Salt & Light

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Consider this part two to last week’s letter on the Beatitudes. (Which means, I suppose, that if you hated last week’s entry you’ll likely not want to spend a lot of time on this week’s!)

We’re in the second of five weeks of passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recounted by Matthew. And we are again faced with the insidious temptation to hear Jesus’ words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning. But take note: Jesus doesn’t say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this….” Or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this from you….” Rather, he says both simply and directly, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.

I realize, of course, that he goes on to say that salt that has lost its saltiness is useless and that light wasn’t made to be put under a bushel, which might imply for some that there is, indeed, a threat hiding amid this pronouncement. But I wonder. Can salt really lose its saltiness? Doesn’t it just dissolve? And are candles ever put under bushel baskets? Wouldn’t that snuff the flame or, worse, start a fire? Maybe Jesus is implying that one can lose one’s status as salt and light. Or maybe he’s just naming the absurdity of the possibility of losing one’s character as salt and light in order to underscore the reliability and resilience of the gift he bequeaths. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will stay. Period.”

(Even if you’re inclined to suspect the former — that Jesus is exhorting us to be salt and light rather than pronouncing us so — go with me a little further to consider of what value it might be to preach this passage in a way that commends rather than commands you people.)

Do recall the statistics about a children’s self-esteem in relation to the messages they hear? Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. (Frankly, I don’t know if anyone has studied this in groups other than young children, but I suspect that number doubles during adolescence and then recedes to about 10-1 again by adulthood!)

Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or teen or adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she — all of us! — will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well. So, as with last week, here’s my suggestion: Name your people as salt and light. Give them the gift of your affirmation and trust. Even more, given them the gift of God’s affirmation and trust.

But this week, I want to go a step further. I realize, you see, that we have a hard time believing that we are good, worthy, and lovable and therefore will perhaps nod politely when you call us salt and light but not really believe it. (And while I think this is true of all ages, I think it’s especially true of adults! We know ourselves too well; moreover, we believe our pastors are nice people paid to say these kinds of things!) For this reason, we need to actually show people that they are, in fact, salt and light. So I suggest starting a “Salt & Light Log.” Really. Start asking people to collect examples of where God has worked through them to help someone else.

Now, I warn you: this may be difficult for many of us who were taught never to boast. (Or, more accurately, we were taught that saying anything good about ourselves publicly is boasting.) So you may have to tell people that you really need them to do this. You know, to help you with your sermon. Or you might say that they can practice by pointing out where they see someone else being salt or light, but encourage them also to look and see where God is using them as salt and light, too.

Ideally, you’re reading this post on Monday and can send out that email today. But even if you’re not — goodness, even if it’s Saturday night! — you can open up your sermon with God’s declaration and promise that your hearers are, indeed, salt and light and then move on to announce your intention to start a Salt & Light Log. You can build the log onto your webpage and have folks record where they see God at work, or you can have them email you directly. Either way, the goal is 1) to help people start looking for God in the world (thereby gaining a skill many of us sorely lack) and 2) come to believe that they are vessels through which God is working (thereby growing in the name and identity you have called them).

I don’t know if it will work. But even if only two or three people respond, that’s two or three more than might have been looking for God in the world otherwise. And, who knows, maybe a dozen will respond. Or two dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand. About 4000 preachers read this column each week. Think if just a quarter try this out. And then think if just 10 people of each of those put this exercise into practice. That’s 10,000 Christians out being salt and light, naming it, sharing it, and growing into that identity ever more fully.

So there you, Working Preacher — my crazy idea for the week. 🙂 Try it. Who knows, you might like it. Even more, your people might. Even more still, as a congregation you might gain confidence in your identity as God’s chosen and beloved children, those called to be salt and light in the world and, gaining this confidence, you will be ever more truly what you have been named. Very cool! Thanks for your help.

In Christ,