13 “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. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 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. 16 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.
I learned something about baptism this week. A friend of mine, another Lutheran pastor, told me that when infants are baptized at his church, someone presents the child with a lit candle and quotes Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world,” or “Let your light so shine before others,” just as we do. But then there’s another part of the baptismal rite in his church. Near the font they keep a small shell filled with salt. And after the baptism, my friend dips his finger in the salt and touches it to the baby’s tongue. Accompanying that act is the reminder to the newly baptized, “you are the salt of the earth.”
My friend’s congregation did not invent that little ritual; it has existed in certain Christian baptismal liturgies for centuries. It also has some precedent, I understand, in Jewish blessing ceremonies for infants, which Jesus may have been familiar with. It makes sense that salt would be part of religious ceremonies. Salt is precious. It is valuable for its taste and its preserving properties. It is essential for our bodies and adds to the enjoyment of our food. Like light, the other image that Jesus uses today to describe his followers, salt serves an important function on this planet for the flourishing of life. These two metaphors together—salt and light—remind us that the mission of the church, the mission into which we baptize, serves the whole world.
You are salt. You are light. This is a promise from Christ. We do not say to children at the font, and Jesus doesn’t say to us today, “You should be salt and light.” For all you English majors out there, the tense is indicative, not imperative. It describes what already exists, not just what we ought to become. By the promise spoken to you at baptism, you are salt and light. By your presence here today, you are salt and light. You are already like the disciples who left the crowd and followed Jesus up the mountain. You have heard his teaching and his description of God’s reign in the world. You are part of his community of followers.
Just remember, however, that the point of salt and light isn’t just in its being but in its use, the purpose for which it exists. Sure, salt will still be salt if it just stays in the kitchen cupboard. Light is light even if covered by a bushel basket. But neither is meant to be kept there. And like salt and light, you too are meant to be visible.
For some of us, this idea goes against our sensibilities. Some of us have lived since childhood with the strong influence of either culture or personality to be humble, unassuming, and not to toot our own horns. Part of this mentality is theological, too. We keep our good works to ourselves and would never boast in them.
But while God does not need our good works, our neighbors most certainly do. And this is why faith must be a living and active thing, serving others and proclaiming the justice of God. As followers of Christ, we are meant to be visible. So maybe we should tell one another more often how we see each other being salt for others and letting our lights shine. Maybe we can do more to encourage one another.
As pastor here, I have gotten a unique perspective for seeing how you are salt and light. I have seen you participate in Bible studies and book studies. I have seen you serve funeral luncheons and dinners for choir kids. I have seen you bring communion to homebound members and visit friends in hospitals. I have seen you deliberate about becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation and take a public stand for welcoming immigrants to our communities. Those are just a few examples of what I see in you. I also, from time to time, hear about the ways you are salt and light that I don’t get to see—in your workplaces or schools, at home and in the neighborhood. You are living your faith; keep encouraging one another to do so.
Our humility might get in the way from time to time in our letting our lights shine. More than that, an obstacle for us might also be fear. That’s because we know that lights that shine in the midst of darkness tend to get attacked. It can be dangerous; we need to be honest about that. Have you ever tried to be positive and compassionate in some situation and found that it made others angry or defensive? We shouldn’t be surprised, not if the one leading the way for us is Jesus.
That’s even more reason to let our lights shine together in community, not just on our own. We need one another for the mission to which we are called.
Some of you, especially those of you who traveled to Germany this fall, may know the story of the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, a community that refused to keep its light under a bushel. Thirty-five years ago, a small group in the East German church decided to gather for weekly prayer services every Monday evening. They were upset about the Berlin Wall and the repressive East German regime, so they came together to pray for peace. Often there were fewer than a dozen people in the pews, which is why the government allowed it to continue. It seemed to them harmless. But the worshippers kept meeting, week after week.
After a few years of these regular services, their pastor put a sign outside the church that read “open to all.” That wouldn’t be surprising for us, but such a gesture was loaded with symbolism in a context where the church provided the only space where people could openly talk about certain subjects. Those prayer gatherings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians, and atheists all sought refuge there, and then the attendance quickly began to grow.
This continued for another few years. Authorities started putting pressure on the church leaders to stop the services, but they persisted. In the spring of 1989, authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to deter people from the service. But just the opposite happened, and the gathering grew even more. Eventually, they became more public. The prayer services led to peaceful protests in Leipzig, which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. As a result of those actions, later that year the church was ordered to be closed.
Still, Monday Demonstrations continued outside the church, and many protestors were arrested and even beaten. On October 9, 1989, an article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that on the following Monday the protest would be stopped—quote–“by any means necessary.” The church leaders were terrified. Still, as many as 8,000 people crowded into St Nicholas Church. And not only that but other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters, about 70,000 in total across the city.
When the service was over, people went outside, each one carrying a lit candle. They were joined by other protesters, and the tension in that city grew. It was a dangerous moment. They chanted. They prayed. And when they marched past the headquarters of the East German secret police holding their candles and saying their prayers, the helmeted riot police let the protesters march by without intervening.
Later East German officials would say they were very well prepared to stop the demonstration by force. They were ready for anything…except for candles and prayer.
The news of that event spread and more demonstrations were held. Exactly one month later, the Berlin Wall came down.
Letting one’s light shine may seem like a small thing, but when joined with others, it can change the world. It’s part of why we gather on Sunday mornings, in this congregation and others throughout the whole church. I’ve learned that there are some Christians from throughout the Metro who have committed to gathering monthly on Sunday afternoons to pray for peace and to have conversation with each other on how God is calling us to work together for peace in our world, not unlike the people of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. The next service will be at Ascension Catholic Church in two weeks, on February 19.
These gatherings are just another way, one among so many, where followers of Jesus are putting faith into action. Where else do you see it? How can you encourage others to be what Christ has made us? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.