Sermon: Fourth Sunday before Lent
Sunday 5 February 2017
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Salt and Light (Matthew 5.13-20)
‘You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…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’
The words from today’s gospel come from a gathered group of sayings that we bundle together as part of the famous Sermon on the Mount. We too are part of a crowd of people who have decided that we want to hear this teaching of Jesus and many of us are serious about taking it seriously! We are named as salt and our saltiness is meant to make a difference, to add much flavour to life, to preserve what is good, to be the little pinch that makes all the difference in the world. We are named as light which is meant to be seen so that the darkness is lessened, so that we can have safety and direction in our journeys. With light on the lampstand we are to be seen by others in ways which will give glory to God.
Salt is real and it is really needed – there is nothing imaginary or pie in the sky or unreal about it – when it is omitted from the soup, it tastes like nothing but when it is there it turns water, leek and potatoes into a feast. Light is real and makes a huge difference – when wandering around in the actual dark, real illumination stops us falling over. When confused – the light of wisdom clears a path. We live apparently in a post-truth age where facts are no longer facts and where lies are said to be just different truths. The good news of the Gospel is not post-truth or lies masquerading as facts. Jesus has entrusted to us real salt and real light as part of the real characteristics of God’s kingdom which we can know, bear witness to and live out.
So many other realities begin to shape us and become our values if we behave as if salt and light are mere metaphors and spiritual slogans belonging in church rather than belonging to life. So this means holding on to the unshakable values that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1Cor 13:7); that we are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair (2 Cor 4:8); that whatever we do to the least of these we do to you (Matthew 25:40); that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:39). These and more are the meanings of salt and light.
It is easy to be very frightened by our current precarious world and it is very easy to become obsessed with that so that other narratives begin to shape us and dominate our lives. My colleague Canon Karen reminded me that this is like Milton’s Paradise Lost where so much of the dialogue is dedicated to Satan.
It leads the writer CS Lewis to describe this in his Prologue to Milton’s work as Satan being portrayed as ‘a magnificent character’. All the others whether Adam, Eve, God, the Son or the Angels seem much less interesting and commanding. He goes on to argue that all this was done ‘in order to show that ‘the Devil is (in the long run) an ass. [A Preface to Paradise Lost, CS Lewis, OUP, 1942, Chapter 13]. It is true but the attention on Satan is utterly beguiling and therefore distracting. CS Lewis goes on to say that Milton ‘proposes such an ordered state of sin with such majesty of pride that we are almost led astray’ (chapter 14). As we focus on the fears and terror of these times and if we omit the salt and light then this is the kind of danger we face too. Remember instead Desmond’s Tutu’s words, ‘Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate’.
I really rejoice that sometimes all this is simple. I want to look out for those moments of salt and light because they bring me close to Jesus and God’s kingdom. However, so many times things seem less obvious and less clear – what if my bit of salt makes things unpalatable, what if my light dazzles someone, what if I fail to appreciate those who for a time might need some shadows for safety rather than a torch?
Just before New Year as part of my sabbatical I was on an aeroplane flying from Mumbai to Chennai, from Bombay to Madras in old money. I was sat beside a chap who was determined to talk. He worked as ground crew at Heathrow. He wanted to talk about Trump and Brexit and Putin. I wanted to read my novel. He didn’t know who I was or what I did. He wanted to spew forth many views that I found hard to hear in such a raw manner. I could just as easily have come back with equally strong opinions of a different kind and the conversation would have quickly descended into a mess. I tried to listen and find ways of saying things that were true to my faith and to my beliefs yet said in ways that my conversation partner might have some hope of hearing. I felt I failed. I was not sure whether any light was seen or salt tasted.
My sabbatical has helped me feel more like a normal human being than being a vicar or a Dean and those at home would say how lovely that has been. Wearing these funny clothes, having an ecclesiastical title and a role gives a platform and bolsters an identity so that the expectation is that I might be in the business of good salt and light. People expect me to be able to glean Godly wisdom and to live in Godly ways. Take all these things away, as has been my life for these months, and without the platform and the uniform and the role to bolster confidence to bear witness, I felt I faltered.
Maybe none of that is relevant to you but perhaps all kinds of other things knock your confidence as a person and things which knock that confidence will also knock your confidence as a Christian.
WH Auden’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey contains words from a poem he wrote in 1939 which relates to this. Auden responded in his writing to those fearful days of the 1930’s and 40’s but there was a moment of particular revelation. Not long after he moved to the States, he went to a cinema in Yorkville, Manhattan which was predominately a German-speaking area. A Nazi propaganda film was being shown depicting the conquest of Poland. To Auden’s shock, when the Poles appeared on screen, the cry broke out in the cinema ‘kill them’. From that moment Auden began to see that he had to dig deeper, address his own inadequacy, his own inability to make the world better yet hearing the need to tell the truth and indeed to sing a song of hope. He wrote ‘In the deserts of the heart let the healing fountains start, in the prison of his days teach the free man how to praise’. Those last words are on his memorial stone.
In that same poem he writes ‘Follow, poet, follow right to the bottom of the night, with your unconstraining voice still persuade us to rejoice’. Auden had to wrestle with his inadequacy just like I did with mine on the aeroplane. My attempts will never be as eloquent as his. That is not the point. Remembering that the salt and light are real is the point. Remembering that the words of Jesus are for us and have authority is the point. Having a go is the point even when we are still far from confident. Maybe only being able to think of the questions rather than the answers is the point. Jesus is clear that the tiniest bit of salt and the smallest speck of light can be completely transforming. They are gifts of God’s kingdom given to the whole people of God.
We do a little together and working with other partners of peace, the world and life becomes tastier and we all have more light to live by. ‘Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ Amen.
The Very Revd David Monteith