‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Salt and Light- Matthew 5:13-20
If you wanted to pull one part of Matthew out and hold it up as Jesus' mission statement for the rest of this Gospel, you would be wise to consider the portion of the story referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Beginning in the first verses of chapter 5 (last week's reading) and going through chapter 7, this sermon is Jesus' attempt to teach his mission to his first disciples. Last week, we heard the blessing statements- blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the peacemakers, for the will be called children of God- statements that helped Jesus to articulate his understanding of the broadness and richness of God's mercy. Jesus made clear that those who mourn, who are dis-spirited, and who are low in society's social order will be seen and tended to by God. More than that, they will be a part of Jesus' mission in the world. Jesus also affirmed that aligning oneself with God's purposes by being merciful, earnest, and by building peace is more important that participating in the manipulative, power-hungry, and violent structures of the empire. And, Jesus warned his followers that persecution and conflict would likely come. He said that when you hold yourself up to God's standards instead of Rome's, you are bound to attract some unpleasant attention. When you show your neighbors that a different kind of life is possible, you're bound to threaten those most invested in the status quo. Knowing that persecution will come, today's reading from Matthew is the part where Jesus tells his followers to stay on God's course, even when it is a struggle. Because these disciples have a role to play in this mission. They are the salt and the light. There can't be new life without them.
While Jesus draws heavily from his Jewish tradition in all four Gospels, in Matthew, his connection to his ethnic and religious traditions are particularly pronounced. The two primary metaphors he uses for discipleship were common to Jewish understandings of the relationship between God and humanity. In the book of Leviticus, salt, used both to add flavor to food and to preserve it, was required to be a part of the grain offerings people brought to temple. In the book of Numbers, the promises and sacrifices that people make to God are called a "covenant of salt." Salt, present in good food, tears, ocean water, and the earth, was part of everyday life. It was also vital to the well-being of humanity. We need salt in order to be healthy. In Jesus' estimation, the potential for discipleship was as deeply imbedded inside even the most common human as salt was in the seas that surrounded them. What that means for us is that our discipleship should be so ingrained in our being and our actions that were we to deny it, we would become as unrecognizable as salt that doesn't taste salty anymore.
The light, too, was a common religious metaphor in Jesus' community. In Psalm 119, God's word is described as a lamp unto one's feet and a light to one's path. Jesus does something a little different with the light metaphor. He shifts the location from outside of the person to inside of the person. In this passage, God's light is not external to humanity, leading the way for us to follow. Instead, God's light, our discipleship, has become embedded in our being. In accepting our part in Jesus' mission, we become the flame, the very light of God. The disciples can light up the very world. Even at the outset of his ministry in the book of Matthew, Jesus seems aware that, due to persecution and oppression from temporal powers, his disciples will be tempted to hide their discipleship away, as though they are hiding a lamp under a heavy bushel basket. He tells them that they can't succumb to that fearful temptation because light is utterly necessary for new growth in the world. They are God's light now. Through their faith and their service, they will help God's new life grow.
Throughout the month of February, we are going to being singing and hearing songs rooted in African American church traditions. One of the great gifts that these musical traditions have given the broader Christian community is that they are powerful examples of people upholding God's light in dangerous and death-dealing circumstances. These songs often became sources of inspiration, musical pilot lights, for communities that needed to be sustained as they fought for their very lives under racist systems that denied their humanity and their belovedness by God. According to scholar, activist, and professor Bernice Johnson Reagon, sacred music became a tool for African-Americans to establish a space where their lives, needs, and concerns mattered. This music helped to connect them to one another and also give voice to concerns specific to their lives as African-Americans. In a nation that sought to deny them a basic identity as a human, sacred music helped African-Americans take back some space in which to begin building new life. One song we're going to sing today, "This Little Light of Mine," became a particularly important song for Civil Right activists. This song became at once a call to commitment to the fight for equality, and also a source of comfort in dangerous times.
When Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most powerful leaders of the movement in Mississippi, needed a song to demonstrate her commitment to equality and call all Americans to the cause, she chose "This Little Light of Mine." She sang it boldly at the 1964 Democratic National Convention when she challenged the white Mississippi Democrats who chose to send an all-white delegation to the convention. During mass meetings, the community organizing meetings African-Americans held, unfriendly white sheriffs would often show up to intimidate black citizens. They would take pictures and write down names. The people attending the meetings knew that the sheriff could share that information with their employers, costing them their livelihoods, or, worse yet, share it with people who would threaten their lives. According to Dr. Reagon, one of the ways that the citizens would take the space back would be to sing. This Little Light of Mine, a common and simple song with a deep meaning, was often one of the songs people would sing. Young and old alike could participate. Hearkening back to this verse in Matthew, reminding them of their calling to be God's light in this world, the song would bring them together and help them remain brave. Across the Jim Crow South, in protest marches and crowded jail cells, people would sing "This Little Light of Mine" and they would continue to shine God's light of love and justice in the world.
Now, this song was not written by a black person. It was written by a white man named Harry Dixon Loes. And, it is was never, and still isn't, only sung in predominantly black churches. But, I learned one reason why this song became so important to African-American churches, particularly during the time when churches were the sanctuaries in which the Civil Rights movement was crafted. I mentioned Bernice Johnson Reagon earlier. She helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a student in segregated Georgia. She is a singer, composer, and historian, as well. I've been fortunate to hear her live a couple different times. This week, I watched part of an interview she gave several years ago. In that interview, she spoke of the power of the "I" songs, especially during the Civil Rights movement. She said that it really mattered to the people who gathered in solidarity to sing a song where they stated their individual commitment to the cause for which they sang. Within African-American communities, when they sang out the words, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine!," it became a declaration of intent and commitment. I am going to let this light shine. I am going to offer my energy, my well-being, and maybe my life to this movement. I am not going to hide my light in order to get by under the status quo. I am God's light. I am called to shine in the world. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.
When I heard Dr. Reagon share this understanding of the song, I came away with a much greater appreciation for it. What a gift it is to hear these words as confirmation of a commitment to God's justice and love! I think this understanding of the song is a great gift that African-American church traditions have given the broader church. Know that when we sing, "I'm going to let it shine," each of us can really mean that we will let our own life be recommitted to Christ's mission of love and justice. I know that right now is a time when we especially need people committed to being God's light in a contentious world. We need people ready to preserve and heighten the divine flavor of creation. We need salt and light, and fortunately, Scripture reminds us that we can be the salt and light. So, sing today to remind yourself of your commitment to loving God and loving your neighbor. Sing to day to remind yourself of your saltiness. Sing today to remind yourself of your light. And, keep letting that light shine.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the follower resources while writing this sermon:
Bill Moyers' interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon- http://billmoyers.com/2013/05/03/moyers-moment-1991-bernice-johnson-reagon-on-this-little-light-of-mine/
Some history about "This Little Light of Mine":
Amy Oden: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1901
Barbara Lundblad: http://www.onscripture.com/too-much-salt-or-not-enough-what-jesus-says-about-americans-and-their-super-bowl
Information on Fannie Lou Hamer: http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fannie-lou-hamer
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.