Matthew 5: 13 - 16 (CEB): “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It's good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can't be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
I am standing here today because this is Laity Sunday, the Sunday set aside by the General Conference to honor the service of the laity. Last Sunday Pastor Kim spoke about the faithful service provided by the elders of this church. Your service has been and continues to be invaluable to this church, even as we search for ways to reach out to a new generation.
The theme of this year’s Laity Sunday is “Disciples Transforming the World through Service and Witness.” When we join the United Methodist Church, we make a vow, and when we receive new members into the church, as we did most recently on Confirmation Sunday, we renew that vow. We promise to be loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church and do all in our power to strengthen its ministries; to faithfully participate in its ministries by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Service and Witness: might we look at Salt and Light as metaphors for service and witness.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” That is a common, if old-fashioned, expression that we use today. “That Bill Harris, he’s the salt of the earth.” We mean that he is a good and humble person who performs a valuable service to those around him. Salt is equated with value. Today, actual salt is a cheap and plentiful commodity. In fact, in our modern American diet we consume so much salt that it is almost a poison to our bodies. It is found in large amounts in virtually every processed food we eat. High blood pressure, obesity and heart failure can be the consequences of this diet. So to call someone “the salt of the earth” seems a back-handed complement by today’s standards.
Yet we know that, historically, salt was highly valued and its use in food preservation is even considered one of the foundations of civilization. Salt’s use eliminated people’s dependence on the seasonal availability of food. It was so valuable that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with salt. It is said that soldiers who did their job well were “worth their salt.” The word salary is derived from the Latin “salarium,” which refers to the money Roman soldiers were paid so they could buy salt.
Biblical reference to salt go back to the beginning, to the priestly covenant between God and Aaron. In the Torah, that covenant is repeatedly referred to as “a covenant of salt forever.” The first reference I found is Leviticus 2:13 which says: “You must season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings.” Such was the value of salt that it became part of the required offering to God and a symbol of his covenant with us.
When Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension, tells us, “You are the salt of the earth” he is telling them how valuable their service is. He is telling us how valuable our service is as his disciples today. We demonstrate our “saltiness” by serving him and preserving his message. There are many ways to serve. On Laity Sunday, we celebrate the service offered by the people of the church. We serve, who stand and lead, who play instruments and sing beautiful songs of praise. We serve who teach and who guide the little children. We serve who trim bushes and sweep sidewalks and pick up trash to make God’s house more pleasing. We serve who clean the kitchen and set the tables for fellowship. We serve who visit the sick and lonely, who feed the poor, who write a note or invite a visitor. We serve who take care of the business of the church institution. We serve who are faithful in attendance and giving. We serve who pray for our church. Hebrews 6:10 makes a promise to those who serve: “God isn’t unjust so that he forgets your efforts and the love you have shown for his name’s sake when you served and continue to serve God’s holy people.” Thanks be for the people of the church who serve. You are the salt of the earth.
Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world.... Let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” In the very beginning, God said “Let there be light.” Light - the presence of God. We bring the Christ candle in to begin our worship. Its light symbolizes his presence with us. With light, we can find our way home, find the right path. When we want something to be known, we bring it into the light.
You have experienced being in the dark. I mean real dark, not metaphorical, not city dark, but moonless country dark, locked in a closet dark. It can be frightening. We cannot witness what is happening around us. People up to no good prefer the dark, because witnesses can’t identify them clearly without light. To see, to witness requires light. To be a witness is to shed light. Two aspects of witness are seeing and telling. That is what Jesus is telling us when he says “Let your light shine.” Tell about what we have witnessed in our own lives and in the life of our church. Don’t hide the good things that we know about. Let our light shine. Think of a bride’s face, or a groom’s; the light of love shines from within for all to see. See the mother and father as they first witness their newborn. The light of their love shines and they can’t wait to share their good news. So it might be with the good news of the gospel, if we are willing to let the love of God shine in us.
As he was about to leave his disciples, Jesus told them to shed their light on the whole world. In Acts 1:8, what we call the Great Commission, he said “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” To witness is to shed His light, to share what we know of God’s grace and mercy and love; to share what we know from our own personal experience. Witnessing and evangelism have taken on negative associations for many of us. We are just not comfortable with it. I’m not even comfortable standing here talking to you about it. But we have been called out, and we have promised to participate in the ministries of our church by our witness. This is more than just inviting someone to church, although that is hard enough. Our witness is the evidence of God’s love and grace in our lives.The way we show love to our neighbor, the way we treat others, our integrity in the workplace and community, the faithfulness of our service -- all these bear witness to the world of God’s love. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine.
One of my particular heroines, whose light shined in a powerful way, is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a civil rights icon from my home county in Mississippi, Sunflower County. She was a woman to whom the phrase, salt of the earth, certainly applied. She was humble, uneducated, but unshakeable in a faith that propelled her activism, especially in the arena of voter rights. For her actions, she suffered physical and economical abuse, lost her house and her job, but she persevered, prevailed and rose to national prominence leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the 1964 national convention. Her theme was the gospel song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” and she sang it at every opportunity. Her saltiness and her shining light were inspiration to millions. This month, a statue was unveiled in her hometown of Ruleville, MS, and dedicated to her, 35 years after her death. Her faith; her salt and light continue shine and to inspire.
In today’s scripture Jesus also reminds us that if we aren’t careful, we may lose our saltiness. Mrs. Hamer never did. Our light may become hidden, hers never did. I’m afraid that some of us have been around the church so long, that faithful as we may be, our light has become less bright, like a weary parent at the end of their rope with a teen; like an old married couple whose love is strong, but no longer shines fresh in their faces. It’s not that we really want to hide our love and light. It’s just that our light may be reduced to a flickering candle.
To serve and to witness: How do we keep our salt fresh, and keep our light shining strongly. It is both simple and hard. We need to spend time with God. Prayer, studying the scriptures, talking with other Christians, worship, communion and even fasting - these are ways to develop and maintain a closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ. John Wesley called these practices the means of grace. We can’t shine for others without the light of love within us. We need these means of grace - prayer, scripture, conferencing, worship, communion, fasting - in order to absorb the light of Christ, to reflect his light and live as his disciples.
Only a few are called to the priesthood, to be full time pastors. I found a story about a staff sign on a church bulletin board. The sign read: Pastor: John Jones. Ministers: the entire congregation.” We are all called to ministry: to serve and to witness. This has been called the “priesthood of the believers,” from 1 Peter 2:9, But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God's own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Priesthood of believers is an old-fashioned term. In contemporary language we would say the “Ministry of all Christians.” Ministry of all Christians is a phrase that reminds us that each of us is called to serve and to witness; to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. May we go forth and let our light so shine that all may see in us, the people of Trinity, the good news of the gospel.” Amen.