Long before I ever wanted to be a preacher, I wanted to be a teacher. I admired and was inspired by many of mine. But one stands out among them all. Her name was Patricia Walter and she was my Junior High School English teacher. Now Mrs. Walter terrified many of my classmates. She demanded and enforced strict order in her class. Her academic expectations were exceedingly high for 7th and 8th graders. But underneath that stern exterior was a dedicated educator who wanted us to succeed. Mrs. Walter wanted us to realize our potential. And so she pushed us – hard. And I loved her for that.
When I was in the 8th grade, my father announced that he had taken a new pulpit in another town and that we would be moving in a few months. I knew I would miss my friends, but I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving Mrs. Walter. It wasn’t really a crush. It was that she gave me something that I desperately needed at the time. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
Life moved us in very different directions, but we kept in touch. Twelve years after that initial goodbye, I invited Mrs. Walter and her husband Ray to my ordination. They did not RSVP, but sure enough there they stood in the receiving line when it was all over, having driven over 200 miles to get there. Despite my newly ordained dignity, I burst into tears at the sight of her. We embraced. And then she did something I have never forgotten. This teacher took her student by the shoulders, and she looked me straight in the eye and without a hint of irony, she said: “You can be anything you want to be. You can go as far as you want to go.” It was as if she still saw something in me that I didn’t.
I am blessed to have known her, but realize full well that not every child has a Mrs. Walter. For every child who is told that she can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to, many more are told that they are worthless – either with words or simply with neglect and silence. The damage is significant. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message an elementary aged child hears about herself, she will need to hear ten positive ones in order to restore her self-image.
The Gospel lesson today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, which Pastor Emily preached about last week. Jesus had just finished telling the crowd about how blessed they were even when their circumstances did not feel like a blessing. He said enigmatic things like: “Blessed are you poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.” “Blessed are you meek, for you will inherit the earth.” Notice that most of these blessings are framed in relationship to human suffering or human weakness. We are blessed despite those things.
But then Jesus dramatically shifts gears from human weakness to human strength. He tells the people something about themselves that they had probably never heard before; something that they considered before. Jesus looked out at these everyday people and proclaimed of them: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”
I’ve heard lots of sermons about this passage and they are always prescriptive. In other words, the preacher says that this is Jesus telling us what we ought to be and do. “Now listen, people, I want you to be the salt of the earth” or “Buck up and be the light of the world.” But that’s not what the text says. This is not a motivational speech. These words of Jesus are not assignments. Instead, they are statements of fact. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” These gifts are already yours.
So what kinds of gifts are these? What did it mean to call people salt and light? We don’t think much of salt, except at my age to avoid it. But in Jesus’s day, salt was a very precious commodity. Entire empires were built out of the exportation of salt. Salt was even used at times as money. The word salary comes from the Latin word “salarium” which is a reference to the money paid to a Roman soldier in order to buy salt. In the ancient world, salt preserved food. Salt was used to seal covenants. It was sprinkled on sacrifices and understood as a metaphor for wisdom. Salt was rubbed on newborn children as a blessing. Even to this day in Orthodox church baptisms, salt is poured on the wet infant while the priest intones: “May you be preserved for eternal life.” So, when Jesus proclaimed, “You are the salt of the earth” it was a mouthful. It was a declaration of the people’s value and of their innate usefulness to preserve and flavor the world.
Jesus statement about light is easier for us to understand. Without light, life is impossible. Without sufficient light, we are depressed. Turning on a light banishes our fears. Light helps us to see and to thus understand. So when Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” it was a declaration of the people’s innate ability to illumine and enlighten, to banish fear.
I wonder what they thought when they heard Jesus say that. I wonder what you think when you hear Jesus say that. For them, it was a disconnect from their reality. The Jewish people at this time were oppressed and beaten down. They had taken on the life of the ghetto, but within the confines of their own country because the Romans controlled everything. And so they did what we do in difficult circumstances: they adapted to their weakness and their smallness and their powerlessness. They learned to live with it. Instead of being a shining city on a hill, they were trying to keep the last candle from blowing out.
But by calling them light, Jesus taught that unlike a lone candle in danger of going out, their inner light did not need to be protected. They were not in danger of losing their savor. These life-giving, life-preserving qualities were as natural to them as breathing. Christians speak of these inner qualities as the imago dei, the image of God already in us by the nature of our creation. And that is what Jesus saw in the people. That is what Jesus still sees in people. It’s just that we don’t believe it.
But what if we did? What would happen if we actually took Jesus at his word? What if we practiced seeing ourselves not as people on the defensive during these turbulent times, but people on the offensive? What if we saw ourselves not as people who are afraid of the darkness that has settled on our nation, but people who banish darkness with an inner light?
The forces of evil want us to stay small and afraid and powerless. They want us to believe that there is nothing we can do. They want us to huddle and wait out the storm. But Jesus Christ came into the world to show us who we really are; daughters and sons of the Most High God. We are people who can change the world. Yes we can.
And so Jesus takes us by the shoulders, and looks us straight in the eyes, and gives us a good talking to. But he doesn’t tell us what we ought to be. He tells us, again and again, who we already are: salt and light, joy and peace, justice and reconciliation.