Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 9, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago there were about 50 of us from Oak Harbor Lutheran Church who went to the Silvertips hockey game in Everett. We chartered a bus from the Navy base (thanks again, Lydia circle!) which dropped us off right in front of the arena. As we got off the bus, there was a street corner preacher right next to where we were getting off the bus. He had signs warning everyone of God’s wrath. He had a bullhorn that he was barking into, taunting people as they walked by, listing off all the sins that had them destined for the fires of hell, telling them to repent or burn. People walked past him hurriedly, many of them rolling their eyes. I saw children that looked afraid.
My heart sank. Partly because this dude seems to be at every sporting event I go to! He seems to be following me around! But my heart sank also because I was wearing one of our Oak Harbor Lutheran Church hoodies. Probably three-fourths of our group were! We were very obviously a church group unloading our bus right next to this guy, and it was embarrassing!
And you know what I wanted to do? I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I while I was outside I was wishing that I had another coat so I could hide my hoodie, so I could hide the logo of our church. For those few minutes we were outside I wanted to hide my identity as a Christian. The feeling passed once we were inside the arena, and we all cheered loudly when our name appeared on the jumbotron as one of the visiting groups, but for a moment I wanted to hide the fact that I am a Christian. I don’t think I was the only one.
This was a unique and extreme situation, but I don’t think it is at all uncommon. There are many times and places we might feel like hiding the fact that we are Christians. Sometimes it is because we don’t want to be associated with street corner preachers or tacky televangelists or abusive priests – but sometimes it is simply because we find it easier to keep it to ourselves. Sometimes it is because we’ve been taught that religion is a private matter, that you should keep it to yourself.
In our gospel reading for this morning Jesus makes it clear that there is no such thing as private Christianity. Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t give us the option of keeping our faith to ourselves. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that we are not supposed to hide the fact that we are his followers.
But how we share our faith is important, and Jesus also gives us two helpful images to teach us how we are to take our faith out into the world.
First, Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth. In Jesus’ time salt was valued primarily as a preservative. In a time without refrigeration salt was used to cure meats and other foods. It meant people could stretch out their food supply over time, preventing starvation. Salt prevented things from decaying and rotting away. Salt, of course, was also known as a flavor enhancer – as it is today. Salt draws out the goodness. It makes things better. But here’s the thing: salt only does its work when it is scattered and spread and sprinkled!
Jesus’ followers, then, are scattered and spread and sprinkled for a specific purpose. We are scattered as the salt of the earth to be a preservative in a society and a culture and a world that is always at risk of rot and decay. We are spread out to sustain and preserve life. We are sprinkled out on the world to make things better, to bring a measure of God’s goodness. And we cannot do any of those things if we’re hiding away in the cupboard, now can we?
Jesus is more explicit about this in the next image. He says his followers are the light of the world. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid!” Jesus says. In the same way, “no one lights a lamp and then hides it under a bushel basket!” Instead, you put the lamp on a lampstand so it can give light to the whole house! Jesus goes on to interpret this metaphor for us by saying, “In the same way, let your light so shine before others that they would see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The image of light is a rich one in the Bible. Light means truth, as the psalmist describes God’s Word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our pathways. Light represents hope, as Isaiah and John and others point to light shining in the midst of darkness. Light means life, as John tells us that Jesus is the light which is the life of all people.
In addition to being the salt of the earth, Jesus calls us the light of the world. We are called to shine the light of truth, the light of hope, the light of life. No one will see this light if we hide it away! We are called to share this light through our good works – works of love, works of mercy, works of compassion, works of charity, works of justice, works of reconciliation, works of holiness, works of witness. We are called to live our lives in such a way that people will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.
These works do not save us. That is a job for Jesus alone. These are works that ultimately flow out of his salvation. They flow out of his righteousness, the righteousness he gives us as a gift so that we would enter into the kingdom of heaven.
These works do not save us, but they just might point someone the saving work of Christ as they see this salt and light and begin to wonder where it comes from. They just might point someone to his righteousness, the only righteousness that makes us fit for heaven. They just might point someone to Christ’s salvation as they see our good works and ultimately come to give glory to our Father in heaven.
We are salt and light as we do and teach the commandments of God in our homes and in our congregation, as Jesus calls us to do in our reading for today.
We are salt and light as we serve our neighbors in this community, as Stephen ministers are sprinkled out to be with those who are experiencing brokenness, or as volunteers are sprinkled out to serve a hot meal to the poor and homeless, or as we provide snacks to our neighbors at Hillcrest Elementary. I had the pleasure of taking an enormous load of your donations this past week. You should have seen how their faces lit up when I walked into the office with cases of fruit snacks and Goldfish crackers! “How nice! Where did all this come from?” someone asked. “Oak Harbor Lutheran Church!” I replied.
We are salt and light as we open our doors to the recovering addicts who gather here for Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and to the grieving who gather here for grief support groups, and to struggling military families who meet here for Navy respite meetings, and for broken families who meet here for CADA parenting classes. These walls become the arms of God welcoming people in to begin to receive healing and hope and new life.
We are salt and light as our ministry stretches out into all the world: to orphans and widows in Uganda, to Nick and Shannon as they share the gospel in Peru, to quilts and school kits being sprinkled around the world through our partnership with Lutheran World Relief.
“Let your light so shine before others,” Jesus says, “that they would see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
I understand the impulse to want to hide your faith. I have felt it myself. But Jesus doesn’t give us that option. He sends us out to shine before others! He wants people to see our good works! He wants us to go public with the fact that we are Christians, that we are his followers.
This does not mean barking at people through bullhorns, taunting them with their sins.
Instead, it means being like salt – being scattered and spread and sprinkled all around so that our good works would sustain and preserve life in this world, preventing the rot and decay our world is always teetering towards, bringing a measure of God’s goodness.
It means being like light. We shine the light of truth for all to see. This truth is not candy-coated. The street corner preacher is right about this much. Jesus calls us to be salt, not sugar! We’ll see this next week in Jesus’ own preaching as we continue in this sermon of his. But the gospel should always ultimately be heard as good news. And when we speak the truth, we speak the truth in love. We speak it in such a way that the light of hope can shine in the darkness, so that that light of new life in Christ would shine for all to see!
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “You are the light of the world.”
Jesus states all of this as a present reality, as a done deal. Jesus isn’t just describing what we are to do, he is declaring who we are as his people.
Let’s not hide it – for this is who we are. This is who he has made us to be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church