“You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.”
I expect that everyone of us has asked at some point in our lives: What is the point of my life? Of course, our purpose and our priorities will change at different stages of our lives. And our talents and gifts will evolve and change too. Life never stays static. Nor do we. Nor should we. As we begin to prepare for the Lenten season, our readings prepare us to ask the question, what is God calling us to be now?
I want to share two short stories: Some years ago I met an elderly-looking priest in a remote village far from his own tribe in the north of Uganda. He had scars on his face and deep set eyes. His life was devoted to the people. He appeared very quiet and there was a sadness when he spoke. After a morning showing us around his parish and the school next to the church, we had lunch. During lunch, he suddenly, without being asked, said: “I spent five years in the bush as a ‘Lords Resistance Army’ Commander. I was kidnapped when I was a young man and had been recently married. I was forced to commit the most brutal crimes – I killed many people; men, women and children. To survive, I had to become one of them. Children are the most dangerous. You can train a child to do anything. After five years I fled to Sudan, and was given refugee in a Mission. The people showed me that God loved me despite my horrible crimes. I was converted, and offered myself for ministry. My own family and my own tribe would not receive me back. So I minister here, far from my home, and the people have accepted me. I devote my life to God now.”
A few years ago, I spent three nights in a Christian monastery deep in the Syrian desert. ISIS frontlines were only 1km away and every night battles took place nearby. The convent had taken local Christian families in for safety, and by night local Muslim villagers brought food to the monastery, risking death to do so if they were caught. Finally ISIS were defeated and the local Muslims helped the Christians restore the Churches that they had desecrated in the neighbouring village. Throughout the war, the monks and nuns remained, and even rang the Church bell every morning and evening to proclaim their presence and their faith. In a Christian town not far away, thousands of Islamist rebels besieged the town for 3 months. At one point it was thought that the town would fall. The men went off to help the Syrian army protect the town whilst the rest of the inhabitants went into the churches where they made two promises: 1. That whatever happened, they would not give up their faith. And 2: whatever happened they would refuse to hate. In a neighbouring village, Christians had been summarily executed by the same militants that were now attacking theirs, for refusing to give up their faith.
These are stories of deep faith, but not just faith – of ordinary lives dedicating themselves in the service of others and risking all to do so. But also, as in the first story, a reminder of our humanity, and the capacity of God’s forgiveness. Let us not forget that the greatest evangelist and missionary of all time, St. Paul had persecuted the Church. None of us are beyond the forgiveness, grace and love of God. None of us are beyond being servants of God and doing his will, and there is no circumstance in which it is not possible for his grace and his love to shine through.
Our reading today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes represent of course one of the most loved passages in the whole of the scriptures. But for all their beauty, they are greatly challenging. A famous and saintly Palestinian Bishop, Elias Chacour, says that the English translation fails to reflect the revolutionary intention of Jesus’ phrases. In Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, the word we translate as ‘Blessed’ is a much more active word than the rather passive meaning we give it. We are not just blessed by having these qualities and sitting back and letting God bless us. Rather it means much more ‘go and do’. In other words. ‘Get up. Do something. You who are poor in spirit, go and be participants in the kingdom of heaven. You who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, you will be blessed when you go and make justice prevail. Blessed are you when you go and peacemakers, not just peace contemplators. Do something about it. Jesus, says Elias Chacour, is calling us to go and create the circumstances in which the Kingdom of God can be established. That must be the outcome of our contemplation, and is what makes us blessed – when we go out and achieve it.
But moreover, part of the revolutionary impact of these words is that Jesus is addressing ordinary people who believed that the Kingdom of God was something in the future – not for them, but for religious leaders for whom the privilege had been assigned. But no, Jesus turns that understanding on its head. The Kingdom of God is to be found in the transformation of society – of which we are all a part.
Jesus makes clear to all those who follow him – those ordinary villagers and fishermen listening to his sermon – that it they who are to show mercy, to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. And he adds these simple but profound images about how we are to do this: You are the salt of the earth. But what does this mean? Salt transforms taste. It enhances the flavour of the food that gives us life. It brings goodness and preserves as well. But it also has an edge. Put in a wound, it can heal, but it doesn’t half sting first! It can give taste to the blandest of foods. We are called to do likewise in our communities – to bring life, healing, preservation, flavour to the world in which we live.
And then… You are the light of the world. What an amazing statement! Do you feel like a light of the world? Do you think you ever could be? Whether we think so or not, that is what we are called to be. Think again about the qualities of light. Life is dependent on light. It helps us to see things. Things cannot grow without light. People are drawn to its warmth. The whole creation is bathed in God’s light. And WE are called to reflect HIS light in the world – to his people, to do his work.. to give light and bring light to a dark and broken world. For light transforms the darkness, as we heard in the stories I began with. But by definition, light needs to be in the darkness if it is to be effective. In order for the light to exist, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, and to transform it. And that includes the darkness inside ourselves as well.
If we go back to our OT reading for today from Isaiah, it explains beautifully what being salt and light should mean for us. Isaiah is speaking to a people who think they are being faithful. At this point in their history, they are worshipping God enthusiastically. They are following the law. But God is not answering. Let us consider the passage…… Isaiah 58: 1 – 5
The people are making a show of following the law and worshipping properly. But the society is broken. Their lives are full of injustice and oppression. And so the Lord replies through Isaiah: Isaiah 58: 6 – 9
As Lent approaches, it is challenging to take an honest look at these passages, and to reflect on where we stand within them, as individuals and as a community.
What parts of the law are central to our communities and our lives? Are they laws that promote peace and healing. What is the nature of our fasting and worship? Does it match what God demands of us? And more importantly, where am I in my relationship with Jesus? To what extent am I salt of the earth and light in the world? And as we saw in the stories with which I started, none of us are unworthy. We can all be light and salt in any and every situation. And we shall then find, in the words of Isaiah that……’ your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry for help; and he will say: Here I am
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 58:1–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:13–16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.