You are the salt of the earth!
In recent weeks I’ve become addicted to the new program on PBS called “Downton Abbey.” It’s the story of a noble family who live in a grand manor house in England, at the beginning of World War I. They are in financial difficulties, and yet they live with dozens of servants in great splendor. The tale is told from the perspective of the family and the servants…a version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” for the present time.
In one scene, the assistant in the kitchen, a timid creature, puts salt in one of the desserts rather than sugar. She doesn’t do it by accident. It is quite deliberate. She wants to make the temporary cook look bad so that the regular cook, on medical leave, will be restored to her position once she is well. The staff, having their meal downstairs, take a big bit of the dessert and immediately spit it out, and the scene is mirrored at the upstairs table as well. The salt makes it inedible. Too much salt! An awful thing! Remarkably, the kitchen girl isn’t sacked for her deed…some grace even in that difficult world. But I can’t help but think about how that elegant looking dessert must have tasted. To be expecting a sweet delight, and then getting a mouthful of that sharp salty discordant flavor!
So when I hear Jesus say “You are the salt of the earth,” I wonder about salt, and about whether it is a bane or a blessing. He is certainly making the case for salt as blessing. It brings savor. It is a good preservative: think of salt cod, or corned beef. It enhances the flavors of so many foods…except perhaps that dessert at Downton Abbey. Those who have to cut back on their salt for health reasons really miss it. But if salt is used incorrectly, or in too great a quantity, it is no blessing.
Jesus uses this image of salt to encourage the disciples to step out boldly to do their work, to inject some sharpness, some intensity to how we as human beings relate to each other. They are expected to challenge the world in a salty way! If disciples don’t do this, they are in danger of becoming bland, of not pressing those to whom they preach toward a sharper and deeper understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God and with other members of the body of Christ. If they don’t make us more piquant, they’re not doing their job! If disciples are salt, the salt of the earth, and if they aren’t being salty, they are useless. They have no flavor. They don’t bring out the best in others.
Strong imagery, but Jesus isn’t done yet.
His second image of what disciples are to be is so very different. You are the light of the world!
Let me turn once again to Downton Abbey. Some of the most beautiful images of the place are those filmed at night. A glittering dinner party, the women dressed in silks and laces and jewels, the men in their tuxes, servants at the ready. Crystal glistening on the table. And you can see the lights and the celebration through the windows, of course. The new electric lights that have been installed, much to the dismay of the Dowager Countess, shine brightly. And yet only those on the grounds of the estate see the light…it is far from the village, up on a hill, and those lights are not visible down in the village. Only this small group of privileged people and their servants get to see this light. All that magnificence, and it is invisible to most of those in the area! Jesus would call this a waste of good light…hiding it from those who should see it.
And so it is with disciples. If you are the light of the world, you are intended to shine, just like salt is intended to flavor. You are supposed to carry God’s light through your own light. And you do it not for your own good, but for the good of the larger community, visible to all. You are not a private estate, with only others just like you to witness the glow…you are a city on a hill, visible to all, sharing the light.
You’ve got to be a visible light, sharing with others what is fueling your glow.
You’ve got to be flavorful salt, sharpening and enhancing others’ understandings of what relationship with God really means.
And yet, excess in either image is not necessarily a blessing.
Too much salt causes us to spit out the food, like the people in Downton Abbey. It is too much for us to swallow, too harsh, and we cannot taste past the saltiness to the underlying flavors the salt is meant to enhance. And I wonder if sometimes in our desire to be salt of the earth, to be as salty as Jesus asks us to be, we overshoot the mark by sharing our message in a way that is too harsh. Do we ever insist that our way is the only right way, as if God has only one flavor? Do we demean other denominations, calling them backward or anti-intellectual or spiritless? Who made us the arbiters of such things? In our desire to be salty, to add flavor to our message of God’s love, are we sometimes pouring too much salt in, so that our message is inedible?
What about too much light? It can be blinding, can’t it?
I’ve got a lamp by our sofa that is wonderful – it’s one of those Ott-Lites. As my eyes get a little bit older, it helps me to read the small print and do my knitting. But when we have guests over, the light is too bright for comfortable conversation. When a guest is sitting across from me on a chair, the light hurts their eyes. I can see it in their grimacing faces, so I usually either turn off the lamp, or turn the shade toward the wall to dampen the brightness a bit. Too much brightness makes it nearly impossible to see, like sitting on the beach on a very sunny day, so bright that your head starts to hurt and you see sparkles around the edge of your vision.
Sometimes, turning down the brightness helps people see.
You may know someone who has quit smoking. It’s a good thing, good for your health, even if you have been smoking for decades. We’re usually pretty glad when someone we love has quit smoking…but there is something that often happens as part of that phenomenon. The person who has quit becomes an anti-smoking zealot. “I should have done this years ago! I feel so much better. And now, every time I see some guy lighting up one of those cancer sticks, I go over and snatch it out of his sorry mouth and grind it under my shoe, and tell him if I can quit so can he!”
I wonder how many people have been convinced to quit smoking when someone came on so strong. Yes, their light is shining with the glow of the newly converted, but it’s shining so brightly that it hurts your eyes. Hard to understand what you’re seeing when you’re squinting so hard.
I suspect there is a lesson there for us as we share our faith with others. Yes, we are required, as disciples of the living Christ, to share our love and the joy we feel as Christians. Jesus asks us to live our discipleship every day. He tells us we have to be salty, flavorful. He tells us to shine brightly, not to hide our light under a bushel basket.
He does not tell us to throw so much salt in that everyone starts retaining water.
He does not tell us to shine so brightly that everyone around us gets a headache.
For most Episcopalians, sharing their faith is something uncomfortable. We cringe at the word “evangelism.” We think it may be about being so salty that our tongues shrivel up, or so bright that we blind folks.
But being a disciple, and sharing the message of Jesus Christ, is about the right amount of salt, not overly seasoning the dish. It is about shining enough light to warm and brighten and attract, not to give folks a sunstroke.
It is about invitation, about the warm and flavorful love that Christians know, about the taste and the glow in the place we keep coming back to, the Lord who guides our hands and our hearts and our mouths.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Go and live it and preach it, with gentleness and grace and love.