Homily: “On Being Salt and Light”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time) Year A, 2017.

We continue today exploring the Sermon on the Mount. As I said last Sunday, Jesus speaks to all people—which is to say that Christianity is not a secret club of the spiritually elite, but a public religion by which the true light of the world shines forth for all to see by the grace of God. And at the same time, although Jesus died for the sins for the whole world, in His life he barely saw fit to visit much more than 20 square miles of it. He made Himself available to large crowds of people, yet it was to twelve men, along with about sixty additional men and women, that he gave His most potent teaching, His most concentrated spiritual direction. There are always crowds around Jesus, but it is only His disciples that come to Him—those who truly hear the voice of their Good Shepherd, and know Him by hearing His voice.

It is fitting that we are hearing this portion of the Sermon on the Mount in this season of our Annual Church Meeting, a season when, in addition to conducting the canonical business required of us, we are also focusing on Mission. The Christian Mission is to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ—to proclaim Christ Crucified, and do so in our lives, in our families, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces. Indeed it is fitting because the two primary images given to the Church by Jesus in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount are two images of Mission. The first is “You are the salt of the earth.” And the second is “You are the light of the world.” These are to tell us what we are, as therefore what we are to be.

In other words, these are two images the Jesus wants us to contemplate with regard to our ultimate purpose within the Church on earth, within, using the traditional term, the Church Militant, the Church of visible creation. The true understanding of the Church is threefold—the Church Militant on earth, the Church Expectant in Paradise (sometimes called “Purgatory”), and the Church Triumphant in heaven. And while we must always keep in mind that the Church is threefold­—Militant, Expectant, Triumphant—it is toward our ministry within the Church Militant that these two images primarily apply and find their resonance.

Salt “of the earth.” Light “of the world.” What Jesus means about salt and light must be intimately tied into the circumstances of the here and now. We are dealing with where the rubber meets the road. These images take us to the relationship of the Church and wider society. How are we to minister to the wider society? How are we to represent Jesus to others? Particularly, how are we to represent Jesus to those who seems to have little to no interest in Christianity, in the Church, or in Jesus Himself? And how are we to represent Jesus to those who once we active members of the Church, but have become inactive? The answer from Jesus to all these questions is: be the salt of the earth, be the light of the world. You are salt and light: be salt and light.

What is salt? And more specifically, what is salt used for, since Jesus intends to use us for the spread of the Gospel. Salt is used to flavor food and to preserve food. It is used in the Bible as well to purify persons, sacrifices and lands taken from enemies. When salt is shared, it is the sign of friendship; and it is used to enhance the quality of manure spread in the fields. It is used to bless water. Particularly with food, let us remember that there can be too much salt! Too much salt ruins a perfectly cooked piece of meat, or a perfectly prepared bowl of noodle soup. And so we are to exercise restraint, are we not? The Church cannot over-salt wider society. Our presence is necessary, for the Church provides the necessary seasoning to society, the necessary agent of preservation, the necessary blessing upon this world. Yet the Church can be too present, which means too big, too institutional. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is already cautioning against the Church being fused together with society. The Church flavors, preserves, blesses, but it is also capable of overwhelming. Nonetheless, this image of mission teaches us to foster relationships within our neighborhoods in a way that God’s Spirit pervades the whole—foster relationships by being present, by being aware, by being loving, yet not by over-doing it, not by smothering. We are to be subtle and intelligent: wise as serpents, innocent as doves.

It is in that way that we are the light of the world. Certainly it is Jesus who is the light to those who lay in darkness and in the shadow of death. And certainly we are to be bearers of this light, bearing this light through the work of our hands, the love in our voices, the constancy of our prayer. Yet just as a single candle is not as bright as a candelabra, a single Parish community is not as bright as a whole Church. If by salt Jesus focused on the work of a local parish, by light Jesus reminds us of the world-wide church. For it is when our efforts coordinate and find solidarity with the ministry of the various traditions of the Church around the world that the Light of Christ shines brightest.

Brothers and sisters, let us by the grace of God continue to flavor and bless the residents of Tazewell County, and let us grow in our ability to do so by asking God for help. And amid our efforts locally and parochially, let us always seek to affirm our membership in a Church that has over two billion members today, several billion more who are faithfully departed, and untold billions more yet to be born. By salt and light, we are to be local and universal in our understanding of mission. Indeed it is only by holding both in our prayer and in our actions that we might be given the liberty of that abundant life which God has made known to us in His Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.