A few years ago, I was driving through Fairfield, Connecticut with my daughter Corinne in the car. We passed by a big, new building, the entire front of which was made of glass. I turned to Corinne and said, “You know what they say about people who live in glass houses.” Turns out she didn’t know. She gave me a puzzled look, and then said, “Don’t walk around naked?” After I stopped laughing, I told her that was a really good guess. But the usual answer is that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. I explained about the story from the Bible of the woman caught in the act of adultery, and how Jesus had said that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. Then I explained what adultery meant. You know, just that kind of casual conversation you would normally have with one of your children. Corinne was quiet for a minute, and then she said, “OK, I get why they say ‘don’t throw stones,’ but I think I like ‘don’t walk around naked’ better.” She definitely had a point.
I’m sure you know that “don’t throw stones” is one of those popular sayings that comes from the bible. Of which there are many: “love is stronger than death,” “an eye for an eye,” “be fruitful and multiply,” “the chosen people.” Whether or not we’re always aware of it, the language of the bible often comes into our everyday conversations. This morning’s reading, for example, from the sermon on the mount, has several common sayings in it: “You are the light of the world,” “the salt of the earth,” “a city set on a hill,” “let your light shine.” If grew up in the 60’s, you probably have “Godspel” playing in your head by now. “You are the light of the world … But if the light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. You’ve got to live right to be the light of the world.”
Now, if we’re going to get the full impact of these words, we have to understand them in the way that Jesus did. In our day, we take salt completely for granted: sodium chloride, common table salt. When I was a kid, I got a microscope for Christmas one year. I used to enjoy using it to look at salt, salt crystals. Under a microscope, they are big, square, blocky, colorful looking things. Up close, they’re actually quite beautiful. But the stuff is so cheap. You could buy a whole truckload of salt for next to nothing. These days, when we talk about salt it’s usually because we’re worried about getting too much. So, it can be a little hard to appreciate that it’s also possible to have too little. In Jesus’ day salt was rare, precious and expensive. Salt was one of the most prized commodities of the first century. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. In fact, the word “salary” actually comes from the Latin word for salt. According to the Interpreter’s Bible, “A bag of salt was reckoned as precious as a man’s life.” It was used to pay off debts and ward off diseases.
Likewise, when Jesus talked about the “light of the world,” his audience would have understood this differently than we do. Like salt, in our time light is plentiful. You can hardly get away from it. The power that produces light is so cheap and readily available that “light pollution” has become one of our great modern problems. Maybe you’ve seen the Apple TV screen savers that pop up with satellite images of the earth. From miles above us, they look down on the world at night. All our cities are lit up like dense collections of birthday candles. Truly, our “cities never sleep.” I remember a line from one of Melanie’s old songs. It said, “It’s useless to cry for the stars in the sky, for the city lights tell me there’s none.” This is strikingly different than in ancient Palestine. The idea of light pollution would have been incomprehensible. For them, when the sun went down, apart from the moon, the only light came from a few oil lamps and fires, for which some type of not inexpensive fuel was required. Light could be had, but unless you happened to be rich, it wasn’t something you took for granted, and it certainly never took the stars away.
So, Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount are a good example of how we need to be careful, when we’re reading the bible. It’s easy to lose the meaning of the message by reading our own times and culture into it. If Jesus came today, he probably wouldn’t call us salt and light. If he did, that would mean we are cheap, we are everywhere, and too much of us is not necessarily a good thing. When Jesus called his disciples salt and light, in his day, he was saying that they were rare and precious, with a roll to play in the world that was out of all proportion to their size and numbers. Today he might call us, maybe, rare blue diamonds. In Beijing he might call us clean fresh air, or right now in Australia, a welcome, refreshing rain. When Jesus called us salt and light, he meant we are rare and precious.
Now I’d like you to notice something else here. Notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “you should be the light of the world, you must be the salt of the earth.” What he said was, as my disciples, this is what you are. His message wasn’t so much about morality, how we’re supposed to behave. It was more about identity; who we essentially are. And that’s a very important difference.
In the church, too often, we’ve shown kind of a genius for turning the words of scripture into moral imperatives. We often read passages like this as though they are commandments. We have to be salt and light. We have to make ourselves worthy because God’s going to punish us if we don’t. The problem is, when that message gets hammered on endlessly, it can leave us feeling like we don’t and never will measure up.
I think I’ve told you the story about when Pam and I were in college, at one point we attended a church for three weeks in a row. Every week the message was the same. We’re not good enough. We’re not feeding the hungry enough. We’re not loving enough. We’re not standing up for what is right enough. Now, we do need to hear a prophetic sermon once in a while. We need to talk about justice and peace and what we can do to make the world a better place. But when it turns into a steady diet of guilt, well, I’ve always thought that was just counterproductive.
When the third week rolled around, which happened to be Pentecost Sunday, the minister started into her sermon by saying, “Today is the birthday of the church. The day when we celebrate our identity as Christian people. I’ve been looking very much forward to getting up here and talking about all the wonderful things the church is doing. But, the truth is, we’re not doing enough.” Right at that moment I turned to Pam and said, “This is the last time I coming here.” And we never went back.
Now, obviously, we should try to be as worthy of our calling as can be. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But, honestly, I don’t think that was quite the point Jesus was trying to make here. It’s not that we’re bad people if we don’t let our light shine. It’s more that the world needs the light that we have to offer. The world needs spirit filled people. The world needs the light that God is trying to shine through us. Love and compassion, forgiveness and grace, justice and peace come into the world, primarily, through people who are willing to allow the light of God’s spirit to shine through them. If we withhold that light … well, there is just that much less of it to go around.
There’s a sense in which what we do here is very much like living in a glass house. We’re pretty transparent. The world hears what we say and sees what we do, or at least they can anytime they want to. It would be easy enough to figure out whether what we say and what we do are in harmony with one another. We sing about people knowing that we are Christians by our love. But that love needs to be visible, and it needs to be genuine. As Paul said, if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, we are just making noise.
In these days, when churches like ours are worried about what kind of future they might have, what we need more than anything else is to make sure that the light of our love is shining brightly. We need people to know us by the quality of our love, the quality of our generosity, our acceptance and compassion. This is the ministry to which we are called, not simply to be good people in order to get ourselves into heaven, but to be channels for the light of God’s love to the world. We shouldn’t hide our light under a basket, not because it makes us bad people, but simply because it is a wasted opportunity. Faithfulness is about putting to good use the gifts that God has given us, not burying them in the sand.
Not that this is easy. When we begin thinking about the power we have to influence the world, and the responsibility we have to use our power for good, it can be pretty intimidating. Marianne Williamson, before she decided to run for president, wrote about this in her book, A Return to Love. What she said is pretty profound.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. As we let our own light shine, we give other people permission to do the same….
That is why we are here. To let our light shine. Over my years of ministry, I’ve often heard people say that being a Christian is mostly about trying to be a good person. That’s definitely a part of it. We need to be good people; people of integrity; people the world can look up to, and trust, and respect. But upon this moral foundation, our higher calling is to build up the structures of love, grace and peace. We are the light that shines in the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are rare, precious, and beloved … and we have been given a mission, to let our light shine.