The Sermon - Week 2: "Salt & Light"

In 1998 I landed my very first job in a church--as a part time youth director for a tiny 80-member church in Tallahassee, Florida.  The pay was less than part time, if we're being honest--but the hours weren't.  You can't really do part time youth ministry--at least not very well.

There was this kid that found us one year.  I think someone invited him at some point, and before too long he was permanent fixture at just about every youth event we had.  He lived with his disabled mom in a small apartment that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and dog fur.

He would call me sometimes and ask if I could give him a ride to one thing or another--to the store, to Walgreens...  If he couldn't get a hold of me, he would try one of the kids who could drive--but mostly he got a hold of me.  Sometimes our excursions would take several hours--hours I didn't have with a wife and small child at home, and a mountain of school work to complete so I could finish college.

Once after I sat for an hour in the parking lot of a pharmacy, I told him that he needed to try to find someone else to give him a ride once in a while--that it was hard for me to take the time away from my family, and school work and...

His face told me all that I needed to know.  He'd heard the speech before.  Just not from his youth pastor.

I'm not really proud of that moment.  He was just a kid trying to do his best to take care of his mom, who always needed something from the store, a prescription filled... something.  His dad lived elsewhere--remarried with a new life.  He had run through all the friends he had bumming rides, money, you name it.  And here I was, teaching him all about what it meant to be a Christian, and when it got difficult to be one--I let him down.

When you watch TV or go to the movies, have you ever noticed how Christians always seem to get ridiculed or are portrayed as hate-filled, hypocrites?  I notice these things.  I also know that I'm one of the many reasons why that happens. Because when it gets hard to be a good Christian, I have this tendency...
...not to be.

Churches are shrinking--for the most part.  Mine isn't, but we're a huge exception---for now.

Who are we anyway?  What are supposed to do?  What's our purpose?

These are all questions that sort of live beneath the surface of our lives--those of us who call ourselves Christians, anyway.  Listen, if you're not a Christian... just sit back and listen to this for a bit.  You're off the hook for this one, but if you'd like to hang in, you might hear something as we go through this teaching that might help you understand a little bit more about what it means to really follow Jesus.

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he was throwing down some serious teaching that basically outlined a new way of understanding and living for God.  It was also counter-intuitive to what people in his day would have deemed "good" teaching.  For Jesus, Up was Down; Black was White; and Religion only works when you have a Relationship with God...  It was all upside down.

Then Jesus tells his followers something profound.  He tells them that they have the power to change the world.  He tells them that if they live beautiful lives--away from the grubby mediocrity of the world, they can make things better and brighter.

In a nutshell, here's what he taught them:  Living an upside-down Jesus-centered life makes the world around you better.

To put a finer point on it--living such a life makes the people in the world better, too, which I think makes the whole proposition even more impossible to believe.

Why don't we take a look at Matthew 5:13-20 and see what Jesus said, specifically:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

I need to say something about the immediate context of Jesus words before we move forward--it'll be essential to our understanding more fully what he's trying to say.  You see, context of Jesus teaching is the political and religious course of the people of Israel--particularly in a moment when they are under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire.  The fact that their leaders had actually invited the Romans to rule in the first place doesn't help matters.  Many Jews believed that they were still in exile--a continuation of the Babylonian exile from centuries before.  

By the time Jesus comes along, the Hebrew people are basically divided into four factions (which is totally oversimplifying things because there were undoubtedly more, but these were the biggies): Zealots (who wanted to fight and overthrow thing), Essenes (who were like survivalists who were suspicious of everything and moved out into the wilderness to be away from it all), Collaborators (who were in league with the Romans for power and profit) and Pharisees.  

Pharisees believed that God's promises of the redemption and restoration of Israel were for the future, and that the only way to speed the fulfillment of those promises was to obey the rules, keep your nose to the grindstone, retain your particular identity as a "good Jew" and disassociate from everything and everyone that might disabuse you of this notion.  

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

What Jesus does here is remarkable.  He tells the people that the preservation of their identity wasn't enough---they had to do more.  Keeping the rules and regulations for the sake of the rules and regulations wasn't working--there had to be more.  

Embedded in Jesus' challenge here is both and individual and community oriented mandate.  In other words, he issues a challenge to his would-be followers both as individuals and also as a community.  Which is why he uses the terms, "salt & light."

I know--it sounds funny for Jesus to use such seemingly disparate items to use as a metaphor for how his followers should act in the world.  But when you think about it, Jesus was using salt and light because they make things... better.

Take salt, for example.

Salt takes what is bland and tasteless and makes it taste better.

At one of the churches I served, I used to go to a luncheon once a month hosted by the older folks in the church.  I don't think there was single person under the age of 80 in that group.  And most of them had issues with hypertension, so virtually every dish they served needed half a shaker of salt on it.  They would tell me each time, "Now, you're probably going to have to put salt on this, because we don't really cook with it..."  I wanted to go, "Really? I've always preferred my food, so bland that even Mr. Rogers would think it was too spicy!"

Now, too much salt can be bad for you, too, but that's not the point that Jesus was trying to make.  The right amount of "salt" from a Jesus follower can do things to make someone else's life taste a whole lot better--to take them from ordinary to extraordinary, from joyless to hopeful.  What Jesus was calling his followers to do was to practice things that would "humanize" people--draw out the image of God from within them, so to speak.

Then there's light...  Jesus' teaching here has a collective connotation--a gathered community that comes together and acts as a mirror to reflect God's light--the kind of light that nurtures growth, provides warmth and gives joy.

Our official church vision is "To Reflect and Reveal the Unselfish Love of Christ to the World."  We shortened it a few years ago to "When You Know Jesus, You Show Jesus." When we come together as a church, desiring to know Jesus more intimately, to move beyond the forms of religion to the real of a relationship--we start showing Jesus in ways that we never thought possible.

Here's the thing... The Pharisees had this notion of righteousness--what it meant to be "right with God"--that was grounded in outward appearances.  Their righteousness was concerned with observance, public piety and adhering to the letter of the law.  Because of this they looked down on everyone who didn't believe exactly as they did.  They separated themselves from the world and from others.  And by doing so, they denied the very calling that God had given to Israel to be a light to the nations--to draw others to God.

Is this starting to connect for you yet?

Then there's Jesus' notion of being right with God--a notion he wanted us to embrace that flows directly from his relationship with God, and which drives us to seek to live justly as an expression of our worship and a passion for God's vision of redemption and restoration--for the whole world.  It's like Jesus was saying to his followers--and to the Pharisees: "You are thinking too small.  This isn't just for you---it's for everyone."

And when we finally get this--we start living in ways that draw out the best in the people we meet---and shine the way to hope for the people who see us together.

Many years ago, while on a youth mission trip, I learned a valuable and painful lesson that taught me what it meant to be salt and light.  After working hard all day long, and experiencing our evening worship, I went back to the house where I was staying with all of the high school guys.  We started playing Hearts, and decided that it would be a good idea to be manly and play for "punches."  If you took points after each hand of hearts, you would get the same amount of punches on your arm.

I know.  It was dumb.  This is what happens when there are no women around to talk sense into men.

Finally, after a few piddly hands and socks to a few guys arms (I got five or six) one of the high school guys lost big and had about ten punches coming to him. Everyone but the adult leaders took a whack--though none of them very hard.

When it was all said and done, I noticed that he was just sort of sitting around the circle with a terrible look on his face, and he finally hung his head and started crying.

What none of us knew was that he'd been struggling with his faith--struggling with his identity in the group--just struggling.  That moment brought all of it out, and it poured forth in a rush of emotion.  He told us things that he'd been holding in and which he probably regretted saying as soon as he said them.  We were all stung by his words, especially me.

After he was done, we all sat there in silence, looking stupid with our playing cards in our hands.  At that moment the one guy in the group who had not been playing, a quiet, thoughtful and sweet hearted guy named Aaron, stepped out of the shadows and came and sat by the boy who had let us all have it.  He didn't say anything.  He just sat next to him, cross legged, and then he reached out his hand and touched the other boy's shoulder.  Aaron just sat there quietly, saying nothing--his head bowed, his hand never moving.

Then I moved forward and did the same--then the next guy, and the next.  We all gathered around the distraught young man and sat together in silence.  Then we told him things that he needed to hear--that he was loved, that we were sorry and that we had let him down in more ways than one.

Later that week the young man who we'd gathered around gave his life to Christ during one of our worship sessions.  Years afterward he would go on to college, get involved in a campus ministry, and after he graduated he became a staff member for that campus ministry---and now leads mission trips, and worship services for other kids...

All because one young man was salt and light---and stepped out of the shadows to make what was bitter--better.  And because of what Aaron did,  we came together as a community and our light shone.

This is our call, brothers and sisters.  This is who we are, and what we are supposed to do.  As individuals we are called to draw out the image of God from within all those we meet.  As a church we are called to be a mirror to reflect the light of God.  We are called to know Jesus and to show Jesus.

Because living an upside down, Jesus-centered life makes the world around you--around us--better.  
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