13“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. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Remember. Remember. It is one of the most powerful words in our language, remember. Remembering can call into being the presence of long-gone loved-ones. It can call to mind our history, the foundations of which and on which we stand. And it can take us to dark places, to difficult time we would rather . . . forget. Remembering is powerful.
And in essence, remembering is what Jesus is calling us to do in this morning’s scripture lesson. Remember that you are the salt of the earth, that which gives life flavor. Remember that you are the light of the world, that which illuminates everything, which flickers in the dark places and brings forth light.
There is no use for seasoning that is no good, of course. You might as well throw away the cumin that’s been living in the back of your cabinet since Watergate. There is no reason to hide a light, unless, you know, you’re embarrassed about it. So we are called to go into the world and share that flavor, share that light.
It is one of the fundamental calls of the Gospel that we are to remember who we are, and whose we are. We are children of God, salt of the earth, light of the world. To behave any other way is to deceive ourselves, to refrain from doing justice to the Gospel, to split in two.
Have you known anyone who was forced to live in a way that didn’t allow them to be who they were? Of course you have. I have to think most people are this way, feeling that they are inadequate, so they have to pretend to be something they aren’t.
And we do it ourselves all the time, acting one way on Sunday morning, and then another when we leave church. Here’s my favorite—and I’m certainly not immune to this one—how many times have you heard somebody say, “Shh! Don’t say that! We’re in church!”
You know, as if being in church meant you were supposed to act one way versus the way you act when you leave here. This is certainly holy ground, but you don’t get a free pass when you walk out the door. If you feel better saying it outside the doors than you do inside, then maybe you’re wearing a disguise. Don’t feel bad. We all do it.
It is so ubiquitous a story that Hollywood has made umpteen thousand movies about this very conflict, about being crushed under the weight of our own disguises. I asked my Facebook friends this week to list movies that used the story of being crushed under your own disguise as the basis for its plot, and I got all sorts of answers:
A Room with a View
Sense and Sensibility
Dead Poet’s Society
The Devil Wears Prada
A League of Their Own
Never Been Kissed
The Little Mermaid
The Royal Tennenbaums
The American President
Cool Hand Luke
And somebody even said the evil computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is quite a list.
Now, there is a reason that there are so many movies and books predicated on this idea that we cannot survive under the weight of the elaborate disguises we make for ourselves. It is a central thread of the human drama that we feel inadequate, that we feel we must put on costumes that look nothing like ourselves in order to fit in, to succeed in our professional lives, to please our spouses and loved ones. And if that is one of life’s great dramas, the quest to become someone else, it is likewise one of life’s great ironies that the most miserable people are those who wear the most disguises. I have to tell you, I know there’s a bit of this in everybody—I certainly feel the tug of inadequacy—but the people who most live in a way that is contrary to who they actually are can just about always be spotted a mile away. For as hard as we try to hide, to wear a disguise, it remains the case that those who try to disguise themselves the most are the most obviously broken. It as is if what they are offering is so fake that it crumbles under the lightest scrutiny. You can’t hide your light under a basket. You’ll set the whole place on fire.
And salt. A few years ago, my dad had a really serious heart attack. Thank God he’s fully recovered, but at the time, we were pretty sure he’d lost half his heart function. And I drove up to Memphis to spend the week with him in the ICU, and when I got home, Stacey insisted that we send him a care package to aid in his recovery. She made a CD that used every song she could with the word “heart” in it: Heartbreak hotel, Achy Breaky Heart, Heart of Glass, all sorts of heart songs. And my contribution was a barbecue spice rub that would give him flavor without the sodium, because he was supposed to cut it out of his diet. I used salt substitute.
Now, to those of you who use salt substitute and who have figured out how to manage, let me apologize for what I am about to say: that stuff is awful! Just horrendous! I am sure you can get used to it, but the only thing that tastes like salt is salt. You can spot an imposter a mile away.
And we wonder why the church gets a bad rap. We’re busy pretending to be something we’re not, busy trying to fit in, to keep everybody happy, to not rock the boat, all in the interest of trying to keep up appearances, and yet it is the case that in the interest of keeping everybody happy, all this pretending is what is keeping us from one another. It is keeping us from God.
A few years ago, the Barna group did a large-scale survey of young adults in the United States. You may have heard about it. And, according to those they surveyed, there are six reasons why young adults stay away from church:
Here they are. Young adults see church as: inauthentic, shallow, out of step with science, judgmental, exclusive, and unfriendly to doubt, as if doubt was the biggest challenge to the work of God, rather than our own unwillingness to carry it out.
I have to tell you. This stings. As someone who has given his life’s work to the church, this stings. And the worst part is that it is our own doing, because the Gospel has nothing to do with any of these things. There is nothing in the Bible that says we ought to reject science; to the contrary, the Psalms are full of praises for the gifts of the sun and the stars. There is nothing in the Bible that says we ought to be shallow; in fact, when Jesus says to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, that’s about as deep and serious as it gets. We certainly aren’t supposed to be judgmental; you know what the Bible says about that.
There is no Biblical reason that the church is any of these things, and yet as I survey religious life in America, I find that these critiques ring true. The church has, at times, been judgmental. We have been exclusive, as if the business of being the family of God were about staying as we are rather than welcoming others in. We have been inauthentic, unwilling to delve into difficult issues just in case somebody gets mad and takes his or her ball and goes home.
This last one can be the most insidious, as we spend so much! time and effort on making everybody happy, inside and outside the doors of the church, as if what each of us were really supposed to do is to take no stand that will make anybody mad, as if one person getting upset would ruin the whole deal rather than standing as proof that the church actually stands for something. As you know, I am an advocate for inviting all people into the fellowship of God through the church, for I believe all people are children of god, and if you don’t like diversity, you’re going to hate Heaven. But there is a difference between welcoming all people and being all things to all people. The former is what we are called to do by the God who claims each of us as children. The latter is a recipe for irrelevance. The thing about salt is that when you rub it into a wound, it stings. And yet in the days before modern medicine, salt was used to prevent infection. If we are to retain our saltiness, we must stand up for the things that matter. We must not leave Jesus stuck in the first century, but accept his presence in our lives now, in our world now, in the issues that face us now.
So when Jesus says that salt is no good when it loses it saltiness, that a light is no good when you hide it, well, friends, he is talking to you and me.
It is as if we have forgotten who we are. It is as if we have forgotten that each of us is made in the image of God, that when we strip away the nonsense we cover ourselves with in order to get along for getting along, we reflect that image everywhere we go.
To this, and to us, Jesus says, “Remember. Remember who you are: a child of God, made in God’s own image, beloved of God.”
This kind of remembering is not as easy as it sounds, but you knew that already. I need not remind you that the world can be a dark place. Children kidnaped and trapped in prostitution. People who go to bed hungry every night, across the world and across the street. A culture that sees the church, you and me, as hypocrites, whether or not we deserve that distinction.
The world can be a dark place. And so, as I see it—and as Jesus tells us in Matthew—we have two options. We can just give up, holding on to the traditions we know and not giving an inch, just like the scribes and the Pharisees, knowing full well that what makes us comfortable is often diametrically opposed to that which makes Jesus happy. We can lose our saltiness, our integrity. We can put our light under a basket, where, devoid of oxygen, it will slowly snuff itself out.
Or, we can claim our calling as children of God. We can go into the world and share the radical love of Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he was willing to take on flesh and undergo unbelievable suffering, simply out of love. We can take off the disguises we use to try and fit in and go be real people who follow the real Jesus in the real world. We can be salt, stinging at times but full of strength and flavor. We can have the hard discussions and recognize that being authentic to our calling means sometimes doing the unpopular, difficult thing, as we go out into the world, and it just so happens to be a fortunate truth that people are attracted to authenticity more than our bland disguises, anyway. Jesus knew this. It is why he tells us to uphold his commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs all the law and the prophets; it drives everything else.
We have two choices. Wear our heavy disguises, or wrap ourselves in nothing but the grace of God. I will close with this. I had lunch this week with the Rev. Dr. Phil Schroeder, who is the director of church development for the conference and a great friend to this church—and a friend to me. And Phil told me of his first week at a church he served as pastor a number of years ago. And this is what he told them, in his inimitable style, in his first sermon “I have heard it said that as Methodists, we are called to err on the side of grace. I reject that. I reject that, because I refuse to say that leading with grace is ever in error. Grace is all there is, and you’ll never hear me say anything else. If that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to like me very much.”
Tough words. But salty, for practicing grace is not always easy. Practicing grace can take us to unusual places among unusual people. And yet we are called to be children of God, children who reflect God’s image and share God’s grace in such a way that we will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s try to do justice to that calling, shall we? In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.