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Salt and Light

Harry Potter, as you may already know, is a wizard. But he doesn’t know that as the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens. All Harry knows as an 10-year-old boy is that he is a scrawny, unwanted orphan being raised by his maternal aunt and uncle who don’t like him very much. He sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs, wears hand-me-down clothes from his cousin Dudley, and is very, very lonely. One July day, just a week or so before his 11th birthday, a letter comes in the mail addressed to Harry. He’s all astonishment since he has never before received a letter, but his bullying uncle snatches away the letter and destroys it before Harry can read it. But more and more letters come to the house and the more frantically Harry’s aunt and uncle try to destroy the letters, the more letters appear until they are shooting down the chimney and filling the living room. Uncle Vernon herds the family into the car and drives them to a remote cabin on an isolated island in the sea. He will do anything to keep Harry from reading the content of those letters.

After the family falls asleep in the cold, damp house, Harry watches a clock strike midnight; it is his 11th birthday. And just as midnight hits, someone knocks at the door and then just knocks the door of its hinges all together. The intruder is a giant, well, a half-giant named Rubeus Hagrid. He pulls out a sloppy birthday cake for Harry. The boy is, of course, incredibly confused about this stranger who is here to celebrate his birthday. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia know what is happening though, and they do everything in their power to stop Hagrid from delivering his message. Finally, Hagrid utters the words that transform Harry’s life forever. “Harry- yer a wizard.”

And with those words, Harry’s life is utterly changed. He is ushered into a whole new world, a new way of being in the world, a new story of how he fits in this world, and perhaps, most importantly, a new way of understanding himself. Harry was always a wizard. He’d been a wizard his whole life, he was a wizard long before he began his education at Hogwarts. He just now knew who he was. He now could be who he always was.

It feels similar to me when Jesus looks out on the crowd of people listening to his Sermon on the Mount and tells them, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Jesus is telling his hearers who they are. Not what they should believe or what they have to do, he is telling them who they were made to be. Or, as commentator David Lose says it, “It’s a promise, not a command.”[1]

These words are part of Jesus’ longest teaching, called the Sermon on the Mount. Just before these emphatic, indicative verbs, Jesus has been blessing the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those are persecuted and reviled. He tells them he sees their struggles, their work, the hearts- and he affirms them. And that’s when Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.”

Salt, of course, is necessary for life. It was and is an important part of the preservation of meats and is the most accessible seasoning for food. Food without salt doesn’t generally taste very good. Even sweet foods often have salt in the recipe because it draws out the flavors. A good chocolate chip cookie recipe will always have a hearty pinch of salt, and if you’re feeling fancy, there may even be some sea salt on top. Of course, Jesus wasn’t eating chocolate chip cookies, but he did know the importance of salt. And what Jesus is saying here isn’t some deep mystery. There are no deeply hidden metaphors. Jesus says a version of this same thing about salt in all three of the synoptic gospels. Salt on its own is useless; it must be applied to something to make it tasty. So too do we add value by the ways that we live out our truest identity, our God-given identity in the world. What then, Jesus asks, if salt loses its saltiness? It’s inherent self? The Greek word here says unsalty salt is “foolishness.” Salt makes food better. You make the world better.

Similarly, Jesus says “you are the light of the world.” Like salt, light sustains life. Imagine the depth of darkness in a world before electricity. Wandering away from the fires of home could be lethal. Being unable to see renders sighted people incapable, fearful, in danger. It’s one good reason to build a city on a hill in the first place. But according to Jesus, we are the light of the world. And in the same way that unsalty salt is foolishness, it’s also nonsense to light a lamp and then cover it with a bushel basket. No, Jesus says. He uses a tense here that doesn’t translate well into English. The NRSV says “let your light shine,” but perhaps a better translation would be “light, shine!” The distinction is this: you are the light. There is nothing to be done but to live into your fullest, God-given identity. And when your light is shining, it casts a glow that allows others to see the good and holy work you are doing; your light helps others to see the glory of God.

From there, Jesus begins talking about the law and how he is there to fulfil the law, not get rid of it. The relationship between the Old Testament laws and religion after Jesus can be tricky to fully understand. But I believe at least part of what Jesus is trying to convey is this: you can live by the letter of the law without fulfilling the heart of the law. Righteousness is not just about behaving rightly, it is about how your heart is, the ways and reasons you keep the law. Righteousness is about embodying, in your very spirit, all that God is calling you to be.

When you are living as salt and light, righteousness naturally follows. You can’t be salt and light and not follow with right action. Professor Karoline Lewis says it this way: “what Jesus really needs from us is to be the salt and the light—the salt that just might sting and the light that just might expose what we do not want to see.”[2] You see, being salt and light goes deeper than being nice people and good neighbors. It isn’t about being good Presbyterians on Sundays. Being salt and light means deciding “to live out the kingdom of God in [your] jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.” It means “invest[ing] and sacrifice[ing] [your] time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God.”[3] Anything less than that is the absurdity of unsalty salt, a lamp dangerously and pointlessly burning under a basket.

You probably remember the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, Henry Travers, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. The angels in heaven are looking down on George Bailey, a man they know to have lived a good life of helping others. The angels are alarmed to see that George is contemplating ending his life. In response, they send a lower-level angel, Clarence, to visit George and help him to overcome his despair and find some hope. Before he goes, they show Clarence scenes from George’s life that helps him to know more about George.

Clarence learns that at age 12, George rescued his brother after falling in an icy river- at the expense of his hearing in one ear. Later, he recognizes a mistake made by the town pharmacist and saves a child’s life. After his father’s sudden death when George was a young man, he is faced with a hard decision and decides to put his dreams on hold to save his father’s company. That company ends up costing him and his young wife their honeymoon money as well as George’s dreams for his life. On the other hand, George has also been able to use his company to help secure quality housing for low-income residents and to protect them from a local predatory lender. However, an accident on George’s uncle’s behalf leads to accusations of fraud for George, and believing that he will soon be arrested, he goes to a bridge thinking he may end his life. But just then, the angel Clarence falls into the icy water, and George jumps into save him. Safely on shore, Clarence explains who he is and listens to George’s wish that he had never been born. Clarence shows him what Bedford Falls would be like with George’s life and works. What they see is terrible and terrifying to George and he goes back to the bridge to beg for his life. He is sent back to Bedford Falls as he knows it, this time with renewed energy, hope, and joy. He runs through the city wishing everyone a merry Christmas, and when he gets home, he finds that his wife has worked with all of the people he had helped over the years to raise up the missing money. Surrounded by so many people he has helped, loved, and sacrificed for over the years, George Bailey has a very merry Christmas indeed.

Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life is a Hollywood story, but George Bailey is a good example of salt and light. His is a story of trying, faithfully, to show through his actions the person he is in his heart. And it works. It helps. By simply being who he is- kind, generous, attentive, loving, George Bailey shines- and his light illuminates the paths of those who need him. He also sheds light on the wrongdoings and injustices around him.

So I wonder, are you covering up your light? Are you playing it small or hiding away? Are you listening to the voices of others rather than the voice of God inside of you? Have you taken the time to listen for the voice of God within you, calling you to be who you are and no other? Friends, you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth. The world is waiting. Be who you are. Amen.

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