Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 58:1-9a+Psalm 112:1-9+I Corinthians 2:1-12+Matthew 5:13-20

I don’t remember much about the chemistry I learned as a sophomore in high school. Sure, I thought it was clever to go around telling friends to drink more dihydrogen monoxide or asking someone to pass the C12H22O11, also known as sugar. And then there was sodium chloride, NaCl, salt. One thing I do remember about chemistry is that if you change one part of the formula of a molecule, it is no longer what it was before. H2O may be water, but H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide, and you don’t want to be drinking that. Water is water, and sugar is sugar, and salt is salt, or it’s not.

When Jesus says

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? (Matthew 5:13)

he isn’t just talking about flavor. Salt is salt. Or it’s not. You either use it, or you don’t.

Many people associate the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, yet this sermon goes on for another two chapters, through chapter seven. Had we not observed the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple last week, the beatitudes would have been our gospel reading, so the last thing we would have heard Jesus say is

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11)

Then comes the part about salt and light. Jesus is pointing out a present reality, not some future promise. Blessed are you. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Jesus is naming our blessing, just as he does in the beatitudes. There is nothing we have to do to earn it, and we can’t lose it, but there is an expectation that we will use our blessing to bless others.

But what does that even mean? How do we flavor the world or shine light into the world? We get a clue actually, from the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

The theme throughout scripture is a consistent one: blessedness flows from the blessing of others – loosing chains, freeing prisoners, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked. Again and again, Jesus repeats this, from here to his last speech to the disciples when he tells them that what they have done to the least of God’s people, so they have done to him. And these are the words he continues to speak to us today.

For us, salt seems to be in endless supply. It’s cheap and plentiful. At the time Jesus was delivering his Sermon on the Mount, acquisition of salt was hard, and it was a precious commodity. In some cultures, salt was more valuable than gold. It was not to be wasted or used extravagantly, but that’s just what Jesus is asking. As the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse used to say, “It’s time to kick it up.” Use that gift of flavor, making life better for everyone.

Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest in Nashville who in 1996 founded Magdalene House, a home for women coming out of drug abuse and prostitution and which now has dozens of locations nationwide. When she launched Thistle Farms as a social enterprise so that the women in the program could earn money and gain employment skills, the first thing they produced were handmade candles. It had been their practice at daily group gatherings to light a candle so that the next woman coming off the streets could find her way home. Thistle Farms is now a multimillion-dollar company selling not just candles but all kinds of personal care products, because when you’re addicted and on the streets, there’s precious little money or time for such things.

One little candle might not seem to cast much light, but in the dark, it can be all you need. A beacon of light from a lighthouse shining through a dense fog is still measured in candle power, so don’t underestimate the power of one seemingly insignificant source of light.

In this season of Epiphany, we talk a lot about light – the Star in the East; the coming of the Light from Light into the world; the light shining in the darkness and the darkness not able to overcome it; the light to enlighten the nations, as old Simeon said last week. This light is ours, too, but if we hide it, cover it with a bushel, refuse to shine it into the dark places in our world, how will the least and the lost find their way home? And, truth be told, if the people of Jesus’s time had put an oil lamp under a bushel basket, they’d have burned down their house, which leads me to believe that you can either let it shine or burn the house down, but that light is getting out one way or another.

There are a lot of people around the world looking for a way home, whether they are coming from Central America and Mexico or from some nation with a newly restrictive travel ban. We often pray for migrants and immigrants who come here seeking a better life, but for some of them, they are seeking life itself, because what awaits in their own countries is death, as we have seen in recent reports out of El Salvador. What kind of light do we shine for them? What kind of salt to we use to help them flourish?

And in our own backyard, we have incarcerated refugees and immigrants, denied basic human needs and legal rights. The Hudson County Jail is a bleak place indeed, desperately in need of the kind of light we have. The guests at the Hoboken Shelter are more often than not simply down on their luck. Like so many Americans whose budgets are precariously balanced so that the least crisis – a flat tire, an injury, a sick child – can send them into a spiral of indebtedness, our neighbors at the shelter could use a little salt and light.

All we have to do is look around us, lend a hand, show some concern, take a little time, spend a little money. The smallest acts can bring light to darkness and seasoning to someone’s struggle.

This week, Becca Stevens wrote

I’ve been a minister for 28 years now. And sometimes I really do believe it’s all about the hokey pokey. The answer to the questions about how we live into our faith is to put our whole selves in. We have to bring our whole selves to the party. If we leave some of ourselves behind, if we say “we can’t deal with that, let that go” then somehow we’re not going to be able to live into the answers that we’re searching for.[1]

Being salt and light is putting our whole selves in. Doing that hokey-pokey. So let your light shine, cast salt as extravagantly as Jesus casts love, and our world will be better for all God’s people, so that everyone can find their way home.

[1] @beccastevens on Instagram and Facebook.

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas