January 15, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
What we just did was something special. In fact, it was nothing short of spectacular—two baptisms. This morning, Amanda and Hope entered into the community of the Church, the one Body of Christ around the world and through the ages. Amanda will remember this day for the rest of her life, and so will Hope, because she will hear her family and her church family remind of it for years to come. Something really important happened here today, because in these waters our identity as children of God is pronounced and proclaimed loud and clear. That’s the point of this sacrament. The good news of the gospel is that these waters of baptism never dry off. They are with us forever. We are always dripping wet with the reminder of God’s grace.
On some days, we really need that reminder, don’t we? Because in the real world, being a disciple, being a part of the body of Christ is hard work. In the real world, keeping a relationship with God and seeking to live faithful lives are very difficult. In the real world we are tempted to forget our identity and our calling.
This morning we begin a six week series of sermons that will be drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That sermon, one of the most famous collections of Jesus’ teaching, is all about how we live in the real world as followers of Jesus Christ. It is a hand book for discipleship, an instruction manual for life as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us about how to love our neighbors and our enemies, how to live in the world but not of the world, how to practice prayer, humility, generosity, and sacrifice in our daily lives. In the words that will soon follow, there is a whole lot that Jesus tells us to do.
But first, before we jump into these actions and practices of faith, Jesus begins by reminding us who we are. He says, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Notice he doesn’t say you should try to be salt and light. He doesn’t say hopefully one day you will become salt and light. No, he says you ARE. Now. Already. It reminds me of a bumper sticker that a friend of mine has that says, “You are changing the world, whether you like it or not.” Friends, we are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world, whether we like it or not! Now, just what does he mean by that? Well, let’s unpack those phrases a bit.
We’ll start with salt. Salt is, of course, used to give flavor to food. To make things taste better. Sometimes people of faith earn reputations as being boring, bland, killjoys who reject everything fun and do not enjoy life. That certainly doesn’t sound like what Jesus is saying when he calls us “salt of the earth,” does it? No, we’re called to spice things up. To bring joy and energy, truth and goodness to the world around us.
In the ancient times, and really all time up to the modern invention of refrigerators, salt was also primarily used to preserve food. Covering meat in salt kept it fresh and prevented the infiltration of bacteria. It purifies the food by removing what could bring harm.
Salt certainly isn’t much to look at, but it’s power comes from the fact that it changes whatever it comes into contact with. Even at the molecular level, salt is a powerful change agent. Salt alters what it interacts with, and as “salt of the earth” that’s what we are called to do as well.
It’s fitting that we would be reading this passage of scripture on the weekend set aside to remember and give thanks for the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and so many other in the Civil Rights Movement led the charge to change the world around them. With a conviction that was rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, they became agents of change, seeking to remove the contaminations of prejudice and injustice in society, to preserve the image of God in all people. Dr. King was salt of the earth, altering what he came into contact with.
Of course, such agents of change are all around us every day if we open our eyes to see them.
I want to tell you about one of my new heroes, Mr. Delmar. Mr. Delmar works at the Publix grocery store where we shop sometimes. Often you’ll see Mr. Delmar bagging groceries or moving shopping carts. But his favorite thing to do is to work by the helium tank, filling up bright balloons and handing them out to any child that comes into the store. Lord knows taking a child into the grocery store is a stressful experience. Personally it makes me feel like I’m trying to balance a tray of glasses while standing in the middle of a herd of stampeding buffaloos. Anyone who tells you that they enjoy taking kids to the grocery store is lying. But when Mr. Delmar greets a 4 year old or a 7 year old with a bright balloon, it changes them, it make the world a little better for a few moments…hopefully at least long enough to make it through the produce section. Our kids can’t wait to get inside the sliding doors and look for Mr. Delmar.
He is one of my heroes, but not just because of those balloons. A few months ago I had to stop by the store really quickly with Wilson, just to grab a few things. Wilson said, “Can we see Mr. Delmar.” And sure enough as soon as we walked in there he was. Wilson asked for a balloon, and while he filled it up he noticed that Wilson had on a Batman t-shirt. He said, “Do you like Batman? I sure do! I love Batman.” Wilson smiled and nodded. Mr. Delmar handed us the balloon and then said, “Oh, I just remembered something. Y’all go ahead and do your shopping and I’ll meet you at the checkout line.”
So we went along our way, picked what we needed from the shelves. To be honest, by the time we had checked out at the register and gone out to the parking lot I had already forgot what Mr. Delmar had said. But he saw us and ran over to where we were. He handed Wilson a small box and said, “Here you go, young man. When I saw that you liked Batman I knew I had just the thing for you. I got this for my nephew, but he moved out of town and it’s been in my car, waiting for just the right person.” Wilson opened the box and there was a watch. Not just any watch, but a Batman—a Batman watch that lights up when you push the button on the side. For a 4-year old, this is the coolest thing in the world. Wilson was so excited. But I wasn’t so sure about this. I said, “Oh Mr. Delmar, thank you so much but you don’t need to do that.” I was thinking he should probably take that watch back to where he bought it. It didn’t look cheep. By the looks of his clothes and the holes in his shoes Mr. Delmar surely needed every dollar he could spare. But he put his hand on mine and said, “No, no, I insist. It makes me happy. That’s why I love my job. I get to make people happy. I may not have a lot of money, but I don’t need the problems that come with money. Life is about so much more. The good Lord has blessed me with a life and I just try to be blessings to others. You make sure that boy learns how to read that watch.” I nodded my head and tried to hold back tears…at least until I got in the car.
Mr. Delmar’s gift was so generous and thoughtful, and sacrificial, but here’s the amazing thing—I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day and really for most of that week. This man, who we really didn’t know that well, went so far out of his way to bring joy to my child. For the next few days, it changed the way that I looked at my kids. When they acted up and didn’t follow direction and were being punks the way all kids are, for a few days, I was calmer in my approach to them because I felt a gratitude that grew out of Mr. Delmar’s gift. Honestly, I was a little more gracious and a little more peaceful because I of that experience of grace and peace. Mr. Delmar is one of my heroes. He is the salt of the earth. He is an agent of change, affecting those around him, adding the spice of joy and preserving the love of God in the world.
Jesus says, you ARE the salt of the earth. You are the agents that are changing the world around you, one on one. In ways that you may never see. So then, live into this identity and this mission in ways that are intentional.
Then Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Now, that might sound like a nice religious sounding phrase—maybe it makes you want to start singing “This Little Light of Mine.” But there’s actually a lot more going on in Jesus’ statement than may be immediately obvious. In those days, the Roman Empire, and the emperor in particular, were often referred to as “the light of the world.” From his throne the emperor had all the power and might, all the wealth and military backing to shine his light, his rule on all the world that was his possession. But in a radical and surprising twist, Jesus uses this political phrase, “the light of the world” to talk about a rag-tag group of poor rural fishermen and tax collectors and home makers and no-bodies. He says, not the emperor in Rome, but YOU are the real light of the world. And one light, one tiny lamp, will light up an entire house if we let it. Like the salt, the light of which Jesus is speaking is something small. Something that seems insignificant, but that carries the power to illumine far more around it. A little light, can change the world.
So, Jesus says, don’t cover you light up. Don’t put it under a basket where it becomes useless. Let is shine. Don’t cover it under a basket of fear about how you will be received or thought of by others. Don’t cover it with anger or resentment when things don’t go your way. Don’t hide it under the stress or worry about whether there will be enough. Don’t hide it under false sentimentality or empty spirituality that is only focused on yourself. Don’t hide your light under closedmindedness or smallmindedness that cannot make room to see what God is doing in the world today. Don’t hide your light, Jesus says. Let it shine so that others will see God’s glory.
A wise Biblical commentator notes that as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, “the mission of the church is not to preserve itself, but to preserve the world—not to point to itself, but to illuminate the way and bring glory to God.” When we forget who we really are we become complacent, self-focused, we lose our point and purpose as disciples. We cease to become change agents and instead are changed by the world around us. When we forget who we are, we cease to transform society but instead become conformed to the prevailing prejudices of our day. No, Jesus say, remember who you are. Let your light shine and stay salty my friends.
Friends the good news of the gospel is what God has already done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Already done and accomplished for us. In these waters, we are already claimed as God’s family, made members of the body of Christ. We are already salt of the earth and light of the world. That’s the good news, but the profound challenge of discipleship in the real world is to take that big, massive, wonderful good news of what God has done and point to it in particular, concrete actions—to live in ways that let God’s light shine in our daily lives—to spice things up with grace and love, peace and joy.
To God alone be the glory.