Parish Eucharist 5th February 2017
Salt and Light
Sermon for 5 February 2017 10:30 a.m. Isaiah 58: 1- 9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12; Matthew 5 13 – 20 Year A
Salt and Light
Some of us were at the Bishop of London’s great retirement Eucharist at St Paul’s cathedral on the feast of Candlemas on Thursday. In the scrum of clergy robing in the crypt of St Paul’s one of my much younger clergy friends introduced me to one of his colleagues, who he said, rather charmingly I thought, was “an all round thoroughly good egg”. He might have said she was “the salt of the earth” – and he would have meant more or less the same thing. For part of the service we had lighted candles, and the lights in the cathedral were dimmed. Standing in that great crowd with my one small candle I had the strong sense that together we represented the light of God’s church shining out in our great city.
Today our Gospel reading tells us that we are called to be both salt and light, so I want to spend some time thinking about what that might mean.
Salt has for millennia been highly prized for its useful properties. A couple of years ago we spent a short time on the island of Salina – it’s very name suggests saltiness. Saline is one of the Aeolian islands off Sicily. The most notable feature of the island (apart from the cone of the extinct volcano) was an ancient salt pan on a stretch of coast where seawater had been collected for its salt. It must have taken a great deal of time and effort to produce salt in this way.
One of the properties of salt is that it preserves things which would otherwise go rotten. Particularly useful in days before refrigeration. If we are to be salt in this sense, we might perhaps apply Jesus’ words to our public life or our work. We even use the same word – corruption – for physical rotting and for what happens when a company or a public institution falls prey to dishonesty. And it only has to be the dishonesty of a few, as in HSBC or in Enron, to have a drastic or even disastrous effect on the whole and damage the lives of countless people. And yet corruption can start small. As small as a lie which simply seems more convenient than the truth, which will help us to get on with something more easily. Which apparently won’t hurt anyone. It can be difficult to stand against this sort of minor corruption without appearing to be ungracious or unhelpful. But we can all choose to do so. Some of us will be in positions in public life or in work where from time to time we have to make more difficult decisions in order to stand firm against things that are much more serious.
Another use of salt is for washing wounds. This is the cleansing which has to happen before healing can begin. Without it an infection can set in and healing will take much longer. Here we could perhaps make an application in the territory of personal life and relationships. It’s better to face problems and deal with them directly rather than hoping that things will improve if we ignore them. Sometimes we have to be straight and talk about painful things. There is of course a difference between gently washing a wound with salt water, which is healing and rubbing salt into a wound, which is torture. We need gentleness and care here and we need to be very clear about our own motivations.
But Jesus’ example in our Gospel reading talks about salt as the ingredient which gives flavour to food. We have probably all forgotten to put salt in the rice, pasta or potatoes – and we know how insipid the result can be! But supposing our pack of salt was so old that it had lost its saltiness? (If it was possible, that would happen in our household!). Jesus’ challenge is that we should remain salty, that we should not give up, so that our presence in the world remains effective.
Jesus’ point about light is similar. We are called to be light so that others can see the light and benefit from it. We’re not a city – but we certainly are a church - built on a hill. We’re probably all too aware of that if we have to walk here from Finchley Road or from Swiss Cottage! How then, as well as making use of our saltiness, might we show our light. And what might it mean to do this?
In our first reading this morning Isaiah reminds the people that righteous living and justice are required if their piety is to be acceptable to God. If they live in a way that brings life and hope to the poor and oppressed their light will “break forth like the dawn” (v8). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee is only to eager to show his light. The problem is that what he thinks is light turns out to be darkness because he is so pleased with his own righteousness. We’re not called to parade our righteousness in this way, but, like the tax collector, to acknowledge our faults and then to be who we are – forgiven sinners lit up by the Holy Spirit, guided by the Spirit of God. Our righteousness will then exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees not because we work harder or do more, but because it will be qualitatively different. As happened to the tax collector it will flow out joyfully and abundantly from our experience of Christ.
During the Bishop’s farewell service there was a moment when we were all asked to hold up our candles high and the Bishop blessed them. Here are some of the words he used, which seem to me to be appropriate to us also:
“Lord God, the source and spring of everlasting light,
Pour into the hearts of your faithful people
The brilliance of your eternal splendour,
That we …..may have the darkness of our souls dispelled,
And so be counted worthy to stand before you
In that eternal city where you live and reign.”
Let us pray that Holy Spirit will inspire and guide us as we seek to be salt and light in our work, in our homes and as a church community.