I’m sure you all know the song that Louis Armstrong used to sing in his distinctive and beautiful voice…
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world
And I do believe – for all the pain and struggle and sorrow – that Louis Armstrong is right. It is a wonderful world – for God made it and blesses it. And if we are to be salt and light in such a world then we are there to shine to illuminate it’s beauty and to make it even more vivid and alive… I think this is what it means that Jesus asked us to be salt and light and said that’s what we are. God loves the world. Jesus loved it. And he wanted human beings like us to be the ones who make the world even better – in the way that salt makes a meal tastier – and he wanted us to be those who shine to make the world brighter and more beautiful still – in the way that a candle flame makes anyone look more lovely…
But I am going to tell you about an experience I had years ago when I was on holiday. It was raining hard, and I went on my own to church. It was a small chapel in a remote village in Scotland, and the people sang beautiful songs to God. Full-throated and unaccompanied, the human voices sang the ancient words of the psalms and the damp walls echoed to melodies full of Gaelic mystery. The worship was beautiful. How pure is the human voice, how lovely the world and how precious the faith we share. Any sins could be forgiven of such singers.. They surely come from a good creation. They are only a little lower than angels. Mixed with the smell of chapel damp was the warm scent of freshly baked buttery shortbread and the cups were set for tea afterwards.
After the Bible reading the people were seated and the preacher shuffled his notes. He was preaching on the very same text we have heard today from Matthew’s Gospel, about ‘the salt of the world’. He began with great force as he told all of us assembled there that Summer afternoon ‘You are salt in a putrefying world’. I can remember it so well because I was rather stunned. I had not thought of the world as putrefying.. Anoraked and booted, with no smart hat like the other women, I suddenly wondered whether perhaps to them I was more likely to be part of the putrefaction of the world than the salt. I simply had never thought of the world in this way. I just did not recognise in the preacher’s distaste and disgust the lovely world in which I live. I found myself thinking of the warm people I knew then who didn’t go to church. And I thought about and remembered the smiling people I passed every day on the streets of the city where I then lived. Could the preacher really mean that all this, this world which God has made – is full of putrefaction?
For me then, as now, the world is a place of goodness and greening, of love and tenderness, of creation and possibility – pain and struggle yes, but such joys and goodness as well. The world may be full of pain, but it is not putrefying – and even where there is decay and evil and pain, it is not how it should be or how it was made to be. The world is lovely, and it is God’s creation. It is the world that God loved so much, the world for which and to which God sent his only son. I was genuinely rocked to my core to think that anyone could really see it as a world that is putrefying. I thought of the times I had seen or smelt something putrefying and I could not believe that the world as a whole is to be though of like that. It was about the most shocking sermon I’ve ever heard. After the service, the people, and the preacher, shook me by the hand and offered tea and shortbread. They smiled and I was reassured that they saw in me the good things of God… though I doubt they would if they knew everything about me… And as I walked along the path afterwards, the smell of the heather, the growing dusk, the gentle song of a bird and even the hum of the mosquito told me that the world is far from putrefying, but is filled with the glory of God.
The traditional baptismal promises of the Church of England suggest that we should fight valiantly against sin, the world, and the devil. Sin yes, the devil yes, – but perhaps the world deserves something different from just being fought against. In the New Testament you can find ‘world’ used both to describe what is not in tune with God, but also and much more often to describe what is the object of God’s creating love. ‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son…’
I think it makes a difference to how we see these images of salt and light. The preacher in that Scottish chapel and I have clearly understood them in quite a different way. I think that the thing is that both salt and light are good things because they savour and illumine the things on which they are cast. They make better what is already good. We light beautiful things and things we need to see because they are useful and valuable. We put salt (in moderation) on things that taste good to make them taste even better. We give ourselves as Christians to be salt and light to the world because we love the world and because it is good – and we want to honour it and bless it… Our vocation is to not to destroy the world or simply to clean it up (which we might want to do if it was really simply putrefied!), but to make it more of what it can be and is – a beautiful place of God’s creating.
And what we can say about ‘the world’ I think we can say about people too. I know that sin and evil are real and can distort human lives so much that some do seem depraved sometimes. But, for us as Christian people, it is also true that all the people God has made are only a little lower than the angels and that all the creatures and rocks and plants and stars of God’s beautiful world are not to be destroyed but to be loved and honoured. We, all of us, belong to God and are loved by God with a tenderness and regard beyond our imagination. We are only a little lower than angels, not demons or devils, but angel-winged and – like all creation – aflame with the glory of God. The world is full of God’s good creation. When God had finished creating the world he declared it good. And it is this goodness that God wants us to find and bless – as salt and light bless the things they touch when they are used for good.
It is true that some parts of the Christian tradition have sometimes taken a stance over against the world. Christians have sometimes called on one another – ‘Be ye separate’. We have regarded the world as ‘fallen’ and people as sinners. We have seen the church and not the world as the place of God’s real life and have called people to repent and to be saved from the world. We have turned the church into a kind of lifeboat from the stormy and deathly sea of secular life. We have seen eternal life as belonging to a world beyond this one. The sermon in that Scottish chapel was shocking, but sermons like that are not unheard elsewhere.
I think that when Christians begin to think that the world is evil – putrefying – anything like that, then there is real danger. And I am struck that these two images of salt and light – so absolutely central to Jesus’ teaching – tell us before they tell us anything about our own role that the world is a place worthy of being salted and lit. It is a world to be preserved, to be made more vivid, to be warmed and illuminated, to be preserved and to be celebrated.
But there are other ways of speaking the faith, other themes that have been repressed among us and are now coming once more into the light. In the Eastern traditions of Christianity, in Celtic Christianity – among God’s people in many places – the people of God are teaching us all to love the world and to see it first of all as the place of God’s goodness and love. There are those who can teach us that God does not only come to us through the revelation of the scriptures, but through our own human experiences of daily life. We have learned that God did not come in Christ to pluck out favoured saints from a putrefying world, but actually to become what we are in order that we might become as God is. We have seen, in the incarnation itself, how precious is human flesh and human life. We have learned to to celebrate the passions and colours of life, to love the earth and its creatures, to believe in a God who smiles upon a good creation, who made us to enjoy life in abundance in our bodies and in our souls today.
I do not believe that the world is putrefying. I believe that the world is beautiful. And the salt and light that we are called to be is about making it more beautiful still and more bright with the glory of God. And that means that we start by loving and appreciating the world and its people, of whom of course we are a part. It makes a huge difference to what it means to be a Christian how you view the world. We’re not trying to rescue people from a terrible world or from the terribleness with themselves. We are here to celebrate and honour the people we meet and to treat them as those made in the image of God. We are salt to make what is already good even more blessed and light to bring comfort, hope and life to those already loved by God. And when we ourselves are suffering and unsure about the wonder of the world, there are many who will hold us and preserve us and lighten us – until we know again that we, with all God’s creatures, are only a little lower than the angels. So let us fight valiantly against sin and the devil, but let us be salt and light in the wonderful world that God has made. Amen.