Who loves bacon? It's very trendy to love bacon right now, most of you are probably aware of this because of things like BaconFest and the overabundance of bacon-studded options at grocery stores and restaurants.
And do you know why bacon is so popular? Because it's delicious. Now I realize I might be alienating the vegetarians right now, but I'm not really sure what the bacon-equivalent is for vegetarians, so bear with me. Bacon is delicious, and so this week I was researching what it takes to make bacon. I'm one of those people that always wonders how I can make something that we're used to buying better or cheaper. So it turns out that bacon isn't that difficult to make. You start with a pork belly. A pork belly, the stomach of a pig. Now I know this is also trendy in foodie circles, but I am not going to eat pork belly by itself, that is not appealing to me at all. There are no redeeming qualities about pork belly except that it makes bacon. And do you know what makes pork belly bacon? Salt. 4 cups of salt for about 4 pounds of pork belly. That’s a lot of salt. But you know what? Salt makes things taste better. Salt makes things better.
Our scripture for the day is the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which sometimes we call it the beatitudes. A few months ago we talked about this because the first part of this sermon talks about those who are blessed and Jesus says over and over, blessed are… so Jesus has just finished turning our idea of what being blessed means upside down and then goes on to this bit about salt and light that we read today.
We probably don’t think too much about the importance of salt in our day to day lives, but in Jesus’ time, salt was essential. It wasn’t just a seasoning, it was used as a purifier, a disinfectant, a preservative, part of religious sacrifices, and even a symbol of friendship. We now know that salt is absolutely essential for the human body to function, even on the cellular level. Now they may not have known that at the time that Jesus was giving this sermon, but they did know that salt was really important. Just like with bacon, salt makes things better; in Jesus’ time it purified things, it disinfected things, it preserved things. Obviously this is symbolic so I like the way that the Message puts it: “You’re here to besalt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.” The God-flavors, the good, the pure, the clean, the righteous, the peaceful, the hopeful, the redemptive flavors of the world. We are here to make things taste better; to make things around us better.
Now Jesus also says we are the light of the world. And some of the same can be said for light. Light was also essential in Jesus’ time as well. When it was night in Jesus’ time, it was DARK, really dark. Can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Light was necessary for people to be able to function after sundown. It also had strong religious connotations. What was the first thing that God created in Genesis? Light, God created the light first. Light is always connected symbolically to God, representing goodness and truth and hope. The message has a good way of saying this too: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” The God colors, illuminating the work that God is doing in and through and among us. Highlighting the good news that God is alive and active in our world.
Now I really like the Message’s paraphrase of these verses, because I think it awakens our imagination to what it means to be salt and light in the world. We’re supposed to be salt: making things better, and light: highlighting God’s work here. But there’s a problem with this translation, with the way this is paraphrased, and I think I’ve made the same mistake every time I’ve read these verses too. The Message says: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth… Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” I always got the sense that this was a command, Jesus saying, “hey, you’re supposed to be salt and light!” You should be doing this, you should be doing that. But when I took a look at some of the other translations, and did some more research, I found out that this isn’t a command. The way that Matthew wrote this has no hints of command, this is actually a blessing, Jesus is giving those who heard him, and us today, a blessing.
Have you ever heard the term “self-fulfilling prophecy”? The idea is that if you tell a child, or an adult for that matter, that he or she is good or bad or naughty or smart or any number of things, regardless of whether that label is true, if we hear it enough, we live into it. We become what we’re called. We become what we’re called, whether it’s true to begin with or not. And that’s what Jesus is doing here with us. He’s not saying, you better be salt and light, or you’re supposed to be salt and light, or “good Jews” or “good Christians” are salt and light. He says YOU ARE the salt of the earth, YOU ARE the light of the world. You already are, it is a part of who you are so live it out, don’t be shy! Friends, this isn’t a command, Jesus is not giving us directions, he’s giving us a blessing, an affirmation, he is commissioning us to live into our identities as Christians, to make the world a better, brighter place. The good news is that this is not another expectation or list of rules, this is confirmation that we already have what we need, that it’s a part of who we are, it’s built into our DNA we just have to live it out.
Now I hear some of you saying, to yourself of course “but Jen, you don’t know me, the ways that I’ve hurt people, the ways I’ve hurt myself, the messes I’ve gotten into. I’m not really good, I’m not the salt and light Jesus is talking about. Best case scenario, I just keep myself out of trouble.” Point taken, I think the things that we do and that are done to us work against the truth that we are good. But do you think Jesus thought he was talking to a bunch of saints? Do you think God doesn’t know what you’ve gone through and what you’ve done? God knows us better than we know ourselves, Jesus wasn’t fooled by pretenses or big shows of piety, Jesus came for the outcast, the marginalized, the downtrodden, those who are not perfect. And still he says, “You ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world, now live like it!”
But this salt and light bit isn’t the end of our scripture today either, and I think now that we understand this first part, maybe in a new way, now that we know that this is an affirmation not a command, we can read this second part in a new light as well. This is the part where Jesus is saying that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Part of this is a reaction to those who were saying that Jesus wasn’t respecting or following the law, and teaching others not to follow it either. And while I’d be one of the first people to claim that Jesus was not into legalism and rule-following as the key to the kingdom of God, he’s very clear that he’s not opposed to it and he’s not here to make it go away. He came so that we would understand the law better, that we might see what the law looks like when it’s not distorted by legalism and competition and one-upmanship. Just like Jesus reinterpreted our understanding of being blessed in the first part of this sermon, just like Jesus helps us reinterpret how we understand ourselves as salt and light, Jesus helps us reinterpret the law. God didn’t create laws that were flawed and God didn’t create the laws so that people could be legalistic about it. God gave the law to the people of that time to help them know what it would be like to live in the kingdom of God. God gave the law to God’s people so they would have some guidelines, some sense of how God would want things to be. Like with most things though, we’ve gone and messed up the original intent with our sin. Jesus came not to abolish the law, not to declare it null and void, but to fulfill it, to reclaim it.
And I couldn’t help struggle a little bit with putting these two parts of scripture together at first. Jesus is giving this blessing and affirmation and then seems to throw in this “And hey, don’t let people say I’m trying to mess with the law because I’m not, don’t forget the law!” It seems kind of defensive to me at first. But as I began to think about some of the questions we have, some of those voices that come into play when we hear Jesus of all people telling us that we already are salt and light, that making things better and shining light on God’s work is a part of who we, I realize that maybe Jesus isn’t leaving us hanging. That like God, Jesus offers us some more guidance a clue to figuring out how to be more salty and bright. While we might doubt Jesus’ blessing and affirmation to us, while we might want to leave salt and light as nice symbols that don’t require much of us, Jesus’ clue to us is to look to the law. If you’re not sure what being salt and light looks like, look to the law. Not the law that the Pharisees and concocted or interpreted, but the real laws that God has given us, the keys to the kingdom of God. If you’re wondering what it really means to bring out the God-flavors and the God-colors in the world, look to the law, but look at it through my eyes. And we know how Jesus understood the law, we find later on in Matthew chapter 22 where a Pharisee, a so-called expert in the law, asks him which is the greatest commandment. And do you know what he says? He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. The law is summed up this way: love God and love others. You are salt and light when you love God and love others. It is a part of who you are, it’s in your DNA. You are salt and light, and you know what salt and light do? Love, love God and love others.
No matter what drama we’re going through, no matter the challenges we have, we here at West Des Moines UMC are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We do make the world a better place and we do shine light on the ways that God is working in the world; we do love God and we love others. Just last week we had the Costa Rica Mission team leading us in worship, reflecting on ways that they worked with God to make the world a better place and the places where they saw God working for good in the world. If you remember at Christmas time, LifeTree Café attendees had the opportunity to make stars out of dollar bills, with the intent to give them to someone who was working on Christmas. And on Christmas day, Paul Gesell was at Caseys a gave one of those stars to a woman who was working. She was so appreciative; she hunted down our facebook page to thanks us. We have the prayer shawl ministry LifeGroup, that makes hospital and hospice rooms a little brighter with the reminder that person is loved and cared for. The money that we all collectively gave to Habitat for Humanity both here and in El Salvador so that other lives and communities might be better. The people who cook meals here every Wednesday so that we can come together and share a meal as a community so that we can shine a light of the ways God is working around us. There are so many more examples, I know that each of you could name one. All of you who give of your time and money and talents so that this faith community can make the world a better place and so we can continue to point out and shine a light on the fact that God is alive and that God is at work in and through and among us. All of you who love God and love others, we are already the salt of the earth, we are already the light of the world. Our call now is to live that out more deeply, more passionately, more tangibly wherever we are and where ever we go. Amen.
You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Go into the world now and be salt and light, be the church. Amen.
(c) Pastor Jen Hibben
(c) Pastor Jen Hibben