“Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” Is 58: 1-12; 1 Cor 2: 1-16; Mt 5:13-20
Some weeks the world looks really bleak, and not only because it has been raining nonstop the whole time. It appears that evil is winning, democracy and decency are dead, and there’s no way forward except further into the deepening shadows. Sometimes the world looks like an enormous, well-armed Goliath, and we feel like little David with a slingshot. For a lot of people, this has been one of those weeks.
Even if we aren’t worried about the world stage, I bet there are some people here who feel like the villains or the fools in our own little dramas—like the worst humans ever because of something we said or did or because of something we failed to say or do. We may picture God like a loving father, gazing with sad eyes and saying repeatedly, “I’m so disappointed in you.”
I jest, but in all seriousness, if anyone relates to any of those scenarios in real life, today is YOUR day! Hear the word of the Lord and know it is specifically, directly, God’s word for you: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Not “you could be salt and light if you would just shape up,” or, “I can see you growing into this role,” or “I wish you were.” No. You ARE salt and light for the world!
I know that that might not sit well with some of us because we are accustomed to hearing a similar but wildly different statement from John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” But here in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly states, “You are the light of the world.” And the you is plural. ALL y’all are the light of the world!
It’s still kind of jarring. We might be tempted to deflect, pointing out that Jesus is “the true light” (although that involves our switching to John’s version again!), and that our role is merely to reflect or channel the light of Christ. And of course there’s truth to that, but today we’re going to sit with Matthew’s surprising word: Jesus’ assessment that we are salt and light.
All too often people imagine God disapproving of us, wishing there were some other church—or someone other than ourselves—that God could call on to do God’s work in the world. We’re just not up to it. We are unsurprised by the parts of Scripture calling on God’s people to shape up, so let’s not miss this other message from God which is also present in our Holy Book—the message that God not only puts up with us, but is actually crazy about us!
This great love didn’t start with Jesus, of course. God’s been smitten with humanity for a long time. In Isaiah, God tells a wandering desert people that they are like a spring of water, whose “waters never fail,” and “like a watered garden.” What joy to know that is how God sees believers! Isaiah also records God saying to poor and humble people, “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” How astonishing to hear that God views us not only as destructive and sinful but also as healers, menders, and reformers of society! How amazing that God sees in the fragile faithful the means by which our fractured world can be renewed. In the same vein, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
It’s important to know the audience on whom Jesus first bestows this astonishing claim. It is not a group of prominent politicians or financiers or important dignitaries. He’s not even speaking to his hand-picked disciples at this point. There are no obvious world-changers present. He’s talking to a crowd of ordinary people on a hill. Probably a lot of disappointed people. Definitely some desperate people. Scared and lonely people. People who’ve been told they don’t count for much and have begun to believe it. In fact, if we take Matthew 5:11-12 as our cue, Jesus is speaking to people who are (or who are about to be) “reviled” and “persecuted.” Singling out this category of people as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” seems absurd. But here we are.
In our time we’re accustomed to thinking of salt primarily as a flavor enhancer. And it definitely is that. But for ancient people, there were other reasons to value salt. Jesus’ audience knew that salt’s worth lay not only in its flavoring quality but also its use as a preservative. In a time before refrigerators and freezers, the only way of preserving food was by salting it. We appreciate that quality of salt in our time as well, but what we might not know about, but what Jesus’ hearers would certainly have known, is salt’s ability to serve as a catalyst for fire. Salt helped the fuel in the ancient ovens burn better, thereby making their cooking fires more efficient. After a while—after it “lost its saltiness”—and no longer enabled that catalytic process, they threw it out. Yes, salt was very valuable back then. Jesus chose that image on purpose to ensure that his hearers recognize that he was calling them precious treasures.
Burt Jesus doesn’t stop there. He also says, “You are the Light of the World!” That might remind us of how John the Baptist describes the Messiah in John’s Gospel: “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” That is profoundly Good News for people in every time and place. By calling us light, we are identified with God’s own self. God doers not despise us for being who we are, unable to live in a way that always contributes to the well being of all the earth. What’s so lovely is that no one earns radiance. We don’t have to strive to be light or ask to be light. It’s who we are. In our baptisms, we received the power of the Holy Spirit and were marked with the cross of Christ forever. We conclude that sacrament by addressing the newly baptized with Jesus’ own words: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory” to God. Or, in the immortal turn words of Pink Floyd, “Shine on, you crazy diamond!”
Of course, hearing that we are significant and loved is not the same as feeling significant and loved. We have to take a cue from our siblings in AA and “act as if.” On our low days, we have to fake it till we make it. Though the media often depicts Christians as comic relief, and even our own families can view our faith as quaint and irrelevant, we have to take it on faith that we are worthwhile. God wishes to involve us in the vital work of loving the world. God somehow helps us to be like salt, preserving what is good and true, just and right in the world. Jesus calls the church to be catalysts for mercy and grace and all that is holy, begs us to be that which empowers and sustains life.
Salt also flavors. Jesus must have had this in mind when he labeled his followers the “salt of the earth.” Salt has the capacity to work its way into the very core of stuff, permeating and saturating whatever it touches. Once you’ve salted a soup, you cannot unsalt it. In the same way, Christians bring zest to the world, just by being who we are! Furthermore, by naming us Light, Jesus calls us to shine forth and focus on the truth wherever it is hidden, and to empower new life to emerge. Just as photosynthesis somehow transforms light into a life-giving agent for plants, so we mysteriously operate as agents of growth and beauty and possibility because God has said so. This is just the way things are, no matter what the circumstances.
We are what God has made us, no matter how entangled we are in a world filled with despair, simplistic answers, shame, accusations, and greed. As we stake our lives on God’s conviction that we are salt and light, the result is, as Isaiah puts it, “[Our] light shall break forth like the dawn, and [our] healing shall spring up quickly; [our] vindicator shall go before [us], the glory of the Lord shall be [our ]rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
So in those weeks when we feel our lights are on the point of being extinguished, and our salt is losing its saltiness, we come together to remind each other how the Creator of all things kneels down in the dirt and breathes new life into us, restoring us, renewing us, and refreshing us. We recall how God feeds us with word and sacrament, upholds us with friends and fire, darkness and light. Let’s remind one another that nothing can separate us from God’s love. God does not reject us or disapprove of us, even on our worst days. God delights in us, and has made the Church to be a beacon of hope to all who feel excluded or worthless. We are a watered garden, a lush oasis in a chaotic world. God sees us as spicy! God says we are bright lights, who help others find meaning again, so shine on, you crazy diamonds!
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