Epiphany V: A Pinch of Salt, A Ray of Light

Epiphany V – February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]
Psalm 112:1-9, [10]
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Matthew 5:13-20
A Pinch of Salt, A Ray of Light
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
        When I was a child, when I was tempted to moan or complain about being tired, or about a job being too difficult, or the weather being too cold….my father would repeat his mantra: “you are strong, you can take it, you are a Viking!” When out for a strenuous hike in the Sierras, or faced with a yard full of leaves to rake or a sink full of dirty dishes… at the slightest peep of discontent Dad would place before me the image of the strength of my ancestors and the message to me that: you are, down to the very essence of your being, from the stock of strong people who have endured far more than you will ever have to endure. You, my little one, are strong too, down to the very marrow of your being. It wasn’t until I grew older that I learned that, though Vikings have many qualities of strength and endurance, they also have a violent history of sacking, plundering and pillaging…It was a harsh realization but a brutal reality that is part of a larger story that is also my heritage and inheritance. The blessing that my father set before me… a growing child…was the positive quality and image of who I already was… an image that I was also called to grow into as one with resilience and grit.
        To put it another way, as the scholar David Lose has written:
“Children…become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or a teen or an adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she – all of us! — will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.”1
        According to some psychologists, children need to hear ten positive affirmations to counteract every negative message. In the midst of the negativity and darkness that is seeking to overwhelm our world, there is a huge hunger and need to remember to whom we belong, and who we have been created to be. As we were told last week in the Beatitudes, the first lesson in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are blessed and beloved. In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount we are reminded of our roles in God’s great story: to be salt and light .
        Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount continues this week with this second lesson that tells us our mission in the world:  “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”  The message is not “you should be salt and light.” Or that you must “learn to be salt and light”  … Jesus says that you are already, here and now, salt and light. You are already, in your DNA as burgeoning disciples, ones who lift up and enhance the life around you. You are like salt that doesn’t seek to overwhelm with its own flavor. You are a catalyst that and brings out and enhances the flavors in your midst… like the pinch of salt that amplifies the chorus of flavors in a steaming pot of soup. As light, you are, not that which seeks to be in the spotlight, you are ones who provide light in the world around you, seeking to illumine dark and forgotten places, seeking to highlight beauty, seeking to bring out the best qualities in those around you. You are ones to lift up the inherent goodness of others… to identify, shine light and encourage the expression of gifts especially in those whose light may be but a faint flicker. There is so much negativity seeking to tear down and take an ever more aggressive and firmer hold in our world. Negativity is a force that seeks to claim power through negative messaging in the diminishment of others. We know how easy it is to take on and absorb negative messages… messages that we are not good enough, not worthy enough, not able enough… about… you can fill in the blank. When the positive or negative messages
come from parents, or teachers, or society, they easily sink in and take root… and then the messages are echoed, repeated and reinforced from inside… especially the negative ones:  “I am not worthy…”One voice, one adult, one mentor, one friend can help break a cycle of negativity and help set us on a new course. Such people would, indeed, be considered the salt of the earth: thoroughly decent,reliable, and honest… expressing clearly and cleanly on the outside the light that shines from inside… the light of Christ shining through… and being salt and light wherever they go. Can you think of someone whose presence in your life helped encourage you and lift you up, reminding you that you are precious and beloved, worthy and gifted? Such witnesses stand out in our memories.
        There is a lot of divisiveness and dis-ease in our world right now. We are swimming in negative messages about whole categories and groups of people… Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, those who belong, and those who don’t… the negative messages seek to divide and pigeon hole, to extinguish light and to ignore the giftedness and potential in God’s beloved. Yes, there are problems and great challenges in our world, and there are choices to be made about how to deal with those challenges… and there are a multitude of options beyond the blunt and cruel. It is possible to be strong while, at the same time, encouraging and building up. It is possible to stand in strength while being flexible and resilient at the same time. The messages that I fear are seeking to overwhelm us say that there is only one way to move forward, and that is to fix our “problems” because “those people”e are our problem.
        The choices don’t have to be the ones that negates the humanity of whole groups of human beings, scapegoating them, of making them “the other.” We can be salt and light and promote dignity in strength.
        Dr. King was a leader who worked to transform society in the midst of the brutal apartheid of segregation in our country. He chose peace as a guiding principle, while being salt that was both an irritant in the wounds of the establishment, and light that
lifted up the dignity of the disenfranchised. When the Montgomery bus boycott ended, Dr. King knew that there would be great challenges for those who would be threatened as they stepped back onto the buses. Dr. King provided guidance for those who would be stepping back into the fire of negativity with this list of instructions:
•demonstrate calm dignity in all your actions
•in all things show forth courtesy and good behavior
•be loving enough to absorb evil
•be understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend
•if cursed do not curse back
•if struck do no strike back
•pray for your oppressor
•use spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice
        In essence, Dr. King was saying:  You are calm, you are dignified, you have strength in the face of darkness and evil, you have the power to understand and the power to build relationships, you have the power of restraint and the power to pray, and you are empowered to stand for justice and to be instruments of change.
        There were probably those who were listening to Jesus teaching from the mountain top who were skeptical. Clearly there were those who took on the message. Through the ages, disciples of God known in Christ have been witnesses of God’s power to bring forth life in the midst of all of life’s challenges and in the presence of powerful forces of empire that continue to seek and to tear down. Every interaction, every conversation, every connection, if even a glance, is an opportunity either to lift up or a chance to tear down, to make things better or to make things worse.
        It is for us to remember who we truly are… blessed and empowered as witnesses of God’s light and love…empowered to go forth into the world to lift up and shine light…
and to let others know that they, too, are blessed, beloved, and empowered as God’s own. This who you are, right here, right now: salt and light.
        You are strong.
        You are compassionate.
        You are bearers of light.
        You are agents of change.
        You are the body of Christ, the light on the hill,
                you are beacons of hope.
        You are participants in God’s great project of making
                 heaven realized on earth.
          Remember who you are…
                                    and whose you are…
                                                                and live it….