Some of you know that one of the forming experiences of my young adult life was living and working in Japan was I was just out of college. Now there are a number of reasons for this. I had not been really much away from the Midwest or even from Minnesota before that – in fact, I had always lived in about the same place. So, this was a time in my life which seemed like high adventure to me – and that too was different. We were not a family that engaged in high adventure much, or ever, really, and I was not the kind of person to go off and do something impetuous, like learn to hang-glide or climb a mountain or speak in front of people – or get on a plane and go to a foreign country. But most of all, I discovered for the first time what it was like to be different, to look different, to speak a different language, to suspect that I even thought differently than the people around me, and to know that I stuck out, that people would be able to find me in a crowd without much trouble. In other words, I found that I was distinctive, and once I learned a little Japanese, I also discovered that people would ask me a certain question where-ever I went: “What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here?” They wanted to know. Obviously I had come there, or been sent there – for a reason. It was obvious that I didn’t naturally belong there. So “what are you doing here?” they asked.
This last week as I was studying and thinking about the gospel reading from Matthew, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, I came across this version, from Eugene Peterson,’s “The Message”:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it. You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16.
Let me tell you why you are here – that’s one way to begin our gospel reading for today, answering the question: What are you doing here, the question I got asked all the time when I was overseas, living as a teacher and a missionary in Japan. But I’ll tell you what – something interesting, something kind of funny happened when I got back to the United States. People no longer asked me that question. No one came up to me on the street any more, or stopped me when I was at the grocery store, or when I was in the library, or waiting for the bus, and asked me, “What are you doing here?” I wasn’t distinctive, I didn’t stick out. I fit in. I knew the language, the customs, the people. And in a way, that affected me just as much – no, even more – than when people started asking me in the first place.
According to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, this question, “What are you doing here?” is one of the basic questions of our lives. And also according to Matthew, here is the answer to the question: “YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.” That’s who you are and that’s why you are here, as well, to be salt and to be light. That’s why as well you each got a tiny candle and a tiny packet of salt to take home with you today – so that you can remember who you are and what you are here for.
But wait a minute – just want does it mean to say that we – disciples of Jesus – that we are salt, that we are light? After all, these are metaphors, we aren’t literally that white stuff that comes out of the box and that we shake out on our food (though not too much these days!), on our sidewalks, in the water that we gargle “for medicinal purposes.” In a Bible study last Wednesday it wasn’t too difficult to come up with a few things about salt that we thought might be important. Salt, like water and bread and wine, for example, is pretty common, not exotic. In the old days, back before refrigeration it was used to preserve food, so that it would keep longer. Salt makes food tastier, and in fact, brings out the flavors in food as well. And even though salt can sting us, it is also used in healing.
At bottom though: salt is necessary for life. We can’t live without it. We may worry about having too much, some of us – but we have to have salt in our lives. Jesus is saying that we are like that. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world, showing forth the truth of God’s love and mercy – showing forth the truth of God’s justice, showing the power of the love of God in our lives – the power of the one who went to the cross for us.
I read a story in the paper yesterday (this morning) which is really a story about being salt and light. It’s a story about a couple from Winnipeg who were driving back from a bicycle event they had gone to in Arizona and thought they could make it to North Dakota when they were suddenly and it seemed without warning trapped in a blizzard. They couldn’t see anything and finally had to pull over and stop by the side of the road. They thought they were prepared for everything, but as they ran out of gas and were starting to get cold, they began to worry. At some point a trucker also pulled over, concerned about the snow drifts and afraid that he might rear-end someone. As he looked around the road, he saw a little light flickering. It was the light in the car of the couple from Winnipeg, part of their “winter survival kit.”
When I first read this story – I thought it was about the light. The small light they carried that saved their lives, that signaled their presence to the trucker. But really the salt and the light in this story is the trucker – he saw the little light, and he put on his snowmobile suit, and he got out of his truck and he went to the stranded car where the couple was shivering and desperate. He invited them to stay in his truck, where he gave them coffee and a place to sleep. He literally saved their lives. He was light and he was salt for them.
But you know what? He had to get out of his truck to do that. Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” You bring necessary gifts: healing, flavor, preservation, love – to this world. You do. But you know what? You have to get out of the truck to do that. You need to be out into the world that God loves to do that.You might at a nursing home, sharing communion with a shut-in, or in a school, helping a child to read, or at the State Capitol, advocating for funds for Domestic abuse victims, or in a warehouse in Chanhassen, packing food to send to Haiti – or in any number of places, but the truth is, we are the salt of the earth, and we are the light of the world. If you are wondering who you are and why you are here, the answer is so so clear, we are here to be salt and light, or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house, and to let the oppressed go free.” And if our worship here does not remind us about this, our basic identity, every week, it doesn’t matter how well we sing or how well we pray.
When we gather here every week – the main thing that we need to go out knowing is that we are marked with the cross of Christ, that we are children of God, where-ever we go.
Salt and light. Please remember, brothers and sisters – the scripture doesn’t say “You should be salt, you should be light.” That’s not who you should be. It’s who you are. This is your basic, identity, and it’s a gift. The world tries to tell us who were are in many ways: the world tells us that we are “just one person”, and that “there’s nothing we can do.” But God says: “You are salt, and you are light.” You are distinctive.
By the cross, God has claimed you, and healed you, and preserved you, and called you. Even in your one, small life, you bring healing, you bring life. You are marked by the cross, sealed by the spirit. Forever.
The same is true of our congregation. The same question applies to us. Who are we? What are we doing here? We are salt and light, in our community for good. We are marked by the cross of Christ, and our calling is to give ourselves away for the sake of the world, for the sake of our community. So that they know who our God is, our God who is at work in the world and even in our lives.
Who are you? What are you doing here?
Maybe one of these days, people will turn around and ask us those questions.
When they do, we will be doubly blessed.
“Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good work and glorify your father in heaven.”