You Are the Light of the World
Introduction – this week is a reminder that all Christians live in challenging, difficult times.
We are only three days into May and it already seems like it is going to be a confusing and hectic month. Not only does everyone seem busy with the suddenly beautiful weather, but the holidays, graduations, tournaments, dance recitals and everything else are not going to stop. It is a busy month. But even more so, this week has had a number of very visible, very troubling news events. Nepal is still recovering from the earth quake last week. The Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that could establish same sex marriage as the law of the land. And of course we were all riveted to the news coming out of Baltimore. The governor of Maryland used National Guard troops to establish peace in the city after riots arising from the death of a young black man in police custody set the city aflame. It reminded many of us of 1968 when all the cities of America were burning; some still haven’t recovered.
It is tempting to think that this is the worst the world has ever been, that the chaos in our culture is unprecedented. But remember back 40 years ago when US troops and personnel were being airlifted out of Vietnam, their objective left undone for the first time ever. Beyond that we had a President no one had ever voted for because of the Watergate scandal and abortion had been made legal across the land. That was a bad time. That is not to say that this is a good time, but rather to emphasize that each generation faces its own challenges. The question is, how do we handle them?
Transition – how should the followers of Jesus respond to the challenges of the world around them. What is our relation to the culture that surrounds us?
Jesus tells us that we are salt and light which means we preserve and illuminate
Jesus uses simple images to reveal our relation to the wider world. He says that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world
Salt was used for many things in the ancient world but the main function that Jesus is referring to would be as a preservative. Salt was rubbed into meat to preserve it. Salt was vital to life as something that stopped the rot.
The only thing to add to Jesus statement about light is to remember that his was a world without illumination. In the time before electricity lamps were vital. Think of what it was like after Hurricane Sandy when the power went out; that was the ancient world.
These images says something about the followers of Jesus but they also say something about the world we live in. Regarding the world it says it is prone to decay and we are the force that keeps it from getting worse. And it is dark, meaning that it lacks understanding, wisdom, truth and we are the light revealing what is right and wrong, good and evil, wise and destructive.
So what can this mean? How can we stop societal decay? I think it happens in very small non-heroic actions and that sometimes have very big effects.
Application: Every time you teach a child to respect other people you preserve society. Every time you teach an adolescent to use money well, to spend less than they earn, to not drown in credit card debt, you preserve society. Every time you do something as simple as make an honest deal, giving people what they pay for, treating people equally and not corruptly, you act as salt in our society.
That sounds simple and anti-climactic. How can such simple actions preserve a society?
Think of the situation in Baltimore. Think of all the good police officers and patrolmen in our country, serving with honor, making all those little judgments about when to stop someone, when to pursue and when to encourage. There are so many people who make so many decisions and the vast majority of them do their job with faithfulness. There are countries where all the police are corrupt, and that is a rotting country, not enough salt.
So in Baltimore, a man is picked up and dies in police custody. Six men are charged. What will they find? Who will be found responsible? The prosecutor calls it a homicide. The defense attorney says nothing illegal happened. Unless we completely misunderstand what happened, it seems that someone did not respect the man in their care as someone to be protected even while incarcerated. Chaos slips out. Someone dies. But not just someone, a person who lived in a neighborhood and had family members. Then protest begins. Many, many people want to have a peaceful protest, but some make it destructive., Some seem content just to burn it all down. That is chaos, rot and destruction causing us to wonder “Will the whole city fall apart?”
There are still some people able to keep their heads and the rule of law is still in force. We all saw the picture of the civilians, mostly black men, lined up in front of the police as if to say, “we will not let this slide into chaos.” That is being salt.
What is the difference between the people who wanted it all to burn and those who were willing to stand in the gap? Someone, at some point, invested in each of these people showing the value of being salt. All those who brought peace out of chaos did so because someone else acted as salt in their lives.
In some ways salt is negative – stopping the rot and chaos, saying, this is wrong and must stop. On the other hand light is positive. It says: this is the way, this is the hope, this is the truth. Being light is a proactive way to show others the way. In this way salt and light complement each other.
Let me show you how this works with a positive example and a negative example.
Twenty or so years ago Debbie and I moved into Hawthorne and had to make the decision about what to do regarding school for our daughter who was entering kindergarten. I was nervous about what she might learn in the public school. Would they respect our values as Christian? You could say that I was looking to be salty, looking for what might be wrong. So I called the principal of the local grammar school and said something about my fears. It did not come out very thoughtfully and he immediately spotted me as a nervous parent and gave me a smooth and respectful brush off. Nevertheless our kids entered the public school system.
We had four kids, all two years apart in succession, go through the grammar school in our town. We got to know everyone: the principal, the music teachers, all of our children’s teachers, the parents in the PTO. Eventually Debbie got more involved, and was given the task of picking out the assemblies for the school. So for six or seven years she effectively decided what would be in the assemblies and what would not. In this way, Debbie was light. I was salt, ready to see what might be rotting. Debbie was light saying “let’s do these things.”
This week the supreme court heard arguments on the legality of laws for and against same sex marriage.
When same sex marriage first became an issue the answer for most Christians seemed pretty obvious. The commands regarding sex are pretty narrow in scripture. Despite the fact that people engage in all sorts of sexual behavior in the Bible the only arrangement that seems to have God’s stamp of approval is life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Anything else is not God’s plan for people, whether king or peasant, Jew or gentile. So we could not endorse same sex relationships.
Then people would ask “What about monogamous same sex marriage? How can that be wrong in a secular culture.” For most Christians the answer was still, “it might not be illegal but it is still not right.” As salt, we said “that’s not right, not good for our society.” But when the culture asked “Why? Why would it matter?” Christians did not have a good answer. We knew how to be salt, but we had no light regarding marriage. And there is a reason for that.
Jesus tells us that if salt loses it’s saltiness it can’t be made salty anymore (Jesus is not talking about sodium chloride the stable element we call table salt, but about impure salt from the Dead Sea that can have the real salt washed out of it). He tell us that a light hidden under a basket does not illumine anything. In other words, we can only help the world if we are different from the world. If salt is not salty it is just dust. If light is hidden it is still darkness. The reason Christians had no answers regarding same sex marriage is that Christians had ceased to be any different from the rest of the world in this area. People in the world get married for their personal fulfillment, and because they think it will make them happy. They want to find their “soul mate” the person who will make everything in life fulfilling. If marriage starts to be hard people walk away. Christians generally have the same attitude toward marriage. We are no different. Long ago we stopped thinking of marriage as covenant given by God meant to reflect his nature. Christians act only as Americans: this is my right, this is my soul mate. Kids are optional. So when the society wanted to redefine marriage under the same assumption – I want to be happy, this is my right, kids are optional – Christians had nothing to say. Salt without saltiness does nothing; hidden light does not illuminate.
There are a lot of reasons Christian conformed to the society in marriage, not the least of which is that there was no reason to be any different. But now we are called to be a preserving element, how do we do that?
The answer is, to be “well married” and to help others marry and stay married for the good of their families, the society and for their witness as Christians. Faithful marriages reflect the faithfulness of God.
Conclusion: we are called to live in this world and to be different, as salt to preserve and light to illumine.
The question for all of us, is “am I different?” Am I different enough to make a difference in the world around me?
The other question is, am I shining? Sometimes we want to do good but we have no interaction with the larger world. We gather together and let our light shine to each other but not to the wider world.
We are called to be salt in a rotting world and light to a darkening culture. So let your behavior be different and let your good works shine.