One of the best places in the world to see moose is Algonquin Park. And the best time of year to see moose in Algonquin Park is in May, near the end of the spring melt. If you drive the highway 60 corridor in May, in the morning or evening, you will see dozens of moose gathered on both sides of the road, sometimes even on the highway. They are there for one reason. Salt.
During the winter the highway is salted to remove ice, and so in the spring, the pools of water in the ditches by the side of the road are salty. And the moose, who are salt deprived because of their winter diets, will travel hundreds of kilometers to drink the salty water from the pools by the side of the road. Salt, as the moose know instinctively, is essential for life. We humans tend to forget that because our 21st century diet usually has too much salt. But without salt, we die. The symptoms of salt deficiency, in moose and in humans, are the same: headache, confusion, loss of energy, fatigue, restlessness and irritability.
That’s why in ancient times salt was such a highly valued commodity. Not only is it essential for life and health, but it also gives flavour to food and salt was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration. No wonder that salt served historically as a store of value, and could be traded like money.
The Roman historian Pliny wrote in his first century encyclopedia that “nothing is more useful than salt or sunshine.”
It’s probably easier for us to understand the value of light. Light too is essential for life. It enables us to see, it enlightens, it illuminates. It gives us warmth and energy, and through photosynthesis, light gives us the air that we breathe and the food we eat. Light gives life; light overcomes the darkness.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Do not underestimate what Jesus is saying to his disciples here. Do not underestimate what Jesus is saying to you.
Jesus does not say “you should be the salt of the earth”. He is not making an ethical statement.
Jesus does not say “you could be the light of the world.” He is not talking about our potential.
He does not say “I want you to be the salt of the earth.” He is not exhorting us to something new.
He does not say “You will be the salt of the earth.” He’s not holding out a future possibility.
Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” This is about identity. This is about who you are. And identity matters.
Linda Ronstadt is a singer, one of the great singers of the 70s. Maybe a bit before your time for some of you, maybe you might have heard of her backing band, a group called the Eagles. Linda Ronstadt is a singer; but a few years ago she lost her voice to Parkinson’s Disease. “I miss it every day,” she’s quoted as saying. “Singing is something I’ve done since I was two years old.”
If you are a singer, there’s nothing more tragic than losing your voice. If you are salt, there’s nothing more tragic than losing your saltiness.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” “You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.”
This is about identity. Don’t lose who you are. Don’t hide who you are. Be who you are. Live it.
Now some might object that salt can’t actually lose its taste. Sodium chloride will always taste like sodium chloride according to chemists. But humans are a bit more complicated. You are the salt of the earth, but there are certain default modes that can cause us to lose our taste. Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. They make us bland. We lose our saltiness.
You are the salt of the earth. Be salty! You are the light of the world. Shine!
Jesus has called his disciples to the top of the mountain to teach them what it means to be a disciple. To teach them who they are. He starts with identity. This is who you are. It always starts with identity. God always starts with identity. Our identity is a gift from God. In the beginning, in the creation story, humanity is made in the image of God, that’s who we are. At our baptisms, at our new creation, we are given our identity as beloved children of God, that’s who we are. As people who have accepted the call to follow Jesus, as his disciples, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. So don’t hide who you are. Don’t lose who you are. There is nothing more tragic than not being who you are.
One of the great falsehoods of our time is that faith is supposed to be a private matter, something between you and God. What utter nonsense! We’re not the first people to make that mistake. In the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people thought that their faith was a matter of personal piety, of engaging in religious ritual and keeping religious law. What nonsense, God declares through the prophet Isaiah. The people thought that to be faithful it was sufficient to engage in certain rituals such as fasting. No way, says God.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. Is it not the share your bread with the hungry, and when you see the naked, to cover them?”
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
That’s what it means to be light. To turn faith into a private practice that does not care for the poor and needy, that does not strive for social justice is for salt to lose its taste and for light to be put under a basket. No wonder Jesus calls for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Who you are really matters. To be a disciple, to be a follower of Jesus, to be part of what Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church in the US calls the Jesus movement, this really matters, now more than ever. Now is not a time for us to turn inward to private religious practice. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world, you need to know that so that you can live it. Because those around you need you to live as who you are, as salt and light, as people who give life. Who you are really matters. So live it, don’t lose it or hide it.
Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus deliberately go north to begin his ministry in Zebulun and Napthtali, a dramatic action that proclaimed “I am the light that comes into the darkness.”
For the last two weeks we have asked the question, “what is the kingdom of God?” What does Jesus mean when he proclaims the kingdom of God as the central message of his mission?
Last week I didn’t give a one sentence answer to the question, “what is the kingdom of God?” One sentence doesn’t do it justice. But the best one sentence answer that I’ve heard to that question is this: Think of the kingdom of God as the activity and presence of God.
Jesus himself embodies the kingdom of God: he is the activity and presence of God in our midst. He is the light that enters the darkness. I am the light of the world, Jesus says in John’s gospel.
But then in today’s gospel, he turns it around. He calls those of us who are his disciples to the mountain top and says to us “you are the light of the world.”
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the activity and presence of God in the world. How does God act in the world? Look around you. Where is God present in the world? Look around you. You are the activity and presence of God in the world. The kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God is breaking into our world. Where? Right where you are. In your midst. Because that’s who you are. Salt and light. Live it. Be who you are; so that God’s kingdom can break in.
Homily. Yr A Proper 5 Feb 5 2017 St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 58.1-9a; Ps 112.1-9; 1 Cor 2.1-16; Mt 5.13-20
Image by Brendan Bombaci, Creative Commons