“Being and Doing”

February 6, 2011


Isaiah 58:1‑9a

Matthew 5:13‑17


At Harvard Divinity School I learned, if I remember the theology lesson correctly, that Augustine said, “Don’t be, do.” And Sarte said, “Don’t do, be.”

And Sinatra said, “Dooby, dooby, do.”

As we listen to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be closer to Sinatra, for he speaks of both being and doing.

“You are. . .” Jesus says.

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

There is something refreshing in these words of Jesus that, as Matthew presents them, come at the beginning of his ministry. No demands are made. As with the words of blessing that we heard last Sunday, Jesus tells those who would follow him to begin by simply being what we already are.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. Now.

You are the light of the world. Now.

Salt has many uses. 

A little bit provides seasoning. A lot can preserve. Salt has been used to heal. Thrown on ice salt will clear a path.

Salt dissolves quickly in water and disappears. And even when it can't be seen it is still effective.  Certainly this is one image for the church—unseen but effective. Unseen but bringing the transforming love of God to the world. Unseen but still healing, seasoning, preserving.

Salt that has lost its taste was a figure of speech for being foolish. Disciples, on the other hand, are wise—the salt of the earth.

Neither congregations nor individual Christians have all the answers. That’s why I love those words from Job that we used as our call to worship this morning: the snow falls, the water freezes. And we don’t know why. Maybe it’s for correction. Or maybe it’s for grace—or mercy. We can’t comprehend what God is doing.

Certainly there are those who think they know. In Iowa this week we witnessed another round in the ongoing struggle for marriage equality. Some who testified at the hearing in Des Moines were pretty confident they knew what God was doing, what God wanted. They had the answers.

Others, like Iowa City  native Zach Wahls were more humble—and, I think, wiser. “You know, we’re Iowans,” he said. We don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us. We’ll fight our own battles. We just hope for fair and equal treatment from our government.”

No appeal to the will or the way of God. But grace—much grace and much wisdom.

We are not called to straighten out all the problems of the world. We are not called to be the guardians of outdated virtue that some in this state seem bent on becoming. We are not called to comprehend all the ways of God.

We are called to be what we are—salt: to live out of the wisdom that life is both good and possible because it is a gift from God; to live out of the wisdom that there is no wound so deep in any person or in the world that it cannot be healed by the God who gives life; to live out of the wisdom that there is nothing you have done—or failed to do—that would separate you from the love of God.

Without this wisdom, the wisdom of Christ crucified and resurrected—the only wisdom we have—the followers of Jesus are no longer good for anything.

It is worth noting that Jesus calls his disciples the salt of the earth and not himself. The work of Christ on earth is entrusted to us.

Be what you are, Jesus says: the salt of the earth.

Be what you are, Jesus: the light of the world. 

As when he called his followers the salt of the earth, Jesus does not say: “You must become the light of the world,” or “You have the light of the world.”

The One who also said of himself, “I am the light of the world,” here speaks to his followers, telling us “You are the light of the world.” It is the property of light to shine. Once lit, a lamp just naturally sheds light.

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the light of the world.

Jesus speaks of what we are and only then leads us to consider what we should do.

Let your light shine.

While congregations might be salt, because we are light as well, we are a like a lamp on a stand, like a city on a hill; we are a visible community.  Invisibility is not an option for this congregation or any congregation. Even dissolved salt reappears when the water evaporates. So we shine in the world—not so that we might be seen, but our good works; we shine in the world—not so that God might be seen, but our good works which will lead others to an understanding of the God who is always making life new.

The unique light that we have—the love of God in Jesus Christ—is not to be hidden from those who are seeking it among the shadows.  A world in darkness still needs illumination. 

Isaiah looked forward to the day when the light of the people would break forth like the dawn. How would this happen?

Religious observances would not be enough.

Conventional piety would not be enough.

Making sure that everyone lives one approved way would not do it.

Loose the fetters of injustice and set free those who are oppressed.

Share your food with the hungry.

Shelter the homeless.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you.  In other words, you'll be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.