+ A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 9, 2020 +
Text: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
“I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material,” she said with a patronizing smile.
These dismissive words from her high school guidance counselor could have easily devastated the hopes and dreams of a smart and capable girl from the South Side of Chicago.
This daughter of a working-class family living in a working-class neighborhood had already overcome a lot of obstacles to get where she was.
Now she had set her sights on the elite Ivy League school and had been working so hard to make her grades and activities match her ambition.
It’s hard to say what this counselor saw that made her think this student couldn’t achieve her dreams—to tell her that she had set her sights too high.
But rather than be limited by this disregard of her abilities, this student decided to get back to work.
She applied to Princeton and was accepted.
She quickly found that she was in fact Princeton material and thrived going on to graduate cum laude, receiving her JD from Harvard Law school, and landing a position at one of the top Chicago law firms.
Years later, she committed herself to using her position as First Lady of the United States to empower students to achieve their dreams.
Michelle Obama worked with students from underserved schools in Chicago and Washington, DC and beyond taking a particular interest in the girls from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in London.
[As a child] “I’d been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter,” she said. “As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation.”
One economist later studied the impact Michelle Obama had on the students of that London school and found that her constant message of encouragement, telling them that they matter and they are valued, helped raise the collective student body’s grades from the equivalent of a C average to an A average.
We live in a society that so often tells us that we are not good enough, that we are not special, that we don’t matter.
We live in a country that systematically devalues Black and brown bodies, ignores their neighborhoods, and resists the simple statement that their lives matter.
We live in a culture that tries to sell us solutions that if we just do the right things, if we just buy the right products, that if we just pull ourselves up then we might finally earn our place in the world—then we might matter.
Today we pick up in the middle of perhaps Jesus’ most famous sermon: the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus had gathered his disciples, a ragtag band of ordinary people, on the side of a hill by the Sea of Galilee and began teaching them how to look at the world through God’s eyes.
Since we celebrated a special festival Sunday last week, we missed the opening section known to us as the Beatitudes where Jesus told those who were poor in spirit, who were mourning, who were meek and persecuted, that these people were blessed and honored.
Today we hear him continue his message to these followers, these fisherfolk and day laborers, these tax collectors and prostitutes, these people whom the world consistently looked down on, systematically oppressed, or simply overlooked—these people who were told over and over that they didn’t really matter in the world.
It’s to these people that Jesus says those beautiful words: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
Now, I’m not sure what you think of when Jesus says that you are the salt of the earth, but I’m guessing it’s not quite the same as those first listeners heard.
When we can easily drive to the grocery store and pick up a big tub of salt for around a dollar, it’s a little hard to make out what Jesus means here.
When we can now easily choose between Morton salt or kosher salt or sea salt or pink Himalayan salt, we may not realize the impact of his words.
In fact, Mark Kurlansky, the author of Salt: A World History, writes that today “salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”
Salt is important.
It is essential for our bodies.
It was necessary for preserving foods before refrigeration.
It was so valuable that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt and the Latin word for salt is still the basis of our word “salary.”
Jesus is telling these people who lived under the oppression of Rome, these people who were poor and meek and mourning, these people who were among the lowest of the low in society, Jesus is telling them that they are the one of the most valuable commodities in the world.
But I think it’s almost as remarkable how Jesus says this.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
It’s not ‘you can be salt if you take this self-improvement course for only $39.99 a month.’
It’s not ‘if you work hard and really make some changes, maybe you’ll be light.’
No, he says, ‘You are salt. You are light. I know every part of you, even the parts you hide from yourself. I have seen your flaws and failings and doubts and fears. And I’m here to tell you that you are beautiful and worthy and loved and so, so precious right now, exactly as you are. Don’t listen to those people who mock you, those institutions that try to tell you that your dreams are out of reach and you can’t make a difference, those lying voices that you’re not rich enough or beautiful enough or smart enough or good enough, because you are enough and you matter so much.’
‘But now that you know who you are,’ he continues, ‘I want you to live like it. I want you to live like you don’t have to prove yourselves to me. I want you to live confidently that you are beautiful and beloved and are gifts to the whole world.’
Because just like that tub of salt doesn’t make a difference if we keep it locked in our cupboards, our identity as salt of the earth doesn’t make a difference unless we live it out in our lives.
Just like a lamp behind a shut door can never illumine the whole house, our light for the world is only effective if we take action.
Jesus says it plainly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
God has given us the law to lead us to the full and abundant life which God has designed for all humanity.
Jesus has come to fulfill that law and bring us into that new life.
And we get to be a part of it!
We get to help make God’s dream a reality.
It’s a similar message as what we hear today from the Prophet Isaiah.
It’s a message to those people who were slowly returning from a generation of exile in Babylon, whose homeland was unrecognizable and who were trying to reestablish their identity.
They were trying to prove themselves to God, to earn God’s favor again through acts of piety like religious festivals and fasting.
It’s a message from their God who says ‘I don’t need your fasting. I don’t need your prayers and your piety. I don’t need you to prove yourselves and try to earn my love—you couldn’t earn it if you tried because I have already loved you. I have made you a blessing for the whole earth, I have made you like a city on a hill.
Now I want you to live like it.
Let your piety be loving each other.
Let your fasting be letting the oppressed go free and sharing your bread with the hungry.
Let your worship be providing housing for the homeless and clothing the naked.
Let your efforts to please me be through refusing to hide any part of yourself by showing your neighbors the beautiful person I have made and by letting the world see the wonderful community of faith I have called my own.
Then you and your community will all experience the fullness of life that I have intended for you.’
My friends, Jesus has come to us today to give us the same message he did on that hillside so long ago:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are a city built on a hill and made to be a blessing to all creation.
So ignore those who insist you you’re not good enough, resist a world that tries to limit your dreams and ambitions, let go of those insidious voices of doubt you have internalized, tear down the systems that try to hold you back and cling to your God-given identity that can never be taken away.
And in the waters of our baptism, we are assured of yet another identity we can hold onto: beloved child of God.
And in our baptism, God invites to root our lives in these identities, to use our lives to share the love of God that is for all.
That’s why at each baptism we present each child of God with a candle lit from the Pascal candle, the light of Christ, and invite them to, in the words of Jesus, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Let your life shine by using your life to do good works, not just trying to please God because you are already beloved and precious and a blessing—nothing can change that.
Don’t think your prayers and fasting and piety will make God love you any more because God wants you to be the blessing you are meant to be, to share God’s love for the world.
Don’t spend your life going through the motions at church thinking that will make God love you more, use worship to help transform your lives, to motivate you and invigorate you, to give you the strength to do good things to which we are called and glorify God.
Use your life, use your light, to illumine and enact the love of God that is for the whole creation for the sake of God’s glory.
Now maybe this seems like a lot.
Maybe this wonderful accolade of blessing suddenly feels a little overwhelming and like an impossible burden to bear.
I get that.
Believe me, I feel that.
But perhaps it’s helpful to mention that as precious and essential as salt is, it is never the star of the show.
Salt is a flavoring agent; it brings out and enhances the flavors present.
You don’t want to focus on the salt in the dish—in fact, if you taste the salt too much, the dish is probably ruined.
In the same way, our rooting our lives in a salty identity isn’t so much about showing the world how precious and important we are, but pointing our neighbors to the love and glory of God through our words and actions.
The same goes for light.
As important as light is, it’s not helpful unless it illumines something else.
Too much light becomes a nuisance—blinding or parching or maybe even bleaching away beautiful colors.
So being called the light of the world is less about shining for our own benefit, but orienting our lives to show the world the love of God and to illumine what God is doing all around us.
And while this still can sound like a tall order for us to do individually, we’re not meant to go it alone.
Because while it’s true that you are salt and you are light, Jesus is talking to a group of people here, he’s talking to our whole community and all the peoples of the earth: ‘You are salt and light. We’re all in this together. So combine your efforts to be salt and do much more than a single grain ever could. Work together so your light shines brighter than any one candle.’
Because if we try to do it by ourselves, there’s no way we can succeed, but if we combine our efforts with what God is doing within and around us, there’s no way we can fail.
I don’t think there is any doubt that our world is in need of salt and light these days.
It can be easy for us to come to church and pray for God to come and fix things, to send what we need and repair this weary world.
But today we hear that God has already given us everything we need.
God has already provided salt and light and healing.
Look around you.
Look within you.
You are salt.
You are light.
You are the very blessing that this world needs.
In a country with one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world where the wrong papers can lead to detainment, we can work together to reform our laws and fix our criminal justice systems.
In a country that produces an abundance of food, we can ensure that all people can eat their fill of nutritious and sustainable meals.
In one the richest cities of the richest country on the planet, we can demand that all people have a safe and stable place to sleep and clothes to keep them warm—and we can risk our own comfort to use our land to make that dream reality here in this house.
In a society, in a church, that still demands that people hide their sexuality and gender identity for their own safety and acceptance, we can build a community of worship where we welcome and embrace all God’s children exactly as they are and celebrate our beautiful diversity.
Jesus has come to us this morning to give us this gift of good news: ‘You are one of the most precious things in the world and I love you more than you could ever imagine.’
You are salt.
You are light.
You are children of God.
Trust in this promise, my friends.
Abide in these beautiful identities.
And let’s get to work until all people can hear and believe the same.
 Obama, Michelle. Becoming, Michelle Obama, 65.
 Ibid. 383.