First Baptist Richmond, February 5, 2023
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
There’s a scene in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter where Loretta Lynn tries to impress her new boyfriend with a chocolate pie she’s made. He takes one bite, makes a horrible face, turns and spits into a napkin, and says, “Make many pies, Loretta?” She says, “Naw, this is the first one.” He asks, “How much salt that recipe call for?” She says, “Shoot, you don’t put salt in a pie! You put in flour and eggs and sugar and… oh no,” realizing what she’s done. Instead of sugar, she’s put two cups of salt in a chocolate pie. He tries to make her feel better. He says, “Well, it makes sense; salt and sugar are both white.” But the look on his face when he bit into that pie is where today’s sermon title comes from: of all the things Jesus could have said about us, why do we have to be salt? I’m curious. Why not the sugar of the earth? Why not the chocolate? Why not the whipped cream on top? But then I did a little research and discovered that, once again, Jesus knows what he’s talking about.
The quote on the front page of your bulletin this morning is from Samin Nosrat, an award-winning chef who started as an apprentice at a world famous restaurant when she was only 19, and who, in her own words, didn’t know anything about cooking. She says, “I didn’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley.” But as she listened to the cooks at that restaurant talk about food she noticed that they didn’t talk about recipes, or look at cookbooks, or even use timers. They talked about how much heat to use, and what kind of fat to cook things in, and whether something needed a splash of lime juice, and how much salt to use, you know: the fundamentals. Nosrat ended up writing a book and doing a four-part Netflix series called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. She introduces the first episode by saying, “Salt. It’s fundamental to all good cooking. It enhances flavor and even makes food taste more like itself. In short, salt brings food to life. Learn to use it well and your food will taste great.”
I haven’t read the book, but I would recommend the series. It’s wonderful. And I learned so much about salt! I learned that there are approximately 4,000 different kinds of salt, and that the difference is not only in where the salt comes from, but also in the size of the crystal. Smaller crystals produce an immediate, intense flavor whereas larger crystals are slower to dissolve and more subtle. Did Jesus have all that in mind when he looked around at that crowd of people gathered on a hillside in Galilee and said, “You are the salt of the earth”? Probably not, but I think he would have agreed with Nosrat’s simplest description: “Salt brings food to life.” “Yes,” he might have said: “You are the salt of the earth. In the same way salt brings food to life, you have it in you to bring the earth to life.”
And then Jesus moves on to his next analogy. “You are the light of the world!” he says, and this one doesn’t offend us. We know about light. We know what a difference it can make. What’s that quote again? “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.” But the opposite is also true. I have a friend whose mother is very sensitive to light, and she got to the point where she couldn’t sleep if her bedroom wasn’t completely dark. She began to travel with a roll of electrical tape, so she could cut off a little piece and cover up the annoying green light on the thermostat in a hotel room, or the little blue light on the smoke detector. He says the worst part is that he has inherited that same sensitivity. He’s tried to cover up the tiny green light on the printer that sits on the desk in his bedroom, five feet away from the bed, not with electrical tape but with a piece of black construction paper. But if someone accidentally bumps that piece of paper, and he wakes up in the night with that light shining, he curses the light. “It’s bright!” he says. “It ruins the darkness.”
What a great line! That tiny green light “ruins the darkness.” Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “You are the light of the world.” Maybe he meant that there’s a lot of darkness out there, and he needs some people who can go out and punch holes in it, shine light on it, ruin the darkness. Can you imagine printing that on a business card: “John Doe: Ruiner of Darkness”? In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is calling us to be something like that: to be, first of all, the salt of the earth: that is, the kind of people who bring the earth to life; and secondly, the light of the world: that is, the kind of people who put darkness to death. And there’s a reason for this:
Jesus is trying to bring heaven to earth.
In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel he will teach his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. I believe he not only wants them to pray for it, I believe he wants them to work for it. He wants to bring heaven to earth and people are part of his strategy. People like us. People like those who gathered on a hillside in Galilee to hear him preach. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says. “You are the ones who are going to bring the earth to life. You are the light of the world,” he says. “You are the ones who are going to put darkness to death. And between us—if you do your part and I do mine—God’s kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Because there’s a problem here, one that is only hinted at in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus not only talks about salt, he talks about salt that has lost its taste. And he not only talks about light, he talks about light that is under a bushel. And then, at the end of the lesson, he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, I have a hunch: I think Jesus was saying that the scribes and Pharisees are like salt that has lost its taste, or like a lamp that is under a bushel. And if the idea of salt losing its taste confuses you maybe you could think of salt that never leaves the saltshaker. What good does it do? It doesn’t season anything. And what good does it do to put a lamp under a bushel? It gives off no light at all. My friend’s mother would be thrilled, but the world would be a darker place, the earth would be a less flavorful place, if salt and light kept to themselves. And I think that’s what Jesus is saying about the scribes and Pharisees.
They are righteous, all right. They are self-righteous. The scribes were experts in the Law of Moses. They were the ones who went through the Torah with a fine-toothed comb, looking for anything that could be interpreted as a commandment. And they had come up with 613 of them! 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones, or as I sometimes say: “A ‘thou shalt not’ for every day of the year.” The scribes identified the commands and the Pharisees kept them. That was their claim to fame. You may remember that the Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee and he was a diligent commandment keeper. “As to righteousness under the law,” he says, “I was blameless.” Is there anything wrong with that? Keeping the commandments? No, unless you become so obsessed with the letter of the law that you neglect its spirit.
And that’s what Jesus addresses in verse 17: he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets (which is what some of the scribes and Pharisees may have been saying about him behind his back, that he didn’t seem to be very careful about keeping all 613 commandments, that he sometimes ate without washing his hands, and sometimes healed on the Sabbath). I have come not to abolish the law,” he says, “but to fulfill it,” to fill it full. And what did Jesus come to fill it full of?
I think you know.
There’s a story in Mark 12 about a scribe who asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” I like to think it was a sincere question, that this poor scribe was exhausted from trying to find and keep all those commandments. So he comes to Jesus and asks, “Look, if I couldn’t keep all of them, if I could keep only one, which one should it be?” “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34).
Here’s a scribe who got it: that the law was all about love: love for God and love for neighbor. The scribes and Pharisees Jesus is talking about in this morning’s Gospel lesson don’t get it. They think that it’s all about keeping the rules, and as a result they end up keeping score. They start looking around, thinking, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m more righteous than Jacob over there. He’s only kept 605 rules; I’ve kept 607.” But that’s not the worst part: the worst part is that they are keeping all that righteousness to themselves. It’s like salt in the shaker, like a lamp under a bushel. It doesn’t flavor anything, doesn’t light anything up. Love, in contrast, is only love when it’s shared. You can’t keep your love for God to yourself. What good would that do? You can’t keep love for neighbor to yourself. What good would that do? Love that isn’t expressed isn’t love at all, and law that is only kept, and never shared, is not the kind of law God gave.
“Don’t think I have come to abolish the law,” Jesus says. “I have come to fill it full, full of the love God intended in the first place. And you’re going to help me do that, by being the kind of salt that comes out of the shaker and flavors the earth, and by being the kind of light that gets out from under the bushel and lights up the world.” And so, in the only true imperative in this entire passage, the only place where Jesus actually tells his hearers to do anything, he tells them to let their light shine before others, so that others may see their good works and give glory to their Father in heaven. And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? There are a lot of things we could do that would make people admire us. We could come to church every time the doors are open. We could read our Bibles and say our prayers. We could keep the Ten Commandments. Those are all good things, but they reflect directly on us. What could we do that would reflect directly on God, that would cause people to see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven?
It may have been the word reflect, but when I was asking myself that question I thought about shining a flashlight into a mirror. If you shine it straight at the mirror it bounces right back at you, but if you tilt the mirror at a 45-degree angle, the light bounces up toward the ceiling. I thought, “Somehow we’ve got to figure out how to do that, how to shine our light in such a way that it doesn’t reflect on us, but on God.” And that’s when I thought about doing our good works behind a mirror tilted at a 45-degree angle. It would be awkward, wouldn’t it? Someone would hear the noise, all the banging and scraping, and ask, “What are you doing back there?” “Shh! I’m doing good works!” “But I can’t see them.” “You’re not supposed to see them.” “Well, good, because all I can see now is clouds.” “Well, that’s close. Can you see what’s behind the clouds?” “Not really. Is it the sun?” “No, it’s the Father. When you see what I’ve done I want you to give him the glory, OK?”
There’s got to be a better way, and maybe there is. Maybe it’s to love God for his sake, and not ours. To love our neighbors for their sakes, and not ours. Maybe if we had a window instead of a mirror we could look through it at those who need the most love in this world and then quietly, stealthily, go to work on their behalf. Maybe then we would become for them the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and they would give glory to our Father who art in heaven.
—Jim Somerville © 2023