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“A City on a Hill”- Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20– Feb. 5, 2017

In our on-going local and national debate about energy resources–from renewable and non-renewable sources–one source that rarely gets mentioned among us is donkey dung. Or camel dung. But in Jesus’ day, and in the Middle East and many third-world countries today, donkey dung is a primary source of heating fuel, much more available and affordable than wood.

It was the duty of young girls to collect the donkey dung, mix it with salt, and mold it into patties to be dried in the sun, and then used as fuel in earthen ovens. A slab of salt would be placed on the bottom of the oven, and the catalytic properties of the salt would cause the dung to burn. After a while, though, the salt slab would lose its catalytic properties–lose its saltiness–and so would be thrown out, to provide traction on the muddy path, “to be trampled underfoot,” as Jesus said. [cf. John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 31]

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples, using the same word for “earth” which also refers to the earthen ovens. You are the salt which produces fire which produces light.

Salt was also, of course, used for flavoring and preserving–you give zest and flavor, Jesus said, you make things enduring. And salt was rubbed on newborns, used to seal covenants, sprinkled on sacrifices, understood as a metaphor for wisdom, for God’s gracious activity. [Ron Allen, cited by Kathryn Matthews in UCC Sermon Seeds, 2/5/17] All that–and more–in “you are the salt of the earth.” Not only flavor, but an element of sacred activity, a blessing, part of a dynamic process that changes properties, stirs things up, sets things on fire, gives off light.

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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…Let your light shine..” “Shine” is the third imperative, the third command, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, after “rejoice” and “be glad.” “Shine.” Three commandments so far–rejoice, be glad, and shine. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”

For almost her entire history, Israel had experienced oppression from outside forces, the latest being Rome, of course, in both Jesus’ time, and years later, when Matthew wrote to his community. And throughout that history, there had been a lively debate about the meaning of their suffering–Why is this happening to us? How could God let this happen? How are we to respond?

In Jesus’ generation, there were different factions who offered alternative responses–the Sadducees collaborated with the occupiers, the Zealots advocated violent revolution, the Pharisees looked to the Law, striving to scrupulously live according to it. “If one could not obtain one’s political independence,” Kathryn Matthews explains, “at least one could preserve one’s cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God; at least one could live in covenental righteousness.”[Matthews, op cit., citing Edwin Chr. Van Driel] And there was a heightened sense of living in the end times. [I saw a cartoon recently that showed a man holding up a sign, “The end is near,” and another man looking at it saying, “Is that good or bad?” There are days, aren’t there?!]

Jesus added another voice. He pointed to the present in-breaking of God’s realm in their midst, “God is already doing a new thing,” Jesus said, fully immersed in the tradition of Isaiah. “Be Israel–be God’s chosen people–here and now.” Don’t throw out the Law, fulfill it’s purpose, live into its spirit. Be salt and light. Be part of the transforming and healing of the world.

What might it mean for us to be salt and light, a transformative community in a world that has grown cynical, fearful, enraged, mean-spirited? “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his followers of all ages. You already are. You are the light of the world. Be who you are. Don’t put a bushel over the light. Imagine if we put half the energy we put into building walls and ducking under bushels, trying to hide who we really are, imagine if we simply put that energy into being salt and light?

Author Madeleine L’Engle described beautifully how simply letting our light shine can be a form of “evangelism”–”We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe,” she said, “by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” [cited by Matthews, op cit.] Let your light shine.

And remember that Jesus’ “salty” images are not just about beautifically “shining.” The salt that we are can set things on fire, can alter chemistry. We must not hide behind our Christian or our white privilege. We must not just “get over it,” when injustice and hatred and prejudice are rampant. By letting our light shine through the banner we’ve hung out front–”Immigrants and refugees welcome”–we have stirred up questions and concerns. We’ve received at least 3 phone calls asking if we’re harboring refugees, do we know if there are illegal immigrants living in our neighborhood or community? You are salt and light.

Many of us are alarmed by the tone and manner of the injustice and fear-mongering that is currently spreading throughout our country and the world, but we must not forget that injustice and prejudice and fear have been experienced by many of our brothers and sisters in the years and months leading up to now and have not been addressed adequately. Jesus’ words to claim our identity as salt and light continue to challenge us, though perhaps we can hear them in a new way now. Perhaps someday we will be able to perform the fast that God desires of us, as Isaiah said–”to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our houses, to cover the naked, …” The invitation to that fast has been issued in every generation.

We are not the first ones to pass this way. “Turning back the pages of the calendar to Berlin in its dark years,” writes pastor Nancy Rockwell,

we read [the words of] Pastor Martin Niemoller, who held onto his hope that his government could emerge from its self-created darkness for years, yet finally came into open opposition, for which he was arrested. In a sermon just prior to his arrest by the Nazis, Niemoller spoke of Jesus’ words, ‘You are the light of the world.’–

‘What are we worrying about?’ [he asked] ‘When I read out the names (of church members missing or arrested), did we not think: ‘Alas and alack, will this wind, this storm, that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and (keep) it safe?’ It is ….during these days that I have realized–that I have understood–what the Lord Jesus Christ means when he says: ‘Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick!….We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is His concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away. ‘Let your light shine before men! [and women and children]’…The city of God cannot remain hidden. Brothers and sisters, the city of God will not be blown down by the storm. It will not be conquered even though the enemy take its outer walls. The city of God will stand because its strength comes from on high.”

[cited by N. Rockwell, thebiteintheapple, 1/30/17]

“If you remove the yoke from among you,” the prophet Isaiah says, “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” What an image to drink in!

We are salt and light. We are Christ’s body on earth. We are one loaf, one cup. That is who we are! Thanks be to God!

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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