Making a Difference
Scriptures: Matthew 5:13-16; Isaiah 42:1-7
When I was young, I put a lot of effort into getting candy on Halloween. In those days no one worried about tamper-resistant packaging. I was given popcorn balls, Rice Krispy cookies, candy, and pieces of fruit, none of which were individually wrapped. I just stuffed it all in my grocery sack and went on to the next house as fast as I could.
Of course, I could never eat all that candy, so after stuffing myself, I hid the rest of it in my closet, deep in the back where my brother wouldn’t find it. It was so well hidden that one time I forgot about it, completely forgot it was there, until months later when I was rummaging through my closet looking for a baseball mitt, and I detected a strange odor. It came, I discovered, from an old grocery sack. And when I opened it, I found a green covered orange, a shriveled apple, and a sticky mass of gum drops stuck to a crusty old popcorn ball.
I learned something from that experience. I learned that if you try to keep something for yourself by hiding it, it will end up wasted.
Which is exactly what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” If you put an oil lamp or a candle under a bucket, it will give no light, and soon it will go out.
Jesus makes a similar point about salt. I am not sure how salt loses its taste. But I have seen salt that was left too long in the salt shaker. After enough time it absorbs moisture and clumps together and it no longer comes out the little holes. In fact sometimes you have to chisel it out, and at that point it is not much good anything except to be thrown away.
Salt in a salt shaker is meant to be poured out. A candle is lit to give light. Halloween candy is meant to be shared. When this doesn’t happen, a good gift can be spoiled.
Which according to Jesus is the challenge we face as disciples. Notice the relationship in this scripture passage between who we are and what we are supposed to be. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”—already! You don’t need to make yourself into the salt of the earth. You can’t. You are the salt of the earth because God has made you salt for the earth. So go out and season stuff, Jesus says. That’s your job.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus says—already! You can’t light your own light. God has to do that. But God has already lit your light. It happened when you decided to follow Jesus. So let your light shine so that other people can experience God’s goodness like you have.
Now please understand. This does not mean we should go around calling attention to ourselves. Jesus will talk about that later in the Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning of chapter 6 Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Our faith is not something we are meant to flaunt.
One of the interesting characteristics of salt is that salt is not meant to call attention to itself. If you bite into your eggs and all you taste is salt, something is wrong. The salt is not supposed to call attention to itself; it is supposed to enhance the flavor of the food on which it is put.
The same is true of light. When you came into the sanctuary this morning, I doubt you paid much attention to the light fixtures. But if we turned them off right now you would notice. The lights in our sanctuary are not meant to call attention to themselves. They are intended to help us see other things more clearly.
To be a follower of Jesus means helping other people see God more clearly. “Let you light shine,” Jesus says, not so that people will give glory to you, but so they will give glory to your Father in heaven.
I have now been here long enough at Southminster to see how this works in our church. Last year our Deacons did an informal survey of their flocks to discover some of the ways our church members are serving our community. It turned out to be an amazing list. One of our church members trains cats—yes, that’s right, she trains cats—and then she takes them to the nursing homes where they cuddle with patients and purr on command. I’m wondering if she might work with children.
Two other people in our church drive a community van helping elderly people get to their doctor appointments or to get groceries. As these drivers listen to the struggles of their riders, they do more than give them transportation. They bring a little light into their lives.
I see so many ways that people in our church do this. A surprising number of our church members currently serve or have served on the board of directors for numerous community ministries: two different food banks, homeless shelters in Burien and Kent, books on tape for the sight impaired, and a counseling service with a sliding fee scale. People in this church have gone on mission trips to other parts of our country and around the world. They have served dinners at community meals sites, handed out food at food banks, given protein packs to people on the street. A growing number of you are involved in the ministry to provide books for the SCORE jail. Some of you knit, quilt, and sew for various charities and participate in fund raising walks. Then there is the Slackers, our group of retired people who not only do projects for us around our church but do numerous building and repair projects for people in the community needing help.
Even more significant are those of you living as salt and light at your schools or in your jobs, businesses, or homes: youth who make a point of listening when a friend is upset or befriending someone who is being bullied, business people who won’t go along with some illegal or improper thing they are asked to do, people who day after day and year after year must deal with family members who try their patience and who respond day after day, year after year with love, kindness, and grace. These folks are not hiding their candy in the closet. They are salt shakers, gently tapping out their seasoning; they are candles providing a small circle of light to people who live with way too much darkness.
But there is also an element of hope in this scripture. When Jesus says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid,” he is making a promise. He is saying that our efforts to serve him will not go unnoticed. And when Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket,” he is not just talking about us; he is talking about God. He is giving us a promise. The God who lit the light of faith in our lives will not let that light go out; the God who chose you and called you to follow Jesus will not let that faith be wasted. The same applies to the mission of our church as a whole. Having brought this church into existence and maintained it all these years, God will not let its ministry be wasted.
Marj Carpenter, a former moderator of the national Presbyterian Church, gives a great example of this from her visit to a church in China. Presbyterians, along with many other Christian denominations, began extensive mission work in China back in the 1800s. By 1913 there were 92 Christian missionaries in China, many of them Presbyterians. But in 1949 when communist insurgents took over the country, most if not all of the churches and mission schools were closed. Many were converted into factories, and for forty years the Christian church in China virtually disappeared. During this time, Marg Carpenter said, Presbyterian mission leaders groaned and wept and wrung their hands over how much mission money had been wasted in China. All that effort, and nothing to show for it.
But 40 years later when Christian churches in China were allowed to open again, on the very first Sunday there were 16,000 baptisms. It was like Mt. St. Helens. For decades the Christian faith in China appeared dormant, but under the surface it was like magma flowing through cracks and crevices, rising toward the surface until it finally broke through the crust and exploded. At one point Christianity in China was growing at the rate of 50 new churches a month.
Marj Carpenter said she visited one of those churches in Shanghai. The stained glass windows had been knocked out, and the building had been converted to a factory. But she said that there was something haunting about a hole in the wall in the shape of a cross, like a silent witness that had been there all those years. On the Sunday she worshiped with them, the congregation was singing old hymns. They were signing in Chinese, but Marj recognized the tunes. At one point she realized they were singing “In the Sweet By and By.” Marj said she could not remembers the words, but since everyone else was signing enthusiastically in Chinese, Marj sang, “In the sweet by and by, here we are in old Shanghai.” And that is when Marj said she realized something: when the Christian faith is planted in a place, it never goes away. And when you let your light shine, when you let your salt be poured out, when you let your Halloween candy be shared, it is never wasted.