted 18 duffle bags, just ready to be stuffed with supplies for children who are transitioning into foster care.  The bags are about a lot more than providing for the physical needs of the children, though they do do that.  They are also about shining light into a child’s life at a very dark time, giving them hope and reassurance when they feel like their world is falling apart, letting them know that they’re not alone.  18 children whose spirits may be just a bit brighter because we have reflected Jesus’ light for them.  We are blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are bright with the light of Christ – and that light only grows when we work together.

Hear these words of blessing from Jesus:  You are salt and you are light.  It’s just who you are, as a child of God filled with the Holy Spirit.  All you have to do is just be who you were created to be.   There’s a song that was written by Gary Chapman and sung by Amy Grant that has always spoken deeply to me on this subject.  I’ve set the song to post on Facebook later today if you’d like to hear the whole thing.  But here’s just the ending words of the song – the part that I remember best.  I offer it now as a reminder not of what we should be doing as Christians in this world, but a reminder of who we are:

All I ever have to be is what you’ve made me
Any more or less would be a step out of your plan
As you daily recreate me help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find
And all I ever have to be is what you’ve made me.

May you remember best what you are hearing last:  God has made us salt.  And light.

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