Salt and Light (February 6, 2011)

Define this proverb: “A man is known by his friends.”

I have a fundamental assumption.  This is an assumption that goes for just about everything—church life, home life, school life, family life.  When we put ourselves in the Lord’s presence, when you put yourself in the Lord’s presence—change occurs—and it is the kind of change that leads to the kind of life that Jesus describes.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t occur in isolation. But gradually qualities seen in the Sermon on the Mount occur.

The lives of the great men and women of faith attest to this:  the early Christian martyrs, Benedict, Francis, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Mother Teresa.  Their time with the Lord changed them, from the inside out.

But what is also true is that transformation that occurs leads to something—it leads to outward action.  I see this also as Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, one foot in the Kingdom, one foot firmly planted on the earth.

Our tendency as Americans is to see the life of faith as something private.  From the cowboy on the frontier praying on the top of the mountain to the woman in the bookstore reading about spirituality we would rather leave faith to the private individual.

The problem is, that is not Jesus’ vision at all for the people of God.

Our own John Wesley said, ‘If we keep the Christian religion from being seen we make it ofno effect,’ and ‘to turn Christianity into a solitary religion is to destroy it.’  And Deitrich Bonheoffer says, ‘Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call.’  As much as we would like to hide our faith or only see it as something we do invisibly at church, Jesus has other ideas.

Jesus has two simple images for the people of God, be salt and light.  Salt and light.  Salt purifies, cleanses and provides taste.  Light is something that is to be seen to show the way.

Notice Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth,’ not ‘you must be the salt.’  As Bonhoeffer says, ‘It is not for the disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received…Once again it is not: ‘you are to be the light,’ they are already the light because Christ has called them, they are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise, and if they were it would be a sign that they had not been called.’

Bad news for Episcopalians.  Now you noticed I have gone quite awhile without saying the ‘E’ word.  Maybe I’ll avoid it altogether and give us a picture of what salt and light can be.

Jesus images of salt and light imply that the people of God are encountered in the culture in intimate ways.  You cannot provide light for the path or preservation for food—without there being a direct encounter with darkness and food.

A nun in China asked Thomas Merton why Catholics there were not evangelizing more and why they were not trying to convince Buddhists and Hindus of the truth of Christianity and Merton replied, “What we are asked to do at present is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

You can’t have ‘saltiness’ if no one has a ‘taste’ of what you are about.  We can’t be salt and light if we do not see ourselves as salt and light.  St. John Chrysostom says, ‘You are accountable not only for your own life but also for that of the entire world.’

What does that mean?  This is not something that is easily defined.  We know it is not the legalism of the Pharisees, we know it is not selling out to culture so much that we are indistinguishable.

It means being salt and light—to the extent that the world changes because of the people of God.  In 1969 Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist went to Calcutta to do a documentary on Mother Teresa.  This was before he was a Christian—he had been the editor of a satirical magazine.  At first Mother Teresa refused but changed her mind saying ‘Let us do something beautiful for God’ (The first time she had used that term); so, they began filming. Leadership magazine says, “When they began filming, something strange happened.  Even though there was not enough light in the hospice for filming, the finished film was bathed in a particularly beautiful soft light.  [Muggeridge saw it as the love of God surrounding the process]  Later, he wrote a book about Mother Teresa and eventually became a Christian.”

To be salt and light is to have love for those around us, to the extent that we feel accountable for the whole world.

It is like the words of Isaac of Ninevah:

“Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.

Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Se slandered, but do not slander others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.

Suffer with the sick.

Be afflicted with sinners.

Exult with those who repent.

Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.

Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.

Salt and light: Those who are salt and light feel accountable for others, in the words of Wesley, ‘We should follow after love, and desire to spend and be spent for our brothers [and sisters].’

But I can’t live that way.  I don’t have time to be salt and light.  And what’s in it for me?  Why should I care about ‘them.’

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, tells this story:

“I know a man who lives in Paris.  His wife has Alzheimer’s.  He was an important businessman—his life filled with busyness.  But he said that when his wife fell sick, ‘I just couldn’t put her in an institution, so I kept her.  I fed her.  I bathed her.’  I went to Paris to visit them [says Vanier] and this businessman who had been very busy all his life said, ‘I have changed.  I have become more human.’  I got a letter from him recently.  He said that in the middle of the night his wife woke him up.  She came out of the fog for a moment, and she said, ‘Darling, I just want to say thank you for all you’re doing for me.’  Then she fell back into the fog.  He told me, ‘I wept and wept.’

Sometimes Christ calls us to love people who cannot love us in return.  They live in the fog of mental illness, disabilities, poverty, or spiritual blindness.  We may only receive fleeting glimpses of gratitude.  But just as Jesus has loved us in the midst of our spiritual confusion, so we continue to love others as they walk through a deep fog.”

Salt and light: The people of God are accountable not just for our own lives but also for the whole world.