I’m going to do something a little bit different today. Lester Harrell, God bless him, told me some months ago that we ought to get away from using our manuscripts when we preach. Although I’m not letting go of the manuscript entirely, I am going to be a little less formal. If this goes sour, we know where to look. I’m just teasing you, Lester. After living for 90 years, a man has the right to say what he thinks, Amen?
I like using the term gritty to describe a person I admire, one that is confident in who she is and has a uniqueness all her own, including an authentic hardiness, someone who you know can endure life, someone who has good preserves in her soul, someone who is not afraid of life, someone who can come across a little bit rough but sure is tasty in personality. I grew up around a friend of my moms whose name is Patty Burnside, but I called her Burnysides. She has a distinct raspy voice that is loud and full of spunk. I love to hear her talk just so I can hear that voice. But what comes out of that voice is even more fun to hear. She has all kind of phrases she likes to use that tickle me pink, and she says exactly what is on her mind. I love to hear her say, “Well, heavenly days, Patty!” (My mom’s name is Patty too.) She is so much fun, and she shoots it straight. No mincing words. That is my kind of salty person. I love that woman! You know someone like that has probably been thru hell and back.
The characters of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in the film, True Grit, epitomize this saltiness in their pursuit of Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie’s father. When young but very feisty Mattie approaches Rooster to tell him that he is her choice for the pursuit of Chaney, she acknowledges his character, saying she has heard he is a man of true grit. Mattie needed someone she could trust that would equal her determination and passion for justice. She revered Rooster because she saw in him a don’t-quit-attitude with which she could relate. Who else could be more perfect for the job? In a short period of watching him, she could see a spirit of endurance, perseverance , strength, determination, and gritty soulfulness. This grimy, gritty man seemed to be made of steel, yet his heart was pure gold. What a combination!
In the gospel of Matthew, following the Beatitudes, Jesus continues with blessing the people of Israel by exclaiming that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This is not a suggestion by Jesus. This is a calling out of the people of God. Jesus does not say, “You will be,” or “you should be,” or “you can be.” No, Jesus proclaims the identity of his disciples as salt and light. This proclamation is an extension of all of the blessings that proceed in the passage above. Jesus blesses the disciples again, telling them who they are in God and sends them forth with this identity for the benefit of the kingdom of God. This is not a foreign calling to the people of God. The people of God were chosen to be a light to the nations. Isaiah 42:6 says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” This is a remembrance of who the people of God are called to be. Jesus is reminding them who they are and whose they are.
So what does this identity of being salt and light mean? Salt has a variety of connotations in the Hebrew scripture and was used in various ways. Firstly, the image if salt relays a message of covenant in the Hebrew tradition. Jesus is recalling to the people of God the covenant they share in communion with God. Secondly, there are a variety of attributes that salt has. Not only is salt savory, but also it is a cleansing agent, it is imperishable, a preservative, and most interestingly it is a fueling agent. It can add strength to a dying flame.
Listen to this. In the lectionary resource for Catholics, Larry Broding explains, “In (Matthew) 5:13, the salt referred to is the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus. Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were light in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface.”
This is amazing to me. Not only are we called to be a flavorful people, reflecting the beauty of God in diverse ways, but also we are called to be that which endures, that which keeps the flame going. We are the salt in a world of dung that helps to burn bright the light of Christ. It is our calling to literally keep the faith alive, to keep the flame burning, to endure the heat of troubling times and persevere. The only thing that is imperishable is our faith. To that we must cling. The kingdoms of this world will fade away, but our faith will endure, and we are called to be the endurance of the faith, to be that which fuels the light of Christ to the world. We are called to add flavor, to spice things up and be our true selves, offering what God has created us to be to the furthering of the kingdom. We are uniquely made, and we each have gifts and our own flavor to add to the dish. Christ is calling us to be who we truly are in him. Embrace your saltiness, and use it for furthering the kingdom of God!
When Jesus says that the salt which has lost its saltiness is thrown out and trampled on under foot, he is saying that unless we be who we are called out by Christ to be, then we are of no substance. Is it possible for salt to lose its saltiness? How does that happen? Well, it just so happens that it is possible for salt to lose its saltiness. When a salt rock has been exposed too long to the air, it can lose its worth, and at that point it can only be thrown out on the ground under which people trample. Think about that for a minute. If we are salt just sitting out in the air, chillaxin’, waitin’ for Lot’s wife to run into us or waitin’ to be trampled upon, we lose our ability to be of use. We essentially lose our identity in Christ. We chose to deny our calling and hence we are of no use to the kingdom of God, and in fact, Jesus says we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. If our righteousness does not exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, if we rest on our laurels and are inactive, we will perish. We’ll come back to that in a little bit.
The same goes for being the light of the world. First of all, let’s just think about what this means for us. Jesus identifies himself as the light of the world. Now he is giving that identity to his disciples. That is huge! The light of God that is in Christ is in us, and we are called by Jesus to shine that light for all to see. God entrusts us with his work on earth. If we are a city built on a hill, Another City, as Barry Harvey would say, then we have visibility. If we choose to hide our light and escape the calling of Christ on our lives, then we add nothing to the kingdom because no one will be able to see the light of Christ and hence give glory to our Father in heaven. But if we are a city on a hill then we cannot remain hidden.
I think we can identify with the people to whom Jesus is speaking. It was a time of uncertainty in the life of the Hebrew faith and tradition. In the context of these pieces of scripture, the people of God were confused about how to stay true to their heritage when they did not occupy their land. For them, politics and religion were not separate. Because they understood the sovereignty of God in relation to occupying their land, they were at a loss for understanding how to live out their faith. How was God to be sovereign if they did not also have authority over their own land? They had confusion and doubts about what it meant to be the people of God in that space, how to abide by the law without being zealots or hermits. One the one hand there were Zealots who believed they should take over the empire, and on the other hand there were a sect of Pharisees who believed they should be hermits and follow the Torah basically in hiding. Jesus calls for neither. Neither be hostile and angry nor be complacent and defeated. It is quite important for Jesus to communicate to his audience that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Abiding by the Torah is essential to being the salt and light of the world. Jesus instructs his disciples to be exactly themselves, exactly whom God calls them to be. They are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, so be it.
And in being salt and light, we must recognize that our good works are a byproduct of God in us, that all glory may be given to our Father who is in heaven. None of us can function very well for any length of time relying only on ourselves to do the good work. Our fuel that allows us to be the fuel for keeping the flame of Christ alive is exactly the light of Christ in us. If we allow Christ to use us, then our works will be reflective of his light. We always must recognize our need for dependence upon God to do what we are called to do. Yet, we must not take our responsibility lightly either.
I love what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to say about this. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer is frank about what it means to be a follower of Christ. In his chapters about this particular passage of Matthew, Bonhoeffer gives Christians a reality check. He says, “Now they must be what they really are—otherwise they are not followers of Jesus. The followers are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world—otherwise it would not be discipleship. And of course the following is as visible to the world as a light in the darkness or a mountain rising from a plain. Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” In other words, if you escape your calling as the salt and the light, then you cannot be called a disciple of Christ. You forfeit your calling and are in denial of it.
As the community of God called UBC, we can do what Christ calls us to do. But what does being salt look like in action? What does being light look like in action? Salt can irritate a wound, but it cleanses and heals. Salt is imperishable and is a preservative to what it touches. Salt is fuel for a dying fire. That fire gives heat to a cold and hopeless world. It shines in dark places where shame and pain hide. It enlivens a weary soul. The light of Christ carries us when we are burdened. We can do it! We must do it or we will erode and die like a rock of salt left out in the air. Yet we have what is imperishable within us. If we are acutely aware of what we have been given and recognize the power of God beyond our own strivings, then we will see the light that shines within us, we will believe what that light can do. What God has begun, God will complete.
Cogburn displays extraordinary strength and fortitude when he sees the potential for Mattie’s life to be snuffed out. After she gets trapped in a dark hole with snakes surrounding her and one bites her, Cogburn envelops her and is determined to keep life in her. Cogburn carries Mattie thru the night after the horse completely tuckers out. He runs by foot to save her life. I’m gonna get down right gritty with you. Every person in this community is called to be a part of the light, to be a part of shining brightly on a hill for all to see. What is your role in the community of UBC? What are you going to do with your salt and light? In a time when the lights of churches are dimly lit across America, how will we be that city upon a hill shining brightly? When we decided to follow Jesus, we decided to carry on the ministry the Christ started. No one said it was going to be easy. The cost of discipleship is steep. What are our actions to be? Certainly, they are to be consistent with the Hebrew law, the Torah. Jesus makes explicit that he comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it. We cannot do what we are called to do apart from the law. What does Jesus tell us that the two most important commandments are? “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.”
It takes people of true grit to accept the blessing, the calling to be what salt is to the world—it is flavorful, it is cleansing, it is energizing, it preserves, it perseveres. It is our calling to preserve the faith, to run the good race, and not in our own strength, but through the power of God to whom we will give all the glory for our good works, because it is God who empowers us. It is God who has called us by name; God has called us out to be what God expects, and so we rely on God to help us be the salt and the light. Jesus says that he is the light, and now he blesses us with that identity. A song that we learned at Children’s Camp comes to mind… “We are walking in the light of God we are walking in the Light of God”….Walking in the light of God shapes how we live. It shapes our actions, our motives, it reinterprets our agendas. Being the light of the world means being present to the call we have to persevere, to endure and keep the faith, to preserve the faith by living it out. Be your salty self, do something to spice things up a bit for the kingdom of God. Go boldly and be a Burnysides, a Cogburn, a Mattie, or rather just be the bold light and salt of the earth that you are. Amen.