SJF • Epiphany 5a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
Today our Gospel reading continues with a section of the Sermon on the Mount, and the theme with which this portion picks up relates to the theme from last week. As you recall, I spoke about the meaning of meekness as knowing how and where one stands both with God and with other people, neither blown up with pride nor groveling in false humility.
Today we continue with this idea of “being what you are.” Jesus gives two telling examples to make this point. He speaks of salt that has lost its saltiness, and a lamp hidden under a bushel basket. Neither the salt or the lamp is good for very much in these situations, for it is the saltiness of salt that gives it its purpose, and the light of a lamp that gives it its usefulness.
Here is a more modern example. This little pocket flashlight was a promotional giveaway that I picked up at some conference or other a few years ago. It no longer works, the battery is dead. But it doesn’t open — it is self-sealed in plastic — so there is no way to replace or to charge the battery. It is, as Jesus would say, good for nothing but to be thrown out — and now that I’ve dug it out of the bottom of the desk drawer to which it had found its way, that is exactly what I plan to do! I suppose I should in all charity towards the flashlight acknowledge that it has served one final purpose — as a sermon illustration! But I fear that is a bit like saying that a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
The real point is that a thing that can no longer fulfill the function for which it was designed — while it just might have some other use — is more likely taking up space and serving no purpose — it is good for nothing. This is why the image with which Jesus begins is so telling: salt that isn’t salty really isn’t good for anything — and a lamp — or a flashlight — that doesn’t shine a light is a waste of space.
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Now, of course, Jesus is using these images to provoke the people to whom he speaks — and that includes us! It is we who are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world: and if we lose our saltiness or hide our light, we are not being what we are meant to be, and equipped to be, designed to be, by God.
It is a funny thing about people — as I observed last week talking about meekness — that people often want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and they often treat others or themselves as less than they are. The hardest thing, it seems, is for us to simply be what we are!
If I can quote one of my favorite preachers, an old friend who died a few years ago, Canon Richard Norris: He observed that people will often say to themselves or others such things as, “Act your age!” or “Be a man!” He said, “No one would think of saying to a penguin, ‘Be a penguin,’ or to a cat, ‘Be a cat.’” The penguin would likely give you a strange look and just go on being a penguin; and the cat... well no one can really tell a cat anything. “And yet,” Norris continued, “Wewill say to a man, “‘Be a man!’” It appears we recognize that we human beings, unlike penguins or cats, often act as if we were not what we are.
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And of course, that comes about because we so often act as if we were less than we are. We deny our gifts, fail to share what we have, perhaps because we fear it will not be enough, or that people will think less of us if they see us as we do ourselves — not as we are, but low in our own estimation in spite of God’s powerful promise and charge. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” Jesus assures us of both. Perhaps salt is not such a telling image in our time, when salt is easily available and our diets actually contain too much of it! But in the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity with many uses, in some places worth its weight in gold. And it is good to remember that the amount rationed out to every Roman soldier gave rise to a modern word with which we are all familiar: salary.
So imagine Jesus is saying, “You are worth your weight in gold!” and perhaps you will get some sense of how valuable each of us is in his service. The point is that, like the gold talent buried in the ground instead of being invested in trade, we dare not hide our gifts or let them rest idle, but put them to use: to be what we are. You know the slogan, no doubt, “Be all that you can be!” That starts with being what you already are, accepting your gifts and putting them to work through practice. Practice: That is, as the old joke has it, how to get to Carnegie Hall!
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You all know that the verse, “Let your light so shine before others,” has long standing as anoffertory sentence, used just before the collection of the people’s offerings. That is taking the relation of salt with salary literally! And far be it from me to limit the reality that our offerings play in keeping the church functioning,
from the prosaic matters of heat and light on up to all the work of prayer and praise. We all know too well that these lights won’t shine if we don’t pay Con Ed!
But being a shining light or the salt of the earth means so much more. We are, as Jesus assures us, gifted with many capacities to be salt and light — to be what we are and rejoice in all that we can be. We each of us have many gifts that we may not be using for the service of God, the praise of God, to the glory of God. Let us not adopt a false modesty that says, “Who am I?” God knows who you are, who each of us is, and knows we are worth our weight in gold, salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let us not, as the Lord challenged us through Isaiah, engage in the wrong kind of fast, a groveling in sackcloth and ashes, and bowing our heads like a bulrush, acting as if we were less than we are. Let us rather rise up to break the yoke of injustice, to feed the hungry and set free the captive, using all we have to those ends. What a shame it would be if we did not make use of who we are to help make this world a better place, a more loving place, a more just and peaceful place.
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A wise old man, Rabbi Zusya, used to say, “When I come before the throne of the Holy One, Blessed be He, He will not say to me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ or ‘Why were you not Elijah?’ He will say to me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” We are the salt of the earth, the seasoning that preserves it and gives it flavor. We are the light of the world, called to be lights to each other and to those who live in the darkness of fear and ignorance. Let us be who we are, sisters and brothers, and put our gifts to work for God and God’s kingdom, making the most of all the skills and talents with which we are equipped by the grace of God, through the Spirit of God and to the glory of God. In whose name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves in service.+