A: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt and Light

February 6, 2011

Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What does he mean by these images? How are we light and salt? Two stories might help. The first story begins 2,700 years ago in the city of Jerusalem. The king at the time was King Hezekiah, and King Hezekiah had a problem. The water source for the city of Jerusalem lay outside its walls, therefore, making the city very vulnerable to attack. For if an army besieged the city, they could cut off the water supply and thus assure that in a very short time the city would have to surrender. King Hezekiah decided he was going to dig a tunnel, and he did so through solid rock—1,700 feet of tunnel that brought the water from the outside source into a pool within Jerusalem. Now the tunnel’s source was secret at the time so that the enemies would not know about it, but it has been recently discovered by archeologists. Today, if you go to Jerusalem, you can walk through King Hezekiah’s tunnel. This week I ran into an account of a pastor from Washington, DC, who did just that. Here’s how he describes it:

“You have to go with a guide and put on a bathing suit because the tunnel still has water in it. Because the tunnel is twisted and of different levels, you have to walk carefully because sometimes the water is at your waist and sometimes it comes up to your chest. Also, there are times when the ceiling is low and there is only just enough space to get your head through. The guide also gives a candle to each participant so that there would be some light. Each participant must follow the person ahead of him or her as the guide leads the group.”  Our pastor from Washington, DC was bringing up the rear of this small procession. He was taking his time soaking in the history of the place. But when he was about half way through the tunnel, for some reason his candle went out. The rest of the group was already far ahead and had turned a corner, so the pastor found himself in absolute darkness with 800 feet of solid rock on either side of him before daylight. Now, of course, there really was no danger because he knew that the guide would come back to find him. But he said that as he stood there in absolute darkness, with the water up to his waist, waiting, he never felt so alone, so helpless, so vulnerable. He waited as it seemed to him forever until he saw ahead of him a small flicker and then the tour guide turning the corner holding a candle. It was a small light, but how brightly it shone for someone who stood in darkness. For those in darkness, light is a sign of hope and salvation. This is the sense in which we are the light of the world. Our role is the role of the guide – the role of bringing light to others so that their darkness is dispelled.

To clarify how to do this, we can turn to the second image in the gospel—the image of salt.  Salt is used to flavor things. It has a distinctive taste which sets it apart from all else. Therefore, the image of salt is one of distinctiveness. When Jesus tells us that we are to be salt for the earth, he says that we are called to stand apart, to be distinctive from who are around us. We are to be distinctive not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of being transformative.

The second story: There’s a small French mountain village called Le Chambon. Everyone in the village went to the same small Christian church. When the Second World War broke out, Jewish families began to arrive in the train station at Le Chambon trying to escape the Nazi death camps. It was, of course, illegal to help these refugees. But the people of this small village, to a person, defied the law. They took Jewish families into their homes, fed and clothed them, helped them obtain new documentation, and smuggled them across the border into Switzerland. It is said that in the years from 1940 to 1943, there was not a wine cellar, an attic, or a hayloft in the village that had not sheltered a Jewish child. There was never a report that any refugee had been turned away or betrayed to the authorities by the citizens of Le Chambon. During the course of the war, it is estimated that this city saved the lives of 5,000 Jewish people. After the war, the pastor of this small church was interviewed and was asked what motivated the heroic courage of this community to risk their lives and property for people they did not even know? The pastor responded that they were not trying to be heroes. They were simply trying to be Christians. This is what it means to be salt for the earth–to so believe in the love of God and the call to justice that we stand apart from what is expected and normal.

And that leaves each one of us with a question. If we were to look at our own lives, could we find signs that our lives are different from those who do not believe in God? Would people looking at us see something distinctive in the way that we love our families, treat our employees, or care for our neighbors? Is there a taste that tells that we are motivated by something beyond our own self-interest, self-preservation, or comfort?

If you live your life, like everyone else does, you cannot be salt for the earth. If you do not give hope to those who are in darkness, you cannot be the light of the world.  You might not have the opportunity like the people of Le Chambon to do something heroic, but the question still remains: if it ever became a crime to follow Jesus, would anyone find enough evidence to convict you?


A Pinch of Salt

February 9, 2014

Matthew 5: 13-16

Jesus throws out this image right at the beginning of today’s gospel. “You are the salt of the earth.” Really, Jesus? What do you mean by that? How are we like salt? Jesus never explains this image. Therefore the door open for us to consider a variety of ways in which we are like salt. Let me suggest one of them to you today. Salt is good when used in small amounts, at least in food. Have you ever tried to make a stew or a soup and measured poorly, putting in way too much salt? You can’t eat it. You have to throw it out. So salt is to be used sparingly. How often do you read a recipe that asks for, “a pinch of salt”? A pinch is very small. But here is the point. It is still necessary. That is why the recipe calls for it. Without that pinch of salt the food loses its flavor. So when Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, he might be asking us to adopt the small gesture, the simple word, the gentle touch. When Jesus says that we are salt, he is telling us that sometimes following him involves actions that are not very big at all.

You are in the supermarket, and down the aisle you see a mother with two young children. Her shopping cart is full, and the younger of the two children is in the seat of the cart screaming at the top of his lungs. The older child is on her feet pulling on her mother’s coat and crying because she has just been told that she cannot have one of the sugary drinks that she sees on the shelf. The mother is caught between these two hysterical children trying to calm them down, when the younger one takes a box of cereal from the cart and hurls it down the aisle. You walk over, pick up the cereal box, replace it in the cart. Then in your most positive tone you say to the mother, “Hang in there”. She nods in appreciation, and turns back to her children. They are still crying and she is still frazzled. But your simple word of solidarity has changed the flavor of the situation.

You are sitting with your friends at school eating lunch, and one of them begins to make fun of the girl in homeroom who always dresses poorly and stumbles over her words. As your friend describes the girl, others around the table begin to laugh. Then you say, “Cut it out. Let’s talk about something else”. You probably have not changed your friends’ opinion of this girl, and they will probably mock her out at some future date. But today, your words have given this conversation a different seasoning.

Your friend down the street has just been diagnosed with cancer. So you walk over for a visit. She tells you about the diagnosis and about the upcoming treatment. There is nothing you can do and very little that you can say. So you ask “How about some coffee?” You know where she keeps it and you make a pot. Then you sit down at the kitchen table, in silence, with the coffee steaming between the two of you. Her cancer is still there. The treatments are yet to come. But your quiet presence has given her day a different taste.

Now following Jesus certainly involves more than these small gestures. That is probably why the image of salt in today’s gospel is followed immediately by the image of light. Sometimes we can do big things. Sometimes we can be a city on a mountain, a lamp on a lamp stand, giving light to everything in the house. Sometimes our light can change people’s lives. We can be instrumental in leading an alcoholic to recovery, or an enemy to forgiveness, or a family to reconciliation. When we have an opportunity to accomplish one of these big things, we should by all means in Christ’s name let our light shine.

But these dramatic possibilities do not occur every day. It is for this reason that today’s gospel tells us that when we cannot be the light of the world, it is still service to be a pinch of salt.


The Salt of the Earth

February 5, 2017

Matthew 5:13-16

It happened about a year ago in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Asma Jami was having dinner with her family in an Applebee’s restaurant. Asma was born in Africa but immigrated to the United States. She was a Muslim, and she was wearing the traditional Muslim headpiece. She was laughing and teasing her children in Swahili, which was the language of her birth. Another woman present in the restaurant was growing upset that there was a group speaking Swahili in Applebee’s. She stood up and went over to Asma’s table and said, “Why don’t you people speak English or get out of this country?” Asma explained that she was an American citizen, that all of her children had been born in this country, and that all of them did speak English, but when they were relating to one another as a family, they preferred to use their native Swahili. Before she could finish, the woman picked up a beer mug and slammed it into Asma’s face. It took 17 stitches to close the wounds, and she still bears scars from that attack.

As reprehensible as this action is, all of us understand how it happened. People allow prejudices to settle in their hearts and then fuel them with anger. As the anger grows, it can eventually boil over into violence. As much as we see the horror of this kind of a situation, we understand it. We say, “That’s just the way the world is.” What is not the way of the world is the way Asma responded to this attack.

At first, she thought of relocating her family, but in time decided to remain in Coon Rapids. Just recently, at the trial which sentenced the woman who attacked her, she asked the judge if she could speak. This is what she said to the woman who had struck her: “My religion as a Muslim tells me to forgive others, and so I want to take this opportunity to publicly say I forgive you. I know that holding hatred towards another person only eats away at your soul and does you no good. And my hope is that one day you will come to see that it doesn’t matter what I wear on my head, what color my skin is, what language that I speak, because we are both American citizens. I love this country as much as you do. I want you to know that you struck out at someone of whom you knew nothing. My prayer is that someday you will see that we are the same: fellow Americans sharing this great country together.” Those words of Asma Jami are words that do not fit into the accepted practices of our society. In a society that all too often allows anger to fuel more anger, allows hatred to grow, allows violence to beget more violence, Asma’s words were words of understanding and forgiveness.

Jesus calls us to a similar kind of action in today’s gospel when he tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Salt has a distinctive flavor, and Jesus is telling us that as his disciples we can’t simply taste like everyone else. Our flavor must be distinctive so that we can season the world and change its dynamics. We know that being followers of Jesus means that we have to follow his teachings. And oftentimes his teachings run counter to what is expected and popular. When we run into someone who demeans other people because of their race or their religion, we must be the person that speaks up and says, “I don’t accept that. What you’re saying is neither true nor right.” When we encounter people who think that violence is the solution, we have to be people who propose, “Let’s look for another solution.” When people cling on to hurt and hatred, we have to be bold enough to say, “The way forward is by mercy and forgiveness.”

To be the salt of the earth we must have a distinctive taste, because if salt loses its flavor, then we lose our purpose. Now, of course, there is no guarantee that people will understand or accept our beliefs or our convictions. But that is not what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus understands that the only one that can change anyone’s mind is that person him or herself. What we are called to be is to be salt of the earth, to season our environment with Jesus’ teaching so that the world tastes different than it tasted before.

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