Being Who You Are

Being Who You Are
Matthew 5:13-20
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
February 5th, 2023

‘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.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. 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.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Let me set the stage for our passage today with some words of context from my dear friend, the Rev. Anne Dunlap, from a recent podcast she did about this sermon from Jesus to his fellow organizers: “…this is really the first time Jesus sits down with his people and shares some teaching wisdom with them. In the arc of Matthew’s narrative, the Beatitudes [which y’all heard about from Pastor Linda Beattie last week and which come right before our passage today] come after Jesus’s Baptism and the Temptations in the wilderness, Jesus learning his cousin John has been thrown in jail by Herod, and Jesus getting himself to safety in Galilee where he promptly begins to organize by calling leaders. After some time healing folks,” Rev. Anne says, “he starts to gain a big following – and then, he takes his organizers, AKA his disciples up the mountain for some reflection time.” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, The Word Is Resistance Podcast, “Episode 277: Blessed Are Those Who Refuse, 1.29.23” transcript.)

In other words, Jesus and his friends have seen some stuff in the last bit of their journey – overwhelming trauma, state repression of their movement, and so many folx in need of healing care. And we can relate. It isn’t hard to connect to their experience of being surrounded by people in need of healing and support – sometimes it’s us who need it – and feeling overwhelmed by how much needs to be done. It’s devastatingly easy to connect with the experience of the Roman empire throwing Jesus’ cousin John in jail, sending Jesus fleeing for his safety. We don’t need to look further than the murders of beloved ones by the police in the last couple weeks – like land defender Tortuguita (they/them) who was murdered by police in Atlanta for trying to save a forest the city wants to chop down so they can build a fake city where cops can practice military tactics for use in local communities. Or Tyre Nichols, beaten by the Memphis Police Department during a traffic stop as he called out for his mom for help, dying later in the hospital. 

I think Jesus knows all of this is too much for any one person to live through without taking time to stop. To breathe. To grieve. To process. Which is why Jesus walks up a mountainside to help himself and his friends physically embody their need to see the big picture before going back down into the thick of it again. After all they have seen in these early days of their ministry, I bet Jesus’ folx were on that hillside wondering, “Am I enough to meet the days ahead?”

And I confess that I often twist these words of Jesus as I read them, making them into a list of “shoulds”. I re-word Jesus’ teaching in my head to say, “Become the salt of the earth” and “Turn yourself into the light of the world.” Oh great – another way I don’t measure up. Thanks, Jesus. But that’s not what Jesus says! “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to these brand new organizers. “You are the light of the world.” In other words, the calling of the disciples is a lot less like venturing far away somewhere to become like someone else and a lot more like coming home to who they have always been. And who is that, exactly? I love what theologian Nichola Torbett has to say about what it means to be salt and light: “Salt is valuable for the way it flavors everything around it…” Nichola writes. “Light is changed by the shadow of everything that passes near it, and it is not more valuable than shadow. To say that we are salt and light is to say that we impact and are impacted by everything around us. We are exquisitely relational. And Jesus comes not to change that – not to make us inflexible and morally superior but to show us how to live in mutual loving relationship.” (Nichola Torbett, Liturgy that Matters: February 5, 2023 – Matthew 5:13-20, “enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.”)

This is also why Jesus tells these new leaders of the resistance movement not to forsake the tradition of their Jewish ancestors, who have a long lineage of challenging powers of domination that have threatened to choke out their community’s ability to live in interdependent relationships of care with one another. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” Jesus says. We get a glimpse into the actual practices of this Jewish law and prophetic tradition that Jesus is referencing in the psalm Darcy read for us today – “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice,” the psalmist says (Ps. 112:5). The righteous, in this psalm, are those who “have distributed freely, they have given to the poor…” (Ps. 112:9). With their actual material possessions, God’s people have always been those who refuse to hoard wealth and insist on spreading it out so everyone has enough, like salt flavoring and preserving everything it touches, like light illuminating every corner it reaches. 

At its very best, I believe this is what church is supposed to be. It’s a place we gather to remember who we really are – beings created to be in relationships of mutual love and care with everything and everyone around us. After all, salt only has saltiness if there’s someone there to taste it. And light is at its very best when it comes into contact with everything around it, making shadows dance and colors refract. So much in American society wants us to do the opposite: To go it alone. To compete. To take more than we need so that others don’t have enough. To pretend we don’t need help when we actually do. To protect and build up our own wealth because we think it will keep us safe. And Jesus knows that the empire will try to program his followers – program us – to believe these lies of rugged individualism and scarcity. That’s what this hillside moment is all about – to remind everyone following Jesus that we are salt that is made to be in relationships that flavor everything and everyone around us for the better. That we are light meant to dance with whoever we meet in this life. That the law and the prophets – the practices of ancestors who walked this very same path before us – are thick with grace that surrounds us, moving us forward in boldness when it is hard to know the way. 

Beloveds, you already know how to be salt and light. I see it every day! I see it in how you are building real communities of mutual support with our beloveds who are currently incarcerated or coming home to our community. I see it in a Deacons Fund that keeps redistributing more and more money to support our friends and loved ones with every year that passes. I see it in the Blessing Box donations that overflow every communion Sunday to feed our neighborhood. I see it in the ways you show up for each other in times of celebration and in times of grief. And so my question to you is – how is God calling you to go even deeper into this illuminated and salty life you were made for? If you’ve dipped your toe in that pool, what might it look like for you to go, “all in”? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. This is who God created you to be, and no one, nothing can take that away from you. Amen.

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