Who Are Your People?

sermon-preparationGood morning. My name is Amanda Holdredge. Most of you know me as the wife of Derek, the mother of Kate and Allison, a teacher of English and vacation bible school, a friend. And, as I was recently asked to remember, I am a child of God. Yes…I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and today, God will use me to help change the world. I’m not sure it will be through this message, but when Carol Powell asks you to do something, my philosophy is that it’s always best to say yes.

When I first began preparing for this morning’s sermon, I started at the beginning, with the Gospel, and I took heart that I had Matthew’s  “salt of the earth” passage. If there’s one thing I thought I knew, it’s the salt of the earth.

To give you some background, I hail from a little bitty town nestled deep in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas. Its name is Hallsville, and when I was growing up, its population hovered around 1,800. Since I left, it’s experienced a veritable population explosion and now boasts upward of 3,000 residents.

I should clarify here that I didn’t exactly live in Hallsville proper, but rather 10 miles north of town. Mine was a rural upbringing, to say the least. We had to load into a car and drive to go trick-or-treating, if that gives you any indication. It was a childhood of crossing hot-to-the-point-of-melting blacktop roads with summer-toughened bare feet, shelling peas on front porch swings, attending week-long camp meetings in an open-air Methodist tabernacle overlooking our family cemetery, cane pole fishing, and a whole lot of riding around in the back of pick-up trucks. Think Mayberry, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the Hallsville of my youth.

It’s important to note that where I grew up, when I grew up, and how I grew up, what you did for a living was not so important as who you were, and when it boiled right down to it, from whom you came. Keep in mind that in the south of my childhood, and to a large extent still today, people didn’t stray far from home when they grew up. Three generations of my father’s family lived within a 3-mile radius of my house. So if ever an unknown name were introduced into a conversation among my elderly relatives, of whom there were many, there was only one question to ask: “Now, who are his people?”

Who are his people…? Not what is his profession, political affiliation….but who are his people. And inevitably, like a puzzle falling into place, the connections were made–”you know, his mama was a Templeton,” or “his granddaddy used to run the old lumber mill over to Gilmer.” And only then, when a genealogy was firmly established, could an assessment of character be made. Who were his people? That was the key to figuring out who he was. Invariably, favorable judgments came down to his (or her) people being reliable, earnest, humble, hard-working, God-fearing folk. You know, salt of the earth types. The best kind of people, the people from whom you wanted to come, were the salt of the earth: at its essence, down to earth, of the earth.

So how does all this relate to the Gospel? Jesus says,

3 “You are the salt of the earth.”

To fully understand His message, we must understand its multiple layers of meaning, as salt had many connotations in Matthew’s tradition and context. In both Leviticus and Ezekiel, salt is an essential component of the sacrifice ritual:  “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings” (Leviticus 2:13). Elsewhere, salt is a symbol of loyalty and covenant fidelity: “Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the LORD I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for both you and your offspring” (Numbers 18:19). Salt was used in purification rituals and as a preservative. Eating together was called “sharing salt” and expressed a binding relationship. During and after the late Roman Empire, salt was a precious commodity. In fact, it’s a commonly held belief that Roman soldiers were at times paid with salt, birthing the phrase “worth one’s salt”; likewise, the word “salary” derives from the Latin salarium, possibly referring to this custom of payment. And let’s not forget Lot’s wife….

Finally, salt was then, as it is today, used as a seasoning, which brings me back to my flawed understanding of the “salt of the earth” idiom. The phrase “salt of the earth” has been naturalized into the English language as a designation for people we regard as particularly good–that’s certainly the way it’s been ingrained in me. But as is the case with most idioms–think “barking up the wrong tree,” “biting the bullet,” or “burying the hatchet”–these sayings, over time, lose their power, become clichés we don’t think twice about. How often do we stop and think about how odd they must have sounded at their inception? So let me present the “salt of the earth” message to you in a slightly different way: “Hey, you there–yes, you Lutherans stoically sitting there–you are the jalapeño pepper for the whole earth!” The jalapeño pepper for the whole earth! Put this way, we are reminded that the statement refers not to status (as in you are the world’s chosen, the world’s moral elite), but rather to function: we are here to add some kick to the lives of all those around us. Not salt of the earth as humble and meek, but salt of the earth as spice…flavor…zestiness! That’s what we’re meant to be, what we’re charged by Jesus to be.

As to the danger of salt losing its taste, which according to Matthew must result in its being “thrown out and trampled underfoot,” from a chemical standpoint, this just doesn’t apply. Sodium chloride is extremely stable and can’t lose its flavor. The most common explanation for “losing its flavor” is that salt, especially the salt of Matthew’s day, could contain a wide array of other compounds and impurities. Salt loses its saltiness not by a chemical transformation, but by becoming so impure, so tainted by other elements, that it loses its essential function. So how do we keep our flavor? By remaining true to our faith, by avoiding contamination.

In the end, our take-away message is this: salt does not exist for itself, nor do the disciples of Christ; their lives must be turned outward toward the world.

Working with and in juxtaposition to the metaphor of salt is that of light.

14 “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Light has long been used as an archetypal symbol of both knowledge, hence the word “enlightenment,” and purity. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the jester, Feste, cheekily retorts to the antagonist Malvolio: “Madman, thou errest. I say, there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” In the 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, which chronicles Satan’s fall from heaven, John Milton pens, “Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”

And going all the way back to 400 BCE-ish, Plato famously presents one of the most beautiful extended metaphors in Western philosophy, the Allegory of the Cave, which depicts a group of people who have been imprisoned in a deep cave since birth, never having seen the sun. In it, we are warned that “Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.” This quote always puts me in mind of going to see a movie on a sunny day—the temporary blindness is equally unsettling, whether you’re going into or coming out of the theater. Plato is reminding us that we each begin our lives deep within a cave, head and legs bound, and the quest for knowledge, a quest that will consume us for all our days, is the struggle to move as far out of the darkness as possible.

But what does Matthew mean by “being the light”? Here, the disciples are presented as illumination for the world. We must keep in mind that the primary function of light is not to be seen, but to let things be seen as they are. Light allows us to see clearly. When we shine the light of Jesus, we allow all of us to see more clearly. By following His example, we may shine light on good, yes, but also on injustice, on prejudice, on intolerance, on pain…on all things bred in the dark.

***I feel moved here to step away from my original message and connect this theme to the tragic suicide last week at Bend High. If there is one thing I’ve learned as a teacher—one essential truth—it is this: there are times in your life, most of which you’ll never even be aware of, or at least not until much later, that you are the only light in someone else’s darkness. So please, please let your light shine.

Interestingly, the use of the word “you” in “You are the light of the world” is corporate. This is when the southern “y’all” would really come in handy. “You [plural] are the light [singular] of the world.” Compare this to Philippians 2:15: “…Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” Hear the difference? In Philippians, each Christian is called on individually to shine as lights in the world, but in Matthew, the community as a whole is challenged to fulfill this mission—to serve as the light for the world. That means all y’all, as we say in Texas.

And so, with the twin metaphors of salt and light, the Matthean Jesus stikes the death blow to religion that is purely personal and private. This task is simply too big for one person—it is one we must work at together.

Finally, we come to the third and final portion of today’s Gospel, in which Jesus says

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…[and skipping down a bit]…

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Imagine my joy when, in my research, I read, and I quote, “This is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel.” Yea, me. Difficult both because of the ambiguity in certain key words—destroy, fulfill—but also because of tensions between this passage and others also found in Matthew. So just bear with me here.

A starting point for uncovering Matthew’s understanding of these words is taking a look at the setting in which he was writing, because at first glance this passage seems to be so intimately connected to first-century Judaism that it has little to say to modern Christians. In his letter to Romans, Paul writes that “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans 3:28); James, in contrast, calls this the opinion of a “senseless person,” countering that “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). What we see here and elsewhere in the New Testament is concern over how to maintain the proper balance between obedience to Moses’ law and faith in Jesus as messiah.

Ultimately, Jesus is pointing out that devotion to the old law just doesn’t cut it anymore. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees were trying very much to obey the Torah—and yet they still failed. Why? Moses’ law isn’t enough: we are beholden to a Higher Law. Essentially, Matthew uses Jesus’s words in verses 17-20 (the law, the righteousness, the kingdom of heaven) as a thesis statement for what is to come in the rest of chapter 5 and on into chapters 6 and 7—which will recap the 10 Commandments and dictate behavior for everything from praying to fasting to worrying. Jesus is basically saying, “Look, if you thought the law was tough, wait till you see this. If you really want to be my disciples, give me your hearts without reservation.”

What we see in this “righteousness” part of today’s Gospel is simply a precursor to the Greatest Commandment, which in Matthew we find in chapter 22, verse 37:

37 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

38 “This is the first and greatest commandment.”

39 “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

40 “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This is the law that Jesus explains to his disciples through the Sermon on the Mount. This is the law to which God demands obedience. This is the law that will give us life.

So, remember that question I mentioned earlier, the one I grew up hearing…“Who are his people?” I would pose that same question today to each of you: Who are your people?

Jesus goes on in Matthew’s Gospel to define God’s law not simply in terms of how people behave, but in terms of who they really are.

Who are your people? Look around you. Here is your family. Here is your community of faith. Your people are here, charged with you to be the salt, the light, the righteous, the ones who God will use to help change the world.