“What are you?” That’s a question often raised in casual conversation, usually having to do with occupation, vocation, identity or status.
I’m a stay at home mom.
I’m an IT person.
I’m a grandparent.
I’m a student.
I’m angry and upset.
Any number of things can be put into there. We answer that question “What are you?” in a way that is descriptive of what we do, who we are, and what kind of identity we bear at the moment.
What are you?
In the 3rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus begins with a pronouncement of blessing. “What are you?” Jesus initial answer in the Sermon the mount is “Blessed.” No matter what your circumstances may be at the moment, you are blessed.
And now, as that Sermon on the Mount moves forward Jesus becomes just a little bit more specific with those Disciples that he has around him. You are Salt. You are light. He says. It is in the present tense, this is what you are!
The shift in voice that we sensed last week as Jesus went from general blessings of “Blessed are those” and “Blessed are they” to the more specific “Blessed are you..” intensifies here as Jesus becomes even more descriptive. From general to specific, and the more specific Jesus gets, the more we sense also a movement from passive acceptance of your situation to a need to act because of what you are.
Jesus’ illustration here is a little bit of a head scratcher. How can salt lose its saltiness? Sodium chloride is a very stable compound. Technically, it can’t get “un-salty.”
But in ancient times getting a pure and refined form of Sodium Chloride was not such a simple process. It was almost always mixed up with some other things as it was rendered from salt marshes or from deposits. That complex mixture would stay “salty” so long as it wasn’t exposed to moisture. Sodium Chloride is readily water soluble, and if your salt mixture got damp, watered down, the saltiness could be leached away. What was left behind then may have still looked crystalline, looked like salt, but lacked the very compound that it was thought to contain. When that happened, what is it good for? Nothing! It was thrown away.
That feels and sounds so harsh to our ears. Are we really thrown underfoot? Discarded if we lose our saltiness?
And the putting a lamp under a bushel thing, well that’s pretty straightforward. It’s not that light ever loses its essential nature, but it can be obscured.
And this gets us to the point of the Gospel lesson. You are salt, you are light, deal with it! You are something in this world that is meant to make a difference, to do something, to flavor or to bring light.
Ah, but I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to deal with what I am.
That is, it appears, quite often the case.
We recognize it even in the casual conversation when we are asked, “What are you?”
“Well, I am just a stay at home mom.” — as if somehow that was not a worthy vocation.
“Well, I’m an IT person, but …..”
“Hey, I’m a grandparent, and it’s great, but….I have a hard time keeping up with those kids.”
“I’m just a student.”
“I’m happy… but…”
“I’m angry and upset… and.. .I can’t do anything about it.”
We so often follow up our descriptive words with self-deprecating words. “I am nothing special.” “I’m not all that important.” “There are a lot of other people who do this, are this, and who are much better at it than I am.” We water ourselves down, don’t we? We dim or cover our brightness.
Little by little when we do that, we begin to leech away or obscure who it is that we are. We begin to believe that we really aren’t anyone special, even though God has called us “blessed.”
In our worst days we begin to question even our baptismal identity. “Does God really love me that much? I’m nothing special after all.”
Perhaps the reason Jesus’ words seem harsh here is because they need to be. Stop doing this!
The world needs salt!
The world needs light!
The world needs your distinctiveness! This is what you are, claim it! Quit denying or diminishing the very thing that you are, the very thing that Jesus has identified you as being!
You are salt!
You are light!
Your work and your presence here brings glory to your father who is heaven.
I think part of the reason we water down or obscure out brightness is because we have been taught to be a little humble. Don’t blow your own horn. Maybe we come by that self-deprecation by habit or nature.
But I think another reason why our saltiness or brightness is diminished is because we engage in the game of comparisons. We water down what we can accomplish because of what we once could accomplish, or because of what we see that others are able to do. We look at our actions, our efforts, and judge ourselves lacking or wanting in comparison.
Yeah, we do a few good things, but not as many as we used to…
Yeah, we make a difference, but not like we once were able to…
We water down the good that we can do, the blessing that we can be.
We put our own basket over the light that we could shine in this neighborhood or in this world because we ourselves deem it as not what it used to be, not what it could be.
We become almost embarrassed at how puny our efforts seem against all the darkness, or all the need that out there in this world.
“Comparison is the thief of Joy” Theodore Roosevelt once said. If not joy, at least the ability to see our own giftedness.
It is calculated that the human eye can see the faint flickering of candle at a distance of 30 miles. One candle is all it takes to drive back the darkness and give direction and hope.
We do a dis-service to ourselves, and to the God who has gifted us, has claimed and called us light and salt in this world when we diminish ourselves, and what we are able to do.
So maybe that’s why Jesus sounds a bit harsh here. Maybe his scolding tone is meant to shake us out of our self-deprecation.
You are salt. You are light. A city built upon a hill that cannot be hidden!
But the other thing that I think is so important in this passage is to recognize that it does take someone else to point out who and what you are.
That’s how the conversation goes, does it not.
“I’m just a stay at home mom.” the woman says, and the person listening then has this opportunity to name and claim what he/she sees in that person.
“I admire you for making that choice, for committing to that vocation.”
“I’m an IT person but you know how it is in IT now.”
“No, I don’t know, but I’d like to hear, and you do things that I cannot begin to understand, and I’m so thankful for your skills and expertise.”
“Hey, I’m a grandparent, and it’s great but….I have a hard time keeping up with those kids.”
“Who said you had to keep up with them? Your job is to love them and to bless them and to do the unconditional love thing. You had your turn at having to keep up when you were a parent yourself, enjoy this, be this gift.”
“I’m just a student.”
“That’s great, learn all you can, never stop learning, never lose that hunger for knowledge and to better yourself, and never sell yourself short. You’re not “just” a student. You know more now when you graduate than I ever had to know at your age…”
“I’m happy… but…”
“Happiness is its own reward, enjoy it, revel in it, and take it for what it is worth in this moment.” Someone has to remind us to do that, we won’t do it on our own.
“I’m angry … I’m upset… but.. .I can’t do anything about it.”
“Who said you can’t do anything about it?” Someone from the outside sometimes has to help us focus that anger and that frustration into making a difference in this world.
It often takes someone from the outside of the situation to name, to bless, and focus us.
It takes that eye 30 miles away to perceive the glow, and to give thanks for it.
It takes that person who has tasted a bit of life to help you see how you bring your own distinctive flavor into this world to make it better.
You are salt, you are light, … deal with it! For others will recognize it in you and look to you to do what you are gifted, empowered and able to do in this world. And when you do that, that, then Father in heaven may be given the proper glory for giving you these gifts and talents for just this time!
You are Salt, You are Light, Jesus has said to you, and to me. It’s time we dealt with it.