Who Are you NOT to be Beautiful?
In 2004, I was asked to be the chaplain to a group of pilgrims from my parish in Dallas traveling to Bolivia on mission to an orphanage there. It was one of those “follow me” moments in my life—the kind we’ve been hearing about lately in the call stories of the disciples. And like so much of my life in ministry, I found myself saying yes, without one thought or moment’s hesitation.
Fourteen of us went on that first trip. We were excited, expectant, and terrified! Only a couple of us had been before and Bolivia wasn’t the safest place on earth at the time; to tell you the truth, part of what made me say yes so quickly might have been the trip to Machu Pichu we were taking at the end of the mission! How could we have known that the life-altering experience would be not on that ancient mountain, but in a small village of Indian children who had been left behind?
The children we met, spent time with and would eventually come to know as our won have, over time, become salt of the earth and the light of the world. “Throw aways” they’re called—“tirar lejos.” Unwanted, abused, forgotten, left for dead. Yet with love, kindness, education, the stability of a home with a mama and friends and siblings who care for them, they have learned what it is to bring goodness to the world, like salt does to food.
They have learned that they each have a light within them that need not be hidden, but rather needs to be as high up as possible so it can illumine and engage everything around it. Those throw-aways have become college graduates: engineers, lawyers, teachers, a doctor. They’ve become mothers and fathers, mentors to other children, holding down full-time jobs, helping people in their community—the same community that threw them away.
I found the same children in Honduras when I came to serve here at St. James. I’ve been to Our Little Roses, our ministry to a girls’ home in San Pedro Sula, twice now, to find all those beautiful girls—used, abused, and forgotten…. They, too, are learning how they can be salt and light in the world. They, too, are learning about Love.
Matthew’s Jewish community was struggling with what it meant to be Jewish. The temple had been destroyed—Jerusalem was in ruins. Jesus had been killed. They were a people waiting for an imminent apocalypse; the Second Coming, they thought, was not far away. Within Judaism, salt was a symbol of covenant. Not only did it enhance what was otherwise tasteless and bland, it also preserved certain foods and…. it stimulated thirst. Writing to his community about being salt is incredibly important for Matthew. If they are not the flavor, if they are not the preservers, if they are not the stimulators, who will be?
What happens when they—when we—lose sight of the capacity we’ve been given to bring about goodness in the world? When we stop caring for the dispossessed and those who suffer? Stop showing mercy and doing justice, when we stop being peacemakers? What happens when we lose our saltiness?
Matthew’s language around being the light of the world comes from Isaiah 42: Israel’s call from God is to be a light to the nations. So, too, Matthew’s community is being called to be that light. If we, in our hearing of the same gospel this morning, do not hear our own call to be salt and light in a broken and dangerous world, we’re just not listening closely enough.
Jesus goes on to speak about fulfilling the law and righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, the professional religious leaders. He’s simply telling all of them, and us, what he’s always telling us: the law in itself is not a bad thing. But to keep only the law and to ignore the plights of the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised in our midst is an offense against God’s divine purposes for the world.
Nelson Mandela said something about being salt and light that I think is important for us to hear:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
There is darkness in life. There aren’t many in this room who haven’t experienced that darkness or know of others who have. Jesus is asking us to be light and salt to a very fractured world. My guess is that we lose sight of that when we are unable to care for the dispossessed and disenfranchised souls within ourselves—when we are unable to show ourselves mercy, unable to insist upon justice for ourselves.
We must be willing to go where the darkness is and to walk through it—in our own lives and in the lives of others—so that the light will overcome the darkness. How will we as a community be that light and salt? How will we fulfill the law? I know some children in Bolivia and Honduras who can teach us!