One spring break many years ago, I took my daughter, Maddie—or maybe she took me (but then she didn’t pay for anything, so I took her – that settles that)—to New York City for the week. Whew. You haven’t seen NYC until you’ve seen it with a seventeen-year-old girl still wet from crawling out of her chrysalis but itching to try her wings.
Luckily, my younger brother lives and works in New York, which gave us a base of operations. He had the generosity to host us in more ways than I know how to thank him. It would have been a poorer trip in so many ways without my brother and his partner. It is good to have family.
We arrived the Monday of spring break (after a very early morning flight for which Maddie still hasn’t forgiven me), were picked up at LaGuardia by Jason, who brought us by taxi to the apartment, showed us which corners of the tiny apartment were good for sleeping and storage, handed us our subway passes, and then went back to work. We set out for the adventure.
We took the Q train to Times Square. Why not start at the top of the mountain! We climbed out of the dark tunnel into cacophony that is Times Square, and the week went on from there. Maddie’s first comment about her new surroundings was, “New York is loud!”
Loud, indeed. And fast and busy and distracted and distracting as well. Maddie’s original plan was that we send her off on her own to spend a week with her uncle in the big city. I’m still glad we said no to that. Not just because I enjoyed the week away and the sights and sounds and experiences of New York and the too rare quality time with my brother, but because the idea of Maddie wandering those streets on her own gave me the shivers. Maybe we ought to just keep our heads down and our doors closed. Just to be sure. Just to be safe.
Safe is a good thing. We spend a lot of time and money on being safe or feeling safe anyway. It occupies our thinking quite a lot. Yet, it never seems to be on Jesus’ list of things to worry about. He has a list, don’t get me wrong. OK, maybe it isn’t a worry list – after all he did say, “Don’t worry.” Call it a list of things to be concerned about. A list of things to pay attention to. And it is a long and involved list, full of significant and powerful ideas and moments and people. But nowhere does safety enter into it. If anything, he seems to be a risk-taking kind of leader. “Get on out there,” he says. Go and do. Or perhaps, go and be.
“You are salt,” he says. You are light. No one lighting a lamp, hides it. Admit it, you are singing that song, aren’t you? “Hide it under a bushel, NO! I’m gonna let it shine.” Or if you aren’t, then you should be. Let it shine. That’s what Jesus says. Not, you notice, make it shine. Not shine it, but let it shine.
We just walked through the Beatitudes last week. We were reminded, though we often try to turn them into imperatives - get out there and be peacemakers, be meek, be hungry and thirsty for righteousness – Jesus doesn’t present them that way. He presents them as indicatives. He is describing, not commanding.
Likewise in these verses that follow those first twelve in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t say, “Get salty!” He doesn’t say “Light up!” He says, almost as a matter of fact, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
If you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder, “When did that happen?” When did I become salt for the earth? When did I become light for the world? I’m just me. Just doing my best. Just watching out for me. Just trying not to get trampled underfoot. Jesus wants me to shine, to give light to the whole house.”
See that’s the thing about light; it doesn’t exist for its own sake. It isn’t about getting folks to look at the light. When we try to become the focus of attention, when we take center stage, we aren’t being the light. The light is there to help folks find their way. It is about shining on the path, about revealing the hazards along the way, about getting where we need to be with a minimum of detours.
And salt, salt on its own, for its own sake is not really a good thing. But as an enhancer, as a preservative, it is invaluable. In Jesus’ day, it was a common practice for farmers to salt their fields to add in the right mix of minerals to help crops to grow. The word that we translate as earth is literally ground or dirt. You are the salt of the ground, the salt of the dirt. Not a fun job, perhaps, but one that helps things to grow. That’s our job: Not to be the center of attention, but that which helps things grow.
Yeah, it’s risky. No question about it. It is a loud and noisy world out there, and we might be safer just keeping our heads down. But we can’t. Jesus tells us that too. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” He tosses that one in, even though it doesn’t fit as well. It is a reminder that we are exposed. We are the representatives of the faith whether we want to be or not. So, we might as well be good ones. We are the manifestation of Christ in the world today, whether we claim it or not. So, why not claim it? Why not live as though Christ were alive in us?
That is what he is saying here, “You are the salt of the earth, why not help things grow? You are the light of the world, why not help folks find their way? Why not mentor, why not lead, why not be what you are, a sign of Christ’s presence in the world today?”
“Get out there,” Jesus says, out there in the world, the noisy, wonderful, scary, glorious world and let your light shine. Don’t worry about being trampled underfoot; that only happens when you stop being who you are called and created to be. You are light. Let it shine.