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Numbers 18.19-21

Matthew 5.13-16

Be Who You Are

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Franklin Coyle was a professor of mine in college; I took his class on the history of contemporary media my senior year.  At the very first class of the semester, he startled us by doing something no professor of mine had done before or has since, but I think it is a wonderful motivational tool.  Dr. Coyle said to us, “As of today, every one of you has an A in this class.  It’s up to you to maintain it to the end of the semester.”  And as I look back on it, I realized it is  a pretty good metaphor for the grace of God.  We hadn’t done anything to deserve that A, it was given to us straight off the bat, and what mattered most was what we did with it.  (And by the way, yes, I did keep the A.)

I love all the Godspell music this morning, thank you Diane and Jordan.  The musical has long been a favorite of mine.  In fact, speaking of college, I once organized a school trip to see Godspell in Boston, we reserved a couple vans and a couple dozen of us went up to see the musical.  “If that light is under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial – If that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got much in its favor – if that city’s on a hill it’s kind of hard to hide it well – you’ve got to live right to be the light of the world!”  The words of course are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and they form a kind of hinge to his sermon.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the familiar Beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, and so on.  Jesus then pivots from there to offer some lessons on the law, on the temple and on righteousness.  And what connects the two are these brief four verses about salt and light and the city on the hill.

I have a wonderful reference book on my desk titled The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  It is compiled by Amy-Jill Levine, who teaches at Vanderbilt, and Mac Zvi Brettler at Brandeis.  It provides verse-by-verse commentary on the Hebrew context of the books of the New Testament, which is kind of unusual for us in the church.  Most of the time you and I are hearing the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament; this volume is a Jewish interpretation of the Christian New Testament.  And one of the things I learned from it this week is that, among other things, salt was used as the sign of a covenant, an agreement between two parties.  We heard Deb Calamari read this morning about a salt covenant from the book of Numbers this morning.  “All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well.”  Salt was used as a way of binding a covenant or an agreement between two parties; in Numbers, as in Matthew, it is a covenant, or a connection, between God and humanity.  You are the salt of the earth.

In the Hebrew tradition, salt also suggests sitting at the table together, as we are doing this morning at communion.  The phrase, “sharing salt,” means enjoying a meal among friends.  Today we would probably call it “passing the salt,” but it’s the same thing, people sitting around a table, enjoying a good meal, passing plates, raising a glass for a toast.  You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

And what do salt and light do?  Salt is a seasoning, and a little of it goes a long way.  It changes the taste of a dish, the complexion of a meal.  Too little and the dish is bland and flavorless, too much and nobody wants to eat it.  I think I’ve told you about the time I was making a big batch of spaghetti sauce, and tasted it only to discover I had somehow put way too much salt in it.  Five gallons of sauce, made from my own garden tomatoes – liquid gold, ruined.  Until I thought to do what any good Italian would – I called my mom and asked if she had any advice.  And so it was that I peeled and quartered a few potatoes, plopped them in the pot, they absorbed the excess salt, and the sauce was saved.  You are the spice, Jesus is saying, that pleases the palate, that seasons the sauce.  Too little salt and the dish is bland and flavorless, too much and nobody wants to eat it.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are what makes the menu more pleasant, the meal more enjoyable.  You bring the blessing to the bouillabaisse, the joy to the jambalaya.  Can you tell I haven’t had breakfast yet this morning….? You bring something savory to the community, Jesus is telling us, and you have it within you to make it better.

Light does something different, though complementary.  When Jesus says we are the light of the world, he isn’t saying the light is shining on us.  Rather we are the light that illumines the people and the world around us.  It’s not about our being seen, but rather about being sure others are seen and heard and recognized and respected.  The light of the world is meant to shine on others.  Remember, it is in the very next chapter that Jesus cautions, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  To illumine others, to hold them inn the light of God, is to be the light of the world.

But what strikes me most about this part of the Sermon on the Mount is not that Jesus is telling us we need to be and do these things.  In fact, he is not.  Jesus is not saying You should be the salt of the earth, You should be the light of the world, You should be the city on the hill.  What does Jesus say?  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You are the city on the hill, or as Godspell puts it, the City of God.  This is who you are, this is who we are together, this is our nature as the people of God.  We are already seasoning the community around us, we are already shining the light of God through the things we say and do.

This really brings the idea of grace into perspective for me.  These are encouragements rather than admonishments.  You are already the salt, the light, the holy city, the blessed community.  So be who you are.  Be who you already are.  It’s like getting that A on the very first day of class.   We already have what we need to be true and faithful children of God.  Which means we already are true and faithful children of God.  We just use the gifts we’ve been given.

So let’s go out there and be who we are.  Let’s be the city on the hill, or in our case, the church on the hill that is a beacon to the community.  Let’s be the salt of the earth that seasons society.  Let’s be the light of the world that illumines and lifts up the people and the world around us.  Jesus knows us better than anyone, better maybe than we know ourselves, and Jesus knows we can do it.  It is who we are.

 

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