Salt Shaker 2, Craig Stephens, 2008
Isaiah 58: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
February 6, 2011
From when my girls were about 5 or 6 years old to even now, every so often, when we’re eating out at a restaurant, they like to sprinkle a little salt from the shaker into their hands and lick it off. How many of us did that when we were young? Most of us like the taste of salt on our food, but we all know the warnings about too much. We tell ourselves and our children to ‘go easy on the salt’.
Another basic element that Jesus uses in his lengthy sermon in Matthew is light. Our parents would tell us not to look at the sun too long or it would damage our eyes. We have to be careful when we’re out in the sun, making sure we use sunscreen and a hat, perhaps limiting our time outside. And yet we love light: how it causes living things to grow, the way it creates long shadows and colors and warmth. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder because of the decreased amount of daylight during the winter months.
Both salt and light are necessary for a good life. Too much or too little of either one can be harmful. Sometimes we wonder how we know how much salt or light is enough. However, in this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus isn’t talking about balance. Jesus is telling the crowd that they can never be too salty or too much light. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, puts it this way:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
“Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father/Mother in heaven.”
‘Be generous with your lives.’ That can sound daunting on some days. How often do we feel less than equal to our lives, let alone have what it takes to be generous with them? Time and again we feel we’re not enough, that our days are more apt to take the stuff out of us, leaving our lives bland and gray. Salt and light? We wish.
And yet wouldn’t it make sense that God created us with what is not only necessary for our lives but fill us to overflowing? God is extravagant with grace; it’s we who can be cautious with it sometimes. God’s love is unconditional; it’s we who set limits on how far our love and compassion can go.
In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist speaks to the myth of scarcity that we repeat to ourselves every day. When you wake up in the morning, what are the first thoughts you have? For many folks it goes something like this: “I didn’t get enough sleep. I don’t have enough energy or time to do everything that has to be done today.” She writes that the thought ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically, without little or no critical thought as to whether it’s true. We tell ourselves things like “I don’t get enough exercise, I don’t have enough work, my company is not making enough profits, I’m not organized enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time off”.
Then it gets personal: “I’m not thin enough, pretty, handsome, successful, smart, educated”—add your own to that ever-growing list. Before the day even begins we’re found wanting, unable to rise to whatever challenge that has been set before us. We’re always behind the 8-ball, like Sisyphus pushing that mighty boulder to nowhere.
We do this at church as well: we’re not big enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough time to do everything. Hence we can’t be generous with the life of the church, the Body of Christ, because we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have enough to give, let alone have enough for ourselves.
What would happen if we operated from a place of sufficiency, that is to say, what if instead of a mindset of scarcity, we came from a place of faith that declares we are enough? Do we really believe that God could be so cruel as to give us purpose and mission and yet not give us power equal to our tasks? Of course not! Then why do we choose to focus on lack rather than on the many gifts and blessings God has sent our way?
The Extravagant Generosity of God, Ruth Tietjen Councell, 2008
Author Marianne Williamson says that “[joy] is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” Some might think of that as a Pollyanna way to live, but I think Pollyanna has gotten a bad rap. Joy and gratitude are what make it possible for us to live through the tough times, to have faith that God does have our best interests at heart, and yes, that things are actually going to be okay.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that God isn’t interested in our wasted spirits, our drawn faces, our souls empty from always being busy yet having enough energy to whine and complain. Curiously enough, when we occupy ourselves and our hearts with the problems and needs of others, rather than our need to look busy or so worn out no one will ask us to do anything—that’s when our light shines. When we feed the hungry, when we put warm clothing on those who need it, when we welcome the homeless into our homes, when we put aside our work, the phone, the computer and we make ourselves fully available to our families, that’s when the light comes on and stays on.
Again, Eugene Peterson, from the prophet Isaiah:
“If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people's sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You'll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You'll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.”
You are enough, just the way you are. Be generous with your lives. So go ahead and shine! Don’t worry about losing your flavor. With God, there’s plenty more where that came from.