Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 5:13-20
I love grits. I’m hoping that in this place and in this region of the country that is not a spectacularly amazing declaration that I have just made, but, just in case there is any confusion, let me say it again, I love grits. When I was younger, grits were one of the breakfast foods that I most looked forward to my mother making us before school or on a Saturday morning. When I was a little older and working at church camp, grits were often the salvation of the breakfast meal. And they were the salvation because, often, they were paired with scrambled eggs, that, lets just say could have used a few more minutes in the pan before they were served. But, if you mixed the eggs with the grits they kind of soaked up whatever run was left in the eggs. Put some crumbled up bacon strips on the top and you have your self a breakfast casserole, of sorts. And when I was in college and on my own for the first time and I had to learn to cook for myself, one of the first things I learned how to make for myself, after ramen noodles, of course, were grits. Now, my go-to grit recipe involves mincing and sautéing an onion and a couple three cloves of garlic in butter, adding the water and then slow-cooking the grits for 20-30 minutes, dishing it up and then serving it with some spicy chow-chow from the lady down at the farmers market who sells it every weekend. Of course, I have forgotten one thing. Because as any good southerner will tell you, butter is important, cheese is wonderful, garlic, sublime, but the one crucial ingredient to a good pot of grits is salt. And while there are few things in this world as tasty as a well-seasoned pot of grits, there is nothing nearly as terrible, as bland, as difficult to consume as grits that have not been salted. And as most of y’all can no doubt attest, it’s not like you can salt grits after the fact. Near as I can tell, there is some kind of chemical reaction that happens in the cooking of the grit that renders it impervious to salt after it is done. So it is that the first thing you do when making a pot of grits, just after measuring the water and putting it in the pot to heat up is salt the water. Because salt is crucial.
In today’s scripture, we are continuing with Jesus as he has been surrounded by a large number of folks from all over the region and he has climbed a little ways up the terrain to speak to them. And these folks, they are the ones who need desperately to hear the words that Jesus has for them. They are the broken. They are the hopeless. They are the dispossessed, the disinherited, the folks who have been far too long trampled underfoot by Roman oppression and by the poverty that is endemic to their society. They were the ones who needed to hear that those who were poor and mourning, meek and merciful, those who struggled to remain peaceful at heart even as they were beaten down and persecuted by those with more earthly power than they possessed, they were the blessed, the beloved, the children of God. And so it is, following the completion of this new foundation that Jesus has built under them, he has an even greater declaration. “You are the salt of the earth.” We have to wish that we had been present when he said this. You are the salt of the earth. What an empowering statement to a group of people who needed desperately to hear a word of empowerment. You are the salt of the earth. That is you are the thing that brings flavor to an otherwise bland world of false gods and dedication to all things impermanent. And not only are you salt, but you are also light. You are the light of the world. Just think about that for a moment. Just think about who Jesus’s followers would have been. The scriptures recount numerous stories of Jesus reaching out to the tax collector, of Jesus being a man who eats and drinks with sinners, a man who reached out to people who no one thought deserved full inclusion in society. He reached out to those people too often denied a place at the table and said, you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. And there is no stopping you. Because look what he says next, in both places, you are the salt of the earth, but what happens when salt loses its flavor? It’s not good for anything at that point. It mights as well be thrown out and trampled under foot. That is, if you want to be salt, you have to make the commitment to not lose your zest for God, to not lose your dedication for change in the world, to not lose your love for your neighbor. And if you are light, no one hides light. But more important than that, when you are light, when you are truly light, you cannot hide that. A city on a hill cannot be hidden but rather it sends light out into the valley of darkness offering a respite for those who have been wandering in darkness too long. It offers as the great philosopher Bob Dylan put it, a shelter from the storm.
So we sit here, some 2,000 years later and we ask ourselves, who were Jesus’s followers to whom he says, “you are the salt of the earth, you are light in the darkness?” It is the broken of society, it is the poor of the world, it is those who are persecuted for being who they were created to be, it is those who gather in churches and synagogues, mosques and sanghas, it is you and me, it is us, sitting at the feet of Jesus and being sent on a mission, on a mission for God.
The next part of the package is equally telling of the manner in which we are to interact with the world in our calling to be the church. Jesus tells his followers they are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden away. Each weeknight during the Advent season we lit up the lights in the sanctuary and we did so for two reasons. On the one hand, we wanted to give folks who were coming back home from whatever they had been doing a warm place to come in and pray or think of just sit in silence and contemplate the arrival of the Christ-child into our world. But also of importance was the symbolic nature of having lights on as a backdrop to the magnificent stained glass that we have here in this place and there is nothing more beautiful in all of this town than the glass in the back of the sanctuary set ablaze on a dark and chilly night in the darkest part of winter. We are the light of the world and a city on a hill cannot hide its light but must proclaim it for all the world to see.
And so it is that in doing so we truly are the people who seek to follow in the footsteps of the risen Christ, who seek to walk the path that Jesus walked. And we know that there are going to be times when it is hard to shine our lights into the darkness, there are going to be times when it is hard to bring out the God-colors of the world, there are going to be times when it hurts, when we doubt, when we sit in the garden with Jesus and sweat drops of blood, when we hang with Jesus and scream out at the top of our lungs, with whatever energy we have left, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” only to bow our heads and humbly declare, “it is finished.” But for now, we are called to declare what we all know to be true. We live in a world of too much violence in which scenes of the rampage of small communities not unlike this one play out over and over again and could easily happen again in next week in any place in the country, including here. We live in a world where each day persons are infected with treatable illnesses if they only had the resources with which to treat them. We live in a world in which many of God’s children go to bed hungry because we as an earthly community can’t figure out how to share with one another in an equitable manner. We live in a world in which in many places bullets fly and bombs destroy in our name and we cannot simply wash our hands of it. As a human race, we are broken and sinful and we cannot separate ourselves from the evil and hatred that is done by others. The walls of this place simply aren’t that thick. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.
We are also the salt of the earth. We are also the light of the world. Salt brings taste to an otherwise bland concoction of everyday ingredients. Light seeks out darkness, bathing it in itself. Seeking to go deep into every crack and crevice until it has subsumed all the darkness in its path and then it moves on to find some more darkness to overcome. Everyday, light cuts through the darkness to arrive to us. The sun ends the night and begins the day. The moon, a constant beacon for all those who grow afraid of dwelling in the darkness. The stars, bathing us in light from thousands of years ago, reminding us of the steady presence of God from the time the universe was born and well into the future. And we get to be part of that. We get to be light for darkness and salt for the bland. We get to change the world.
And now, maybe more than ever, God needs those who will stand and be leaders in a movement for change, starting in our own pew but soon exploding out into the world. God needs those who would be heroes, going above and beyond what the old order of the world would require of us and bravely leading the whole of the world into the new being. A being founded in Christ and undergirded by the work of the holy spirit even today. God needs those who willl stand up and say, “here I am, send me!” Those who will strive to remove the chains of injustice! Undo the ropes of the yoke! Let those who are oppressed go free, And break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people! Clothe those who are naked, and don’t hide from the needs of your own flesh and blood! And if we do this, then our light will shine like the dawn— and our healing will break forth like lightning! Our integrity will go before us, and the Glory of God will be our rearguard!” God needs folks to do that.
When Jesus began teaching to those gathered around him on this mountain, he knew full well that people can be horrid to one another. He knew that people possessed the abilities to do unspeakable harm and violence to one another. He was a member of a community of people who have a devastating collective story within their memories. A story of diaspora and occupation, a story that would later include genocide and struggle for identity. But into that story, Jesus called on the collection of sinners and beggars, those who had been overridden by the Roman occupying force and into that darkness he proclaimed you are the light of the world. “We are going public with this thing,” he said. “We are declaring the power and love of God into this desolate space. We are declaring the forgiveness of God for a people desperate to know that they are still loved. We are declaring the power of God to overcome all the earthly, broken, violent, and sinful ways that too often define our experience of life. Jesus said, you are the light of the world and we’re going public with this thing.”
Sisters, brothers, those in this place and those not here, we are the light of the world and God calls us, Jesus calls us to follow him and be the superheroes for this sin-soaked world. To bravely reach out into the darkness and pull people into the light. To stand up to the violence and hatred that too often defines who we are and whose we are. We do not live by the gun or the bomb or the sword. We do not live by the elements of this world that will fall away, that will be eventually relegated to the dustbin of history. We serve and we walk with and are called by the one who looked over a ragtag bunch of tax collectors and drunks and proclaimed them to be the people whom he would use to bring about his message of love and light. We follow the one who walked on water and then called Peter to do the same thing. We follow the one who healed the sick and then invited all his disciples to do the same thing. We follow the one who still calls out to us today to care for the least among us in radical cultural shattering ways. We follow the one who continues to dwell deep inside of us even to the end of the age. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world!” Let us, in this place, this beautiful place with beautiful people be the city on the hill, for Anniston, for the United States, and for the world. Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace, for the love of God, among all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.