[Jesus said:] “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 hid. 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.

Matthew 5:13-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 9, 2020) on Matthew 5:13-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I want to start today’s sermon by highlighting something I’ve been doing these last few weeks that’s sort of grown into an unintentional sermon series. Two weeks ago, I asked all of us to imagine different superheroes and the places that made them who they are. We talked about Batman and the City of Gotham, Superman and Metropolis, and even Black Panther and Wakanda. Those places shaped those superheroes were and we  are shaped by our places too. Last week, I started by asking all of us to imagine just how loud the Temple in Jerusalem would have been when Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus engaged in some of the rituals of their Jewish identity. Our expectation that holy sites should be serene and quiet probably didn’t match the actual experience of worshippers in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Instead, the noise and bustle of the Temple pointed to the life that God’s presence brought to God’s people. And so today, I’d like us to - once again - use our faithful imagination as we engage with this text from the gospel according to Matthew. But instead of asking you to imagine being a piece of salt or being an actual city on a hill, I want to point out what I think our imagination does for us when we let it encounter the Bible. When we engage our imagination, the possibilities of where the text will take us is practically endless. The words, rather than ourselves, take the lead and we don’t assume that we already know what this passage is all about. We don’t limit the text to only be moral instruction or so-called life lessons or even details about what we’re supposed to believe. Instead, we let the Word of God meet us as we are right now. And instead of working on the text, our point of view shifts and we see how the text, and God, has already been working on us. 

So let’s take a second to shift our mental gears and engage our imaginative ones. I’m going to re-read verse 13: “[Jesus said] 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.” I don’t know if that verse sounded different to you than it did before. But I find that when I use my faithful imagination, I’m able to ask questions I might not have been brave enough to ask before. Usually, when we read this verse, we assume Jesus knows a lot about what salt can do. And so he must have known that salt could, while walking around the sea of Galilee, lose its taste. Yet our imagination might be emboldened to wonder if Jesus got this little snapple fact wrong. Because salt, which is just sodium chloride, can’t actually lose its saltiness. If it does, it’s no longer salt and it couldn’t be thrown onto the ground. Some have argued that the salt Jesus was referring to was of poor quality, mixed with dirt and sand and could, after time, lose its taste. But it’s also just as plausible that Jesus was maybe purposefully describing something impossible but used words that invited us deeper into his story. It’s kind of like when someone tells you something that, at first, seems completely reasonable but then later, when you actually think about it, makes you go “what?” The absurdity we didn’t see at first ends up pulling us in. And we wonder where Jesus is taking us next. 

Now the transition from salt to light to city to lamp is a little jumbled but there’s an opening here that fits our use of faithful imagination. We shouldn’t only focus on visualizing ourselves to be lit up like a lighthouse, seeing ourselves as a revealing symbol to the world. Instead, we can narrow the vision for our imagination by zooming in on the bushel basket. The bushel basket Jesus had in mind was probably made out either wood or reeds woven tightly together. It would have been used regularly to collect fruits, grain, and other agricultural products and it probably wasn’t entire air-tight or fully sealed. The bushel basket was a tool that didn’t need to be perfect to get its job done. And it also wasn’t designed to be around lamps. In Jesus’ day, if you wanted light to shine without the help of the sun, you had to light something on fire. The lamps Jesus probably had in mind were little oil lamps with a wick burning an open flame. Putting a dry and wooden bushel basket over a lamp would, most likely, burn the basket up. The ordinary beauty of a lampstand lighting up an entire house does not erase the absurdity in the first half of Jesus’ words. That weirdness is right there in the text and we’re not, I think, supposed to smooth out what Jesus said. Rather, these moments might be a sign that we are witnessing Jesus’ faithful imagination at work - an imagination that reconfigures and transforms the world through God’s absurd and loving grace. 

Because it takes a special kind of imagination to wonder if salt could lose its saltiness and if an easily flammable basket could cover a burning flame. An imagination that is comfortable with those kinds of absurdities is one that’s also capable of reimaging us. Instead of letting us lean into our default settings of “comfort, conformity, and complacency,” God’s holy imagination invites us to see how our actions and our inactions always have an impact. Too often we let our fears, worries, and our unwillingness to admit our wrongs, limit our imagination and what we think is possible in the world. This is manifested in the many ways we ask others to show us grace while we give them none. And how we are quick to label other people’s stories, identities, and experiences as absurd because we can’t imagine how their lives are connected to our own. We often act as if the limits we place on our own imagination come from God. Yet, as we see in our reading today, the God who has already re-imagined you as being the light of the world will not be limited by what we think that means. 

Instead, God will continue to do absurd things, like giving us the grace to expand our faithful imagination. Because it’s that kind of imagination that, I think, helps us trust that the promises God made to other people God also made to us. The impossibility of salt losing its saltiness means that you, as the salt of the earth, will not lose God’s promises too. And since a flammable bushel basket will only burn brighter when it meets the lamp of God, your identity as the light of the world is a gift God has already given to you. These declarations from God are not given to us in response to something that we do. Nor are they merely affirmations of what we’re already doing. Instead, the promises of God are gifts, re-imagining us into the people God wants us to be. It’s a re-imagining that expands our limits of what it means to show mercy, to give grace, and to love. It’s a re-imagining that expands our capacity to say we’re sorry, to seek justice, and to see what we can do so that others might thrive. And it’s a re-imagining that helps us expand the imaginations of others too. As little H. is about to hear shortly in his own public welcome into the body of Christ - we are here to let the light of God’s grace shine in all that we say and do. And that light - a promise of love, a promise of mercy, and promise that you are already part of God’s holy and life giving imagination - is a gift that we are called to freely give.