Matthew 5: 13-20
As many of you might know, I am both a fan of religion and science. If I didn’t study theology in university (and I was a tad better at math), I would have studied science. They both ask important questions about the nature of the world and our place in it and they both offer clues to how to make this world better. Indeed, if human civilization is going to make it through this century, we’re going to need to listen very carefully to both science and religion. Science is going to give us the technical knowledge to deal with our problems and religion can tell us why all this matters.
Many over the last 300 years have talked about some great conflict between religion and science but I just don’t see that. One example would be how we reconcile the Biblical accounts of creation with the scientific understanding of cosmology and evolution. Just for the sake of argument, take the most conservative view of the Bible and assume that God dictated these words. Imagine the scene, here’s Moses, a stack of papyrus and a pen ready to mark down holy words. God says, “14 billion years ago, all time and space was contained in one infinitesimally small quantum singularity which in the smallest fraction of a second exploded into the vast universe we now know but is still expanding.” Moses would have said, “Wait. What? What’s a billion? A singularawho?” And then God said, “I created you through a millions of years process of natural selection and evolution…” to which Moses would not have even replied but just stared incredulously. God, realizing that humans wouldn’t be ready for this kind of knowledge for thousands of years said, “OK, let me tell you a 7 day story to represent how I created everything so that we could be in relationship. Write this down, “…and God said let there be light.”
People have always learned more effectively through metaphor and story. Jesus used them all the time with parables – stories that never actually happened but happen all the time.
Jesus, in today’s reading is using metaphor to explain part of human nature and potential. This is a continuation of the sermon on the mount that we started hearing last week. Here, Jesus says, You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Is Jesus saying that the earth has salt because of us? Is that why the oceans are salt water? Too many humans went swimming and dissolved? No, he’s using a metaphor, something untrue to illustrate a profound truth. It’s an image that any one of his listeners, now or 2000 years ago can easily understand. I make my own bread but once or twice, I forgot to add salt – it was pretty much inedible. Jesus is saying that we have the potential to add flavour, joy and appreciation to life. We can help bring out the flavour in the mundane, day to day.
In the same way, Jesus is telling us that we’re the light of the world. What is light? If you’ve walked down a deserted street at night, you know that streetlight is offers a feeling of security. The headlights in your car light your way and offer safety. A well placed light at home can make all the difference in the world to your shins when the coffee table moves itself around the living room. Light can be a beacon that can guide us, it can illuminate great beauty. Is Jesus saying that if the sun were to go out, we’d be fine because I’ll simply read off the light that shines off Jen? No. Jesus is saying that through our light, we can lead each other to sanctuary. We can illuminate the goodness and beauty that is often shaded in the hate and ugliness that demands our attention.
Maybe in this image, Jesus is also offering us the call to live with balance as well. Salt is good but too much salt is dangerous. We need salt to flavour our food and for our bodies to operate properly but too much is very unhealthy. Light too is like this. We need light to show us a path and help our gardens grow but too much light dries up our crops and burns our eyes and skin. You are the salt and light of the world but all things in moderation. I hope that every once in a while you tell friends and family that you go to a great church full of wonderful people and that they too might find belonging in this place, but don’t be so salty that you scare people away.
I don’t know if Jesus understood this but here again is a time when faith and science compliment each other rather than conflict. When Jesus says you are the light of the world, he’s at least partially right. You do shine with your own light. Just about everything in the universe emits light – it’s just that our eyes can’t perceive it, it’s too faint, our eyes are made to see light that’s far far brighter. Maybe this is kind of how our lives sometimes are. Maybe everyone you meet has a light of their own but our eyes just aren’t ready to see it. Sure the nurse caring for patients in the hospital or the aid worker taking food to the starving parts of the world carry an obvious light that our eyes are trained to see. But that person you see walking down the street that seems dirty or threatening, – they’ve got a story of their own that we can’t fully understand; they have their own light that we just don’t recognize and maybe they can’t see it in themselves either. Maybe we need faith that we are all God’s children, that we’re all a big tangled up mix of blessing and regret, all needing God’s wisdom, all needing someone to help our light shine.
And that goes for salt as well. Salt is a very simple substance. It’s made up of two elements – sodium and chlorine. Sodium is a soft metal that isn’t naturally found in its pure form which is good since if you get it wet, it bursts into flame and can explode. Chlorine on the other hand is a gas that to say the least, stinks. It is so caustic, it was used as a weapon in WW1. When it came into contact with the water in the soldiers lungs it would turn to hydrochloric acid and burn their lungs out. When you take these two highly dangerous elements and bring them together – you have the salt of the earth, that which sustains life and brings flavour.
We’re the same way – when we’re separated, when we’re isolated from community, we have the potential to really stink, and I don’t just mean those who don’t bathe since they’re not going to see anyone anyways. When we’re separated from community, we have the potential to be explosive, dangerous, to ourselves and to others. We can’t be practicing Christians on our own because it is through loving our neighbours that we follow the way of Christ.
Together though, in community, we’re like that sodium and chlorine brought together to make salt and flavour the lives of all people. Together we can join together in worshipping our God with many voices raised in song. Together we can learn from each other and practice the vital skill of not always getting our own way and compromising. Together we can offer each other support and care when hard times come but also have a community with whom to celebrate through life’s milestones and joys.
This is why it is so very vital that we be a welcoming community, not only when it’s easy but especially when it’s hard. Sure, it’s great when someone sees that this is a nice nice congregation in a pretty building but what about the people who aren’t here because they’re church shopping but because their life depends on finding a community that will simply love them. We have to be a place that risks opening our doors to that caustic and stinky chlorine because it’s here that they might just find the sodium they need to live out their call to be the salt of the earth.