Sunday’s sermon: Happy Light, Blessed Salt

Text used – Matthew 5:1-20

  • I actually want to do something a little bit different this morning (surprise, surprise … right?) I want to bookend this morning’s sermon with our hymn, so to start off with, we’re going to sing the hymn that’s listed after our “Exploring the Word Together” time – #401, “Here in This Place.”[1]

  • So I wanted to start the sermon with this hymn this morning for a few reasons.
    • FIRST, much of the language as well as the theme of the hymn come straight from our text this morning à doesn’t necessarily overtly quote direct passages from Mt 5, but the wording is there
    • ALSO, it basically preaches my sermon for me this morning! → So I wanted you to have the words in your ear and your head and your heart before we even got going this morning. You could even keep your hymnal open or your finger in the page, if you want to.
  • Disclaimer before we start: When we read Scripture on Sunday mornings, we use the Common English Bible.[2]
    • Copyright information listed alongside the passage in your bulletin every week
    • Translation that comes straight from the Hebrew and Greek texts (as opposed to an update of an already-existing English translation) by a committee of dozens of highly respected Biblical scholars
    • Collaboration of various denominations including the Disciples of Christ, the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, the UCC, and the United Methodist Church
    • So it’s accurate. It’s collaborative. And above all, I think it’s a lot easier to read than even the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version. And 99% of the time, I agree with the translation choices that this committee makes for the text. However, today I don’t. Let me tell you why.
      • Gr. word at the beginning of each of the Beatitudes can certainly be translated as “happy” or even “fortunate” → So it’s an accurate translation. BUT in my opinion, translating that word as “happy” instead of “blessed” strays too easily into the territory of toxic positivity.
        • What is toxic positivity? – brief description from Psychology Today: Toxic positivity is the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. … Although setting aside difficult emotions is sometimes necessary temporarily, denying negative feelings long term is harmful because it can prevent people from processing their emotions and overcoming their distress. … Positivity only becomes problematic when it functions to reject negative emotions—if someone responded to a disclosure of distress, for example, with “It’s all for the best, “Just try to be positive,” or “Good vibes only!”[3]
  • The situations that Jesus is describing in the Beatitudes aren’t necessarily ideal or easily situations – hopelessness, grief, humility, seeking after righteousness, showing mercy, being pure in heart, making peace, being harassed and insulted. Even the traits that we would think are positive traits – humility, mercy, pureness of heart, and peace – are not easy pursuits. They are traits that we need to cultivate and practice and continue to strive for. And I feel like couching these difficult situations in language as bright and sparkling and laden with expectations as the word “happy” can be might actually be damaging to our experience of faith.
    • Expecting happiness in the face of hopelessness?
    • Expecting happiness in the face of grief?
    • Expecting happiness in the face of insults and harassment and persecution?
    • I don’t think that’s real life. But finding blessing in those moments? That’s a whole other matter.
      • Basic definition of blessing: God’s favor and protection
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of hopelessness?
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of grief?
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of insults and harassment and persecution?
      • Now, to me, that sounds like faith.
        • Brings to mind the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially as we honored his birthday this past week → King’s writings hold nothing back about the injustice, violence, struggle, and oppression that African American faced then and still face today. King names the pain. He names the hatred and brokenness. He names the despair and fear. But at the same time, he holds space for hope and promise and blessing – God’s favor and protection – in the midst of those struggles. He strikes that balance between forcing happiness in the face of entirely unhappy circumstances and still finding blessedness in them.
          • From King’s last essay “A Testament of Hope” (1968 – published posthumously): People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist. They know how often I have been jailed, how frequently the days and nights have been filled with frustration and sorrow, how bitter and dangerous are my adversaries. They expect these experiences to harden me into a grim and desperate man. … They have no comprehension of the strength that comes from faith in God and man. It is possible for me to falter, but I am profoundly secure in my knowledge that God loves me; he has not worked out a design for our failure. Man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward.[4] → I don’t hear happiness in that … but I do hear blessedness overflowing!
  • Now, in terms of the way this Scripture reading is usually broken up, I think too often we stop there. We neatly finish up our reading of the Beatitudes, close our Bibles, and call it a day. But I like the way the Narrative Lectionary continues on through the next eight verses as well because these verses give us the “how” to the “what” of the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, we find Jesus reassuring people that even in the midst of the difficulties of being human, they can find blessing in faith. In the following verses, Jesus explains to them how and why that blessedness is so important.
    • Text: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.[5] → I saw a post from a fellow clergyperson on social media this week that was lamenting the prevalent slang usage of the term “salty” and how that was making it different for her to write her sermon in this passage.
      • (If you’re not familiar) – slang usage of “salty”[6]: annoyed or upset, especially when this is unreasonable → And while I know that that definition has a negative connotation, the term “salty” is most often used in a teasing manner. If I had a dollar for all the times moms in my circles have used the term “salty” to describe the way their toddler is acting in that moment, I’d be rich! But when those moms say it, they’re not saying it in a mean-spirited or angry way. They’re saying it in that endearing, exhausted, fully honest way that moms talk about their kids with one another.
        • Their “salty” kids are being brazenly independent → testing boundaries, testing their own abilities and limits, testing out different characteristics and elements of personality
        • Their “salty” kids are speaking up (a lot!) and speaking out (a lot!) and making sure their voices and their opinions and their desires are heard (a lot!)
        • Their “salty” kids are keeping them on their toes in all the ways: physically, mentally, emotionally
      • Feel like this definition of “salty” actually fits the passage and our purpose this morning pretty darn well → Jesus is exhorting the people to remember that their purpose is to affect the world around them – to enhance it, to enliven it, to change it.
        • Scholar: Salt, if added in the right amount at the right time in the right way, enlivens and enhances a meal’s other flavors. It brings them out. It makes them themselves, only more so – and the Christian community can and must do the same. We should bring our own flavor to the mix, of course, spicing things up here and there. Then, just as much, we should work to enhance other flavors, enliven other tastes, making the world more savory, more delicious, more beautiful. If we do not, what good are we?[7] → In order to do that – in order to bring about that more delicious and more beautiful world – we have to have the courage and the saltiness to cause some discomfort … to interrupt the status quo … to propose a new way of doing and seeing and being … the drive change.
    • Same with the “light” that Jesus mentions in this passage → Guided by God and our own faith, we have to be willing to shine a light, even on some of the most shadowy, neglected, cobweb-adorned corners of society.
      • Not always easy
      • Not always comfortable
      • Certainly not always a happy prospect … but still, a blessed one
      • Think of how your eyes feel when you turn a light on first thing in the morning. There’s that immediate shock. Sometimes, depending on how bright that light is, there’s even pain. We close our eyes. We shrink away. But we need the light to usher us into the day ahead – so we don’t stub our toes or stumble over an unseen obstacle. Jesus is exhorting the people to remember that a necessary, vital element of their faith is to reveal those parts of life that need to be seen: injustices, failings, misdirections.
    • Jesus’ call to be salt and light = Jesus’ reminder to the people why it’s important – why isn’t essential! – that they endure those challenging situations in which they will find blessedness AND his promise that there is blessedness to be found even in those situations
      • “You will be blessed even in your hopelessness because God will be with you. Others will see your faith enacted in hard times, and you will show them the way.”
      • “You will be blessed even in your grief because God will be with you. Others will see your faith even in the midst of heartbreak and loss, and you will show them the way.”
      • “You will be blessed even in your persecution because God will be with you. Others will see your faith in your determination and fortitude, and you will show them the way.”
      • Hear Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in that last part of our passage
        • Jesus speaks of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets à of bringing fullness and blessing and completeness to what has come before … bringing his own saltiness to the Law and the Prophets, shining a new light on the promises of old
        • Jesus speaks reaching out through our actions and words to live our faith and share it with those around us in ways that are authentic to our experiences but will also bring about change
  • With all that in mind, let’s sing through our hymn again this morning. Listen for the affirmation. Listen for the call. Listen for the blessing … the salt and the light.

[1] Marty Haugen. “Here in This Place” in Glory to God. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #401.

[2] https://www.commonenglishbible.com/explore.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/toxic-positivity.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Testament of Hope” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 314.

[5] Mt 5:13-16.

[6] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/salty.

[7] Matthew Myer Boulton. “Matthew 5:13-16 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 82, 84.