How are you? I am blessed.
Who are you? I am blessed.
For those who were here last week, you will know the answer I’m fishing for there. In the first section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus named us. All of us. He told us that we are blessed. Whether we are grieving or poor or persecuted, peacemakers and reviled alike, you are blessed. Right where you are, as broken, hurting, and needy as you are. God has named and claimed you as God’s own child. Blessed you.
Who are you? You are blessed. Names matter. When our son Holden was born, it took us days to name him. With our daughter Grace, it was easy. We somehow knew her name almost as soon as we knew to expect her. She once introduced herself to a friend of ours by saying, “I’m Grace Elisabeth. I’ve always been Grace Elisabeth and I’ll always be Grace Elisabeth.” But with Holden it was harder. We had a list of names, and we tried them all on him over the course of several days. We tried switching their order,putting a middle name first, but the names we tried just weren’t sticking. They didn’t suit him, somehow. And so, when we left the hospital with our two-day old baby, his official name was still Baby Boy Appell. I think he was about 4 days old before we settled on Holden Alexander. And it suits him. I don’t know if he grew into the name, or the name grew into him, but I suspect it’s a bit of both. In any case, I can’t imagine him with any other name.
Names matter. What you call someone matters. There are a lot of different names that people get throughout their lives, some fleeting, some that stick. And they matter. All of them. If you don’t think it’s true, ask anyone who has been bullied, or verbally abused. Even little things make a difference. Studies suggest that for every negative message an elementary-aged kid hears about himself, he needs to hear ten positive ones to restore his sense of self to where it was before. Imagine how that number increases for teenagers! And it’s probably not so different for adults, either. Because names matter. What people say about us, tells us what they expect of us. What others expect of us in turn affects our expectations for ourselves.
So what is expected of you? What do you expect of yourself? Most of us are our own worst critic. And there are plenty of messages in the culture that reinforce those internal voices. If you watch TV for more than a few minutes, you will realize that what you should want to be and what you are, well, those are very different things. Prettier, richer, more powerful, happier, more fun, less smelly, thinner, healthier. All these expectations float around you, telling you that what you are, is not good enough. It’s hard not to internalize that. It’s hard not to take that to heart, and then to begin to live as if you are not good enough. But, by those standards, is there ever any “good enough?” Do you think anyone who actually lives and looks like those standards, feels that they’ve gotten it all? Reality TV pretty much answers that question. It’s always an uphill battle.
But whatever the world has called you, Jesus has called you blessed. Whatever the world tells you that you are, Jesus has another name for you. Salt. Light. These are not new names, different names from last week’s. They are an explanation of what it looks like to be named Blessed.
But because we usually read all of Scripture as an instruction manual for how to get on God’s good side, we tend to read this as a passage about everything that we have to do to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Everything we have to do to be blessed.
And we forget that we have already been named, already been claimed. This is not an explanation of what we have to do, it is an explanation of who we already are.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Jesus has named me, and names shape us. Like Holden, we are named for what we are, and for what we are becoming.
You are salt. Not you are like salt, or you could be salt. You are salt. This is a name that God says belongs to you. Like Grace, you are salt, you have always been salt, you always will be salt.
So what does that mean? What are the salt and the light that Jesus is talking about? Firstly, salt and light are both basic necessities for life. Especially in the ancient world, where salt was rare enough to be used as money, and light was not available at the flip of a switch, these were precious things. So precious was salt that the word “salt” was often used as a metaphor for the Torah, the law, which was salt, something necessary for life, for Israel. By the same token the rabbis, teachers and religious authorities were often called the “lights” of Israel. They helped to illuminate the path for the nation. I think these metaphors are especially useful in understanding today’s Gospel reading, and indeed the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking about the law and the prophets, and about justice and righteousness. But he is about to take all of that, and flip it on its head. Because, he tells us, you are salt, you are light. He has come, not to abolish the law, or as the Greek says, to set the law loose. No. He has come to fulfill the law.
Of course, that could mean a lot of things. But let’s take our cue from Jesus himself. When he was asked what the law was, his answer was quite simple: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, whatever else is written, if it doesn’t point to the love of God and the care of neighbor, then it is no longer doing its job. If we misuse the law, misapply it, use it to hurt our neighbor, or if we raise the law and our love of it over and above our love of God, then we have missed the point of the law.
And, as the prophets tell us, we do that all too often. If the law is salt, then we are guilty of rubbing salt in the wounds of our neighbors. If the teaching is light, then throughout history we have used that light to blind as often as we have used it to illuminate. The prophets point it out throughout scripture.
In today’s Isaiah passage, the prophet rebukes the people for fasting and claiming piety, even as their neighbors go hungry. “Is this not the fast 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?” According to Isaiah, God would rather see us loving our neighbor as ourselves, even if that means not following the specific proscriptions of the law, such as fasting on fast days. Jesus brings that to light as well. Throughout the New Testament, from the parable of the Good Samaritan to the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus points out that the people of his day (as the people of all days) have placed the letter of the law above the intention of the law. They are no longer loving the Lord their God, they are no longer loving their neighbor. What they are loving is their own righteousness. They have made an idol of the very law that forbids idols.
When Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, this is what he means. When he tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, this is what he is talking about. Interesting that the word for “righteousness” in Greek is also the word for “justice.” We are called to live the law as it was intended, as a guide for justice, as a guide for being in right relationship, both with God and with one another. And we are equipped to do it. As Jesus says, “you are salt. You are light.” While the law on paper may be your guide, the law is now written on your hearts. You have become the law. Not the law that belittles or shames or instills fear, but the law that fulfills God’s intentions. The law that teaches justice, the law that lives in right relationship, the salt that brings life to others, the light that shines in the darkness. You have been named and claimed as God’s own, as God’s salt for the earth, as God’s light for the world. The waters of baptism have sealed this name in you. Today, we welcome sweet little Arthur to the waters of the baptism, to be named and claimed by Christ. Like each of you, he is named “blessed,” he is claimed as the salt and the light of this world, and he will be eventually be sent out to share his blessing with the world.
Names matter. How we name someone affects what they will become. And what Jesus has named you, what you are and have been and will be, is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You are and have been and will be the law of God and the teachers of the law, the law that brings light and life to our community, to our neighbors, to the hungry and the impoverished, to the poor in spirit and the mourners, to the meek and the persecuted.
Let your light so shine before others that they may see, and glorify your Father in Heaven.