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Epiphany 5A Sermon
Matthew 5: 13-20

February 5, 2017


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus moves right on from the beatitudes to more words of both promise and challenge for us. First of all, we hear the promise that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Hey people – God wants you to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, so shape up, work hard, and God will do that to you!” No, he says that we ARE the light of the world; we already ARE the salt of the earth. This is a promise and a reality that cannot be lost, no matter what we say or do. Just as God’s blessings rest upon us even when we grieve or hunger and thirst for righteousness, so also we (by the fact that we are made, loved and blessed by God) ARE light and salt.
I fear that sometimes we lose sight of how important those two things were to the people of Jesus’ day. In the time before the invention of electricity and incandescent lightbulbs, after the sun went down, it got extremely dark. Today we are used to the ambient light of businesses and streetlights to shed at least some guidance on our paths and homes. If I am driving down a freeway in the middle of the night, I can tell by the glow in the sky above when I am approaching a metropolitan area. But when the candle or lamp went out during those primitive days, it got dark. The darkness could press in upon you. Sometimes you could feel it pushing against your skin. Light was important to safety and life.

Almost as important was the presence of salt. Now, salt is so readily available, as we can easily produce it with our knowledge that it is a 1:1 ratio of sodium and chloride ions. It is produced and used as a condiment, to melt ice on our roads, and to treat breathing problems – yes, I recently heard about spas set up in salt caves which have temporarily improved breathing for many with upper respiratory and asthma problems. In Jesus’ day, it was not as readily available as it had to be made by evaporating sea water until the salt was left behind. It was important mostly as a preservative for meats and other foods, since there was no refrigeration. It also brought out the flavors in foods and helped yeast in the process of making bread rise, much as it does today. It was so valuable that part of a soldier’s salary was paid in salt – and the word, “salary” itself, is a derivative of the Latin word for salt. Salt was valuable and important to people of that day and age.

It is so difficult for us to know what it would be like to live without either light or salt since they are so easy to manufacture and so readily available in our culture. But Jesus was speaking to people living in a time when the thought of not having these things meant danger and hunger. He tells them that they ARE the light of the world and the salt of the earth. They are important, valuable and that without them there would be no life in their community.
This is the message for us here today as well. So often we think that we are not good enough to make a difference in the world – that we matter very little in the grand scheme of things to people around us. When we start to think this, we begin to wonder if we should even put ourselves out there – if we even need to try to live into the light and salt that we already are. Jesus warns about that in his teaching. He doesn’t say that our light goes out, or that we somehow cease to be salt. He talks in terms of our light being hidden under a bushel, and our salty-nature losing its flavor. What would crystals of salt be without flavor? I cannot even imagine.
But living into our nature as light and salt means that we understand that we are blessed – we are given gifts from God of many different kinds. Recognizing that fact, we gladly, liberally use those gifts freely for the sake of others. I need to hear this teaching from Jesus as much as anyone else does. Over the last 6 months or so, my neighbor, Scott, and I have gone to visit another neighbor named Sue who has experienced health issues, as she has been living in a lock-down unit in a nursing home. Over the last couple of years, there have been episodes of strange behavior including dementia and confusion, often in public. She is otherwise in good health – an avid gardener - so these behaviors confused her doctors. As she has no family to speak of, only a long-time friend who takes care of her house with and for her, my neighbor and I have been visiting her. Another neighbor has told us that we aren’t doing her any good – that she doesn’t know we are there, and it is useless.

We stopped by Friday morning to talk to her and to take her communion – she is a member of a Lutheran church in Lancaster and rarely has contact with them. We found out that her condition has been caused by a type of encephalitis, and that the doctors have had success in regulating medications and treating her. It was obvious that Sue was much more talkative and coherent than she has been in our previous visits. She is even looking forward to going to an assisted living facility on Monday in hopes to returning to her own home in about a month. She thanked us not only for our visit and communion on that day, but also for our efforts in the past 6 to 8 months of her recovery. It was an uplifting visit for us.
When we got to the car, I told Scott that after lunch, my brother and sister and I were supposed to go to Mt. Carmel East hospital to visit our cousin, Phyllis, who was just diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. She has less than a month to live as it has spread to her bones as well. She is beingadmitted into hospice care and will return to her home soon. My neighbor questioned me about it – “tell your brother you’ve got other things to do on your day off. You’ve already used your healing powers today … that’s enough!” I chuckled thinking that I had healing powers! But he also had me somewhat talked into not going … even though I really had the time to do it.

But when my brother texted me a little later I did not hesitate to jump in the car so we could all go. And it was good for us to go to see her – She is being kept comfortable with heavy doses of morphine, so she was not always coherent. But her son, who is close to my age, and another family member were there and we had a meaningful short visit with them. We were able to give Phyllis our love and say goodbye to her, since we do not know if we will see her again before she dies. They asked me to pray, and we gathered around Phyllis’ bed holding hands, and I prayed for God to walk with her over this valley of the shadow of death to the joy of that heavenly kingdom, and for God to walk with her family in this time as well. On our way out to the car after the visit my brother, who I consider one of the strongest, hardest workers I know, said, “I don’t know how you do it.” And I thought about the many times I have been in that same situation – sometimes with tears in my eyes and sometimes able to hold them at bay. And I thought about my visit with Sue earlier in the day. And whatever doubts I had about my value to the people around me and our community vanished in that moment. I realized that I am light and I am salt. And my decisions to live into that nature on that day made a difference in the lives of those people.
In the exact same way, you are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth. God has blessed and gifted you – maybe differently than me, but just as generously. May God bless you as you share that light and salt in your daily lives. Amen.