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Sermon for Proper 1 Year A
Isaiah 18. 1-12
Matt 5. 13-20

Are we salt, or light? Today's Gospel asks us to decide. Well before you leap too willingly to the answer that of course we should be both, it would be wise to stop and think for a bit.

Salt and light function very differently. Salt works - and works best - when it is not really noticed. We say that a particular recipe is delicious - really tasty and satisfying when the seasoning is just right - we do not that say the salt that has enhanced that flavour is delicious. If we can taste it enough to say that something is salty, then usually that is because there is too much of it and we are left gasping for water!

By contrast, light has to be seen. If it is hidden, as Jesus himself points out, it is no use to anyone. Think of the work of a lighthouse at sea. Unless that light shines out every few seconds, hundreds of ships and lives might be lost on the rocks that the lighthouse marks.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

The two images represent two different - and perhaps complementary ways of 'being church'. The metaphor of salt suggests that the role of the Church is to be a hidden - but nevertheless essential presence in the world. The symbol of light speaks of the prophetic role of the Church, illuminating the darker recesses of human nature and behaviour. And showing it up for what it is. Showing the path to transformation; to a better way of living and behaving. And of course the image of prophets that hide themselves away and refuse to speak out, is nonsense.

But Salt may be used in all sorts of ways in the Bible. Salt both destroys and preserves. King Abimelech 'sowed salt' in the ruins of Shechem - to ensure that no-one could live and farm there for the foreseeable future. While most people (even those who never study the Bible) will have heard of the fate of Lot's wife - being turned into a pillar of salt because she disobeyed the injunction not to look back at the destruction being wrought on the inhospitable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But Salt also purifies and promotes healing. Salt water bathing was recommended for all sorts of illnesses and skin complaints.... Elijah threw salt into a poisoned spring, and made its water sweet again in 2 Kings 2. Salt as we have noted, brings out the flavour of a dish. And Salt was associated with God's bond with his people. The salt with which offerings were to be seasoned when brought to the altar, were the 'salt of the covenant.' And even St Paul recommended that our conversations should be 'seasoned with salt' - perhaps suggesting that Christian relationships should promote healing and health. And perhaps most pertinently of all today - salt is often used to draw out water and dry things out! Parts of our land could do with some tankers full of the stuff at present!

The image of light is perhaps one with which we are even more familiar. Right from the opening lines of Genesis and the "Let there be light" command issued by God, to the City of Revelations, the new Jerusalem - whose light is the glory of God and whose lamp is the Lamb. Light is the supreme symbol of the divine and God is supposed to dwell in 'unapproachable light'

In Christ, the unapproachable light draws near to us - which itself is nothing short of a miracle! In John's gospel especially the imagery of light and dark is never far away. And Jesus actually says, "I am the light of the world". Jesus, the light lifted high, draws all people to himself and is never defeated by the darkness - even if it cannot comprehend him.

And Jesus also tells his disciples (which includes us) that they are to be the light of the world. This is why every child, every person baptised in this church always leaves with a candle which has been lit as part of their baptism service. But our light is not an independent light. As the candle is lit from the great Easter Candle, so our light is lit from the well of light that is in Christ. The one and only source of our light. Last week some of us sang - "Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light". But if we are ever tempted to let it shine for our own gratification and glorification, it will be swiftly shattered and extinguished. We are to be mirrors reflecting the light of God into the darkness of the world.

You are the light of the world. I am the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Was the pattern of these sayings once completed? Did Jesus say as well, "I am the salt of the earth?" Some scholars suggest that he may have. If so, there are terrible resonances in what is said of the salt that is deemed tasteless. That salt is "Thrown out, and trodden underfoot by everyone." We think of the one who, it might be said, was not to everyone's taste and who was 'despised and rejected'. Thrown out after death to be buried in a borrowed tomb.

Salt suggests those who are a transformative presence. Brother Lawrence 'practised the presence of God' in the kitchen of his priory, content to do the most menial of tasks for the glory of God... I guess we can all think of people whose very presence lends savour to our days. I think of those souls who volunteer to serve as Street Pastors in our towns and cities. Helping to keep young people safe and defusing potentially dangerous situations. And what about the Little brothers of the Good Shepherd, running the food bank and shelter? Such people may not preach, but they are an eloquent presence.

Light suggests those whose role is prophetic rather than just practical. But Prophecy does not always require a pulpit or platform (or indeed a Lectern). Prophecy may be action as much as words. Jesus said, as we read in our Gospel, that he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. It follows that the law and the prophets are meant to mean for us, what they meant for Jesus - namely the love of God and the love of one's neighbour. Prophecy happens when this law of love is proclaimed, but still more when it is practised. "Light shall beak forth like the dawn," says the prophet we hear in our OT reading this morning - and it happens when Justice is done and not merely talked about.
So I return to the question I put at the beginning.... in the week ahead will you be salt? Will you be light? Can you be both?