5 Epiphany – February 5, 2023
Matthew 5:13-20

         “You are the salt of the earth…” “You are the light of the world.”

We are in the church season of Epiphany and Epiphany is a word which itself means “appearing” or “showing forth”. Epiphany is a season that invites us to consider what it is that God longs to manifest in us and through us, and also to wrestle with what gets in the way of this.

Jesus is using elemental examples, salt and light, to describe our identity. Once again, it’s a promise, not a command. He doesn’t say you “will be” or you “should be”, he says “you ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world”. As in you already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it. Jesus is making a promise to his disciples, to us, about their very being, he is not commanding, let alone threatening them about what we should be doing. And that’s worth taking some time this morning to look at.

So lets look at salt and light, these elemental things that are so multi-faceted. Even though they are simple, there is nothing innocuous about either element.

It’s important to note that salt, back in Jesus’ day, was valuable. Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, that “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.”   The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits.  Religious covenants were often sealed with salt.  Salt was used for medicinal purposes, to disinfect wounds, check bleeding, stimulate thirst, and treat skin diseases.  Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt — which is where our English word, “salary”, comes from. Brides and grooms rubbed salt on their bodies to enhance fertility. The Romans salted their vegetables, as we do our modern day “salads.”  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation.

Nowadays, we still use salt for all sorts of purposes.  Salt accentuates flavors, melts ice, softens water, and hastens a boil.  It soothes sore throats, rinses sinuses, eases swelling, and cleanses wounds.  In some contexts, salt has more than a flavor; it has an edge.  It stings, burns, abrades, and irritates.  If we don’t have enough salt in our bodies, we die.  But if we have too much?  We also die.

Salt gives us a lot to think about. “Salt at its best sustains and enriches life.  It pours itself out with discretion so that God’s kingdom might be known on the earth — a kingdom of spice and zest, a kingdom of health and wholeness, a kingdom of varied depth, flavor, and complexity” (Debi Thomas)

And then there’s light. Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” God lights us up and does not hide us. We are placed in community to connect, to shine, to point people to God.

A lamp is put out in the open so others may see. Salt touches, connects to preserve, purify, heal and bring out flavor. Being out in the open and connecting is risky business. Showing up, letting ourselves be seen, connecting—this is vulnerable: risky, uncertain and emotional. Being out in the open is like “sharing an unpopular opinion, standing up for myself, falling in love, asking for help, saying no, … stepping up to the plate after a series of strikeouts, admitting I’m afraid.”

Vulnerability is “terrifying and achingly necessary.” The alternative is being bound up and drained of life. Like a lamp put under a basket or salt which doesn’t leave the saltshaker. Terrifying, necessary and courageous, vulnerability is, in Brené Brown’s words: “daring to show up and let ourselves be seen. Vulnerability is daring greatly.” Jesus says: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Touch, connect, risk coming out in the open for me.

Benjamin Franklin knew the power of a life well-lived. He knew the power of example, of letting your light shine.  At one point, Franklin decided that the city of Philadelphia needed lights on its streets. The lights would guide the steps of passersby, and would keep them from stumbling on the cobblestones. The lights would discourage thieves. The lights would make the city a much more wonderful place to live.

How do you think Benjamin Franklin set out to persuade the people of Philadelphia to install street lights? Well, he set out to persuade the people of Philadelphia by a simple demonstration project. He bought an attractive lantern, polished the glass, and placed it on a long bracket extending from the front of his house. Each evening, he lighted the wick. His neighbors noticed the warm glow in front of his house. When they walked at night, their hearts were gladdened as they approached the lantern-glow. Where they had stepped hesitantly, they now stepped confidently. Where they had feared thieves lurking in the shadows, now there were no shadows.

So a neighbor down the street bought a lantern for the front of his house. And then a neighbor down the street the other direction bought a lantern for his house. And people from adjacent neighborhoods were drawn to the light, and began to claim it for their neighborhoods. They didn’t lobby the legislature; they simply bought lanterns and placed them in front of their houses. And the light spread. And the City of Brotherly Love became the City of Evening Light. All because Ben Franklin showed them what one person could do.

Jesus says:

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works,

and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Austin Lewis put it this way. He said:

“You are the light of the world,

but the switch must be turned on.”