Imagine for a moment that you are not seated in a reasonably comfortable pew, but standing somewhere on a hillside in the Middle East, straining to hear a man speaking. It’s hard to concentrate because the crowd around you is not a well behaved one. This is not a gathering of the respectable and the polite. The speaker has just told the crowd that they are blessed by God, but it would be hard to believe it looking round. These are not the spiritually refined, or even the in any way refined. These are poor people, destitute mostly, in rags. There are plenty of bodies around you reeking with the odours of poverty and sickness. There are children with grubby faces and distended bellies. There are women whose tears of grief are not yet dry on their cheeks. There are those whose bodies are marked from the beatings of soldiers and those whose knuckles are bruised from the latest brawl. Some still have a little fire of rebellion in their eyes, but many are just weary of being the persecuted victims of a violent imperial power and they are ready to give up, and some just want to find the next bit of bread. This is a crowd of the defeated, the desperate and the destitute. If you have any sense, you will want to get away from the crowd and find some clearer air.
But what is the preacher telling them? He is saying ‘You are the salt of the earth’ and even ‘You are the light of the world’. Those who have strength left are beginning to laugh, scoff even. ‘What did he say?’ In a culture where salt is precious and costly, and in times when only the lucky can find a source of light after the sun has gone down, this crowd find it hard to think that he could be talking about them. A pretty poor world it is if we are the salt in it! We are more like the rubbish the world discards! And better not need a light very much if it’s up to us.. We are the poor and the dispossessed. We live in the dark shadows of poverty and desperation. Our lives are lived in the shades, and not all our doings could bear the scrutiny of a search light. A strange thing indeed to call us salt and light. Better to look to the priests or to the pharisees, or to the better off who can afford to put their lives in order and do some good in the world.
But Jesus was quite clear and definite. ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ It’s an expression that’s changed a bit in English usage. We say someone’s the salt of the earth when we mean they are down to earth. But in Jesus’ time the metaphor had a different force. Salt was not so much ordinary as vital and valued. It could prevent decay and preserve fish and meat. It made the dull and bland taste better. It was vital for life itself. If in our time we’re trying to cut down on salt, in Jesus’ day it was precious and people longed for it. So the first thing that Jesus was saying to this rag bag of a crowd; the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek and the hungry… was ‘You are something’. You really are something. The salt of the earth.
One of you has told me about a time at Queen’s College here in Taunton when the Chaplain dragged a few reluctant lads out of the assembly and gave them the names of the apostles to hold up. And he said, ‘An unlikely bunch if you wanted to change the world!’ This is something of what it must have been like when Jesus told the crowd that day that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They had always assumed that the salt and light people were someone else, some people more sorted, more capable, more worthy, more appropriate, more loved… But Jesus says to them, ‘It’s you’. ‘The world needs your love and your light, and your healing.’ ‘The world needs you, you are vital and precious and God has work for you to do.’ ‘The world is in a right state, look around you. Frankly, in a lot of ways, it stinks. But you are the ones who can make life good again. You are the ones who can shine the light into the darkness. You are the ones. You might think you are being trampled underfoot or that you want to hide in a corner, because life is tough or messy or dull. But don’t for a minute think that’s what God has in mind for you. You are the salt of the earth.’
It’s no wonder is it, that there were those who laughed at Jesus or thought he was a bit strange in the head. Who would choose the ‘least of these’ to be salt and light for the world? And I am sure as anything that no-one was more surprised, that no one laughed more, than the crowd of people he actually called ‘salt’ and ‘light’. They were the meek, the poor and the suffering. These were the people for whom the Beatitudes were spoken. They might have longed for life to get better and for light to penetrate the dark days of their lives, but they never even imagined they might be light themselves. It’s not that they’d decided not to be anything, they had just been told so many times – by people and by life’s repeated blows – that they weren’t up to much.
I once went to a small church in Scotland, an independent chapel in a remote village. There was no organ, though rather beautiful chanting of the Psalms in a bare Gaelic style. I was incognito in my anorak and walking shoes. The preacher that day told us ‘You are salt in a putrefying world.’ And I reaised that the preacher, if he knew about me at all, would certainly think me putrefaction rather than salt, as indeed somedays I feel perhaps… I am. Jesus was preaching to a crowd who had been told many times that they were the putrefaction and not the salt, the scum of the earth; not the salt, but the shadows and not the light. So we need to hear these words as they would have heard them – ‘You are the salt of the earth’. ‘You are the light of the world.’ And if in any of your days you think little of yourself, then hear and receive these holy words. Hear and believe that you are salt and light – and that the world needs you and that God has work for you to do. That’s who you are. Believe it and know it.
So what is it then that salt and light are for? What is it that God has chosen you and me to do? Well, perhaps it’s significant that salt and light are not things that draw attention to themselves. They are not the main event, but they are things that make the world a better, more glorious, more beautiful, more open, more vivid place. You only need a little salt to make the bread taste good. And light is not something you look at for itself, but something that illuminates and transforms something else. We are here, as God’s church, not for our own sake, but to make the world a better place. God’s love is for the whole world, and God wants us to be those who love the world and who work to make it a place filled and overflowing with love. We don’t have to be very many in number, we don’t have to be very strong ourselves, we don’t have to take over the world – but simply salt it with love, and light it up with life. And it doesn’t take a genius to see and know how much the world needs salting with love, and flooding with light, right now.
Today we have welcomed some people into membership of this congregation, though they have all long been part of the church of Jesus Christ. With us, they are learning that God believes them to be salt and light, and they are willing, with us, to be that within the church and for the world. We know that we are frail and fragile human beings. But that’s OK, because it is us whom God has chosen, and God knows us better that we do ourselves. One writer, Frederich Buechner, reflecting on the disciples of Jesus says this…
‘Matthew the Tax-collector and Thomas the doubter. Peter the Rock and Judas the traitor. Mary Magdalene and Lazarus’s sister Martha. And the popcorn-eating old woman. And the fat man in the pick-up. They are all our family, and you and I are their family and each other’s family, because that is what Jesus has called us as the Church to be. Our happiness is all mixed up with each other’s happiness and our peace with each other’s peace. Our own happiness, our own peace, can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who the way things are now have no happiness and know no peace. Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, live this truth forth. Be the light of the world, he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be. That is what Jesus tells his Church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other. Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the Church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that—no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead— then it is not being what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that.’
I hope that you are ready to believe that you are salt and light. And I hope you are ready to believe that in this church together we can be salt and light for Taunton, bringing out the flavour of what it is like to be truly alive, being life-givers to others, especially those in dark places. We can do this only because we have first known what it means to be brought to life again in God ourselves, to be salted and lit, to be born, as some would say, again.
Today we are asked to believe these words of Jesus. First, believe that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That’s the first important and amazing step. If you say you believe in Jesus, then believe him when he tells you ‘you are light’. And then next, believe that he calls you not to hide, but to be glad and proud that the light of Christ shines within you. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.. Let your light shine, shine before others, and to God be the glory, in this church, in this community, in the world that God loves. Amen.