Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the
Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the
Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
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."
I've always learned many things from picture books, so I'd like to begin by sharing the summary of a story called The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park.
It's a book that belongs to my children. The story comes to us from Korea and from history. It's set in the early 1800s. One of their security practices was to light bonfires on the top of a series of mountains. The main character in the book is a little boy named Sang-hee. His father tells him that the mountains are like the humps on the back of dragon. And their responsibility as firekeepers is to light the first fire each night. Korea being a peninsula, most of the threats come by sea. And if each mountain top communicates fire by fire by fire, all the way to the king's palace, the king knows that there is no threat and there is peace in the land.
But as you can probably imagine, Sang-hee is more interested in seeing the soldiers who might come if they don't light the fire. One night Sang-hee notices, as he is doing his chores in their small village, that there's no fire on their mountain top. His mother is concerned and sends him after his father. His father has hurt his ankle and can't make it to the top. And so, he hands off the little pot of coals to Sang-hee who makes his way to the top. And it is a struggle to choose to light that fire. The first two of three coals go out before he manages to light the fire. The struggle is within himself. It's because he would love to see those soldiers. Sang-hee returns to his father, having lit the fire and let it go out and made the brush pile for the next night and when he greets his father it's clear that some time has passed for his task. His father understands because when his father was a child he too wanted to see the soldiers. But he reminds Sang-hee what a blessing it is to live in a time of peace. He conveys his pride that their family, which has had generations of firekeepers, has a new member in that lineage of firekeepers. Charged with conveying that message of peace all through the mountain range back to the palace. And he encourages Sang-hee to understand himself as that first line of peace, the first line of the defense of their kingdom.
I share this story of light and of peace and of fire and mountains as we hear today a gospel passage that is so familiar to us, about the salt and the light on the lampstand. It's so familiar to us, but if you are anything like me you don't actually know the first century context for what Jesus is talking about. This salt that can lose its saltiness, the salt of the earth. Jesus is actually talking in a context that would be very familiar to first century peasants. They lived in a compound setting, each would have a one room house and the houses would be in the shape of a U, maybe it would be an extended family or just the village. And there would be a courtyard, a walled courtyard. And in that courtyard, you would find an earthen oven. And that is what Jesus is referring to when he says "the salt of the earth."
This shared oven would be fueled not by wood which was not plentiful, but by dung. By donkey and camel dung. In order to ignite this dung as a source of fuel you would need to add salt. Salt would be added and dung patties would be dried for the purpose of fuel. There would also be a slab of salt at the bottom of the oven to serve as a catalyst to bake their bread and cook their meat. And so, Jesus is talking about a salt slab with which everyone is very familiar and with which we are not so familiar. And that salt after a time would no longer serve its purpose, it would no longer be a catalyst. It wouldn't ignite the dung patties and so it would be thrown out, maybe it would be used to make the road a little bit less muddy and people would trample on it, as he says. It's no longer useful and it would be "trampled under foot."
This passage today is a part of the Sermon on the Mount that we began last week with the Beatitudes. It's Jesus' first instructions to his followers about how they are to live in the world. Instructions to us as well. And so perhaps when he says, "You, my disciples; are the salt, that is, catalyst for the earth-oven" he's suggesting that they too "can start fires and make things burn." They are the light of the oven. Or perhaps they are catalysts for ordinary, life-giving events. Without that fire the community cannot bake bread and cook their meat.
And then Jesus shifts to another light, the light of the oil lamp. Again, these would be small one room houses and the light of the oil lamp would not offer a great amount of light. But the light that it does offer for the evenings would, of course, put on a lamp stand. You would put it up high so that the light would spread in the darkness. You wouldn't put the bushel basket over it. Again, a very familiar saying from the Gospel of Matthew, but we ask ourselves: why is there a light involved with a bushel basket? Well, that's how people put the light out when they went to bed. They put that bushel basket on the lamp in order to contain the smoke and the fumes.
Jesus is encouraging us to realize that when we light our lights we shouldn't then automatically extinguish them. We want them to help push out the darkness. In the world Jesus lived in, there was the presence of darkness and the presence of light and each could push out the other. So just as we understand darkness to be the absence of light they understood darkness to have its very own presence. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be a light, to be a way of making God's vision visible, for the people around them. And not to hesitate with the light that they have to offer. Not to suddenly put that bushel basket upon themselves too early before others can see and see God's work around them. As Jesus says, "they will see the good works and give glory to God" not glory to the person doing the good works. But they'll see God in the good works we are doing: the light on the mountain, the light on the hill.
So, I invite us to think about the ways that we individually and as a community can often be too quick to extinguish our light, too quick to hide our light, including our good works. If we let them shine on the hill or in the house they may bring people closer to God. Because we are joining generations of fire keepers to communicate God's peace and to encourage righteousness, which is a primary theme in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is encouraging us to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. He's not being sarcastic, he doesn't view them as self-righteous. He views them as the epitome of the righteous in the community. And so, Jesus is asking his disciples who are following him, first century fishermen and others, to be just as righteous if not more so than the religious leaders of their day. We remember in the Gospel of Matthew when one of the Pharisees asks Jesus, "What is the greatest commandment?" Jesus reaffirms what we call the Summary of the Law:
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22: 37-40)
These commandments are what Jesus hopes we will help fulfill so that we can experience the kingdom of heaven. Many early Christians looked to the Prophet Isaiah for a vision of God's hope for the world and of the kingdom of heaven. In the tail end of our Isaiah reading, we hear beautiful imagery of this kingdom, which we can participate in building and, in that way, be co-creators with God. The Prophet Isaiah tells us:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (Is. 58:9b-12)
Those are two of my favorite phrases in the Bible: "the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in." That is our call as righteous followers of Christ, to live into a world that restores and repairs and makes holy through light and love. Amen.
Park, Linda Sue. The Firekeeper's Son. New York:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002.