Matthew 5:13-20

In the series “Upside Down: A Different Way of Living”

A Chinese Christian told a missionary once, “I have learned to quote the entire Sermon on the Mount by memory.” And then he did it perfectly.

The missionary said, “That’s wonderful. How did you do it?” 

The Christian told him, “I spent the last year trying to live it.”

We continue our series today that is based on part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s called “Upside Down: A Different Way to Live,” because Jesus offers a way of life that seems opposite or upside down, compared to the lessons the world shows us.

Jesus came into a world that was very broken.  He began telling and showing people that God and the kingdom of heaven are real.

His message to his disciples and to the crowd, as we heard last week, was that the blessings of living in God’s kingdom are available to anyone who wants to follow, and those blessings do not depend on our current circumstances.

That’s important, because despite all the medical, scientific and technological improvements over the 2,000 since Jesus, the world we live in is still broken. Hunger, disease, conflict, injustice, hatred, greed, and tragedy still exist, as we know from the news and from our own experience.

Sometimes the brokenness of the world seems overwhelming. Compared to its enormity, we feel insignificant. We tell ourselves that it’s up to other people with more power, influence, position, or money to fix the broken world.

When Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, he wasn’t speaking to influential people.  He spoke to common people living ordinary lives in a region under military occupation by a foreign power. And yet Jesus said to them, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

His words are directed to us as well, even though the problems of the world, this nation, or this community seem too big.  He says to us, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.”

When we live in the kingdom of heaven, we are like salt of the earth – something tasty in a bland word, something that changes the environment we are in.

When we live in relationship with God through Christ, we are like light in the world – different than the darkness that surrounds us, revealing what is hidden in the darkness.

We take salt for granted today, but in Jesus’ day, salt was often traded ounce-for-ounce with gold. Soldiers were paid in salt, and from that, we get our word “salary.”  Salt was used to preserve meat at a time when people didn’t have refrigeration, as well as flavoring for food. 

Salt is interesting.  If I have a glass of water and put just a little salt in, it appears that the salt is gone, overwhelmed by the water.  But is that the case?  No, not at all.  If I taste the water, I realize it now tastes different – it is salty.

Or think about how we use salt in winter.  Salt on an icy sidewalk or road impedes the ability of water to form ice crystals, keeping ice from forming, making the slippery surface safer.[1]

Salt makes an impact because it is salt.  People whose lives have been changed because of Jesus Christ also have an impact.  When we have welcomed Jesus into our hearts and lives, like salt, we can’t help but affect the world around us.  And even as a little bit of salt flavors whatever it touches, so a little bit of faith makes a big impact.

However, Jesus says, “If salt loses its saltiness, what is it good for?”  I have trouble shaking these words of Jesus.  We have met Jesus, the one who caused the crowds of people to follow him, and when he spoke to them, ate with them, touched them, their lives were turned upside down. They were never the same, and they didn’t want to be the same.

How does salt lose its saltiness?

In Jesus’ day in Palestine, salt was harvested from the area of the Dead Sea, and that salt was not pure – it was mixed with all kinds of other substances which could and did go bad. It was no longer useful and could only be thrown away.

If we who believe in Jesus stop letting him change our attitudes, behaviors and actions, if our lives no longer reflect Christ’s ways, then we become just like those who don’t know Jesus.  We are no different from the bland world around us.  We become “unsalty salt,” and we are no longer useful in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world.”  When we find ourselves in darkness, we light a candle or turn on a flashlight to illuminate the darkness.  Then we can see what was hidden in the dark.  Light reveals what was present in the darkness. 

Light also attracts attention.  In a dark place, all eyes will focus on one light that shines. Before the days of GPS, sailors determined their direction by the stars that shone from light-years away.  The gleam of a lighthouse gave them direction and attracted attention, often revealing hidden obstacles.

Living as light of the world, disciples of Jesus Christ reveal the presence of God that seems lost in the darkness.  They give guidance and provide an example as their lives reflect God’s love and purposes in the world.

However, Jesus says, light that is hidden isn’t helpful.  If I am in a dark room and turn on this flashlight but cover its lens, then the light has no impact.  I’m still in the dark.

Like salt can’t help but be salty, so light can’t help but shine.

Here’s the thing:  Salt that stays in the shaker doesn’t make an impact.  A shining light that is hidden doesn’t illuminate anything. 

Followers of Jesus who don’t let him reshape their lives or who try to keep him all to themselves make no impact in the world.  They make no difference; they are irrelevant.

But salt that gets out of the shaker flavors whatever it touches.  Light that is not covered pushes back the darkness.

What keeps us from showing Jesus to others? How might we become unsalty or hidden light?

One possibility is that we are tired. I’m not sure we were made by God to go as fast as we try to go in this culture or to process so much information and opinion that constantly inundates us. I think we all want to say the right thing to our spouse or significant other, to notice the person at work or church who is hurting, to be Jesus to those around us, but we are too tired.

What do tired people need?  Rest.  Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I’ll give you rest” (Matt 11:28).  If we are tired, the upside down is rest. Rest will help us to be salty salt and shining light.

Another possibility is that we are hurting.  Our pain, our wounds – especially those that are still smarting – can lead us to react out of hurt rather than rethink what we say. And if we’ve lived with our pain – whether it’s physical, emotional, relational or spiritual – our thinking is clouded and our behavior becomes reactionary, and so we react to the pain rather than to the fact that God has come into our lives.  After his Sermon on the Mount, the first place Jesus went was Capernaum, and here is the conversation that happened.

“A centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Shall I come and heal him?’” (Matthew 8:5-7)

Author Henri Nouwen called Jesus the Wounded Healer, meaning that Jesus had wounds and because of those wounds, he healed.[2]  We, too, become people who, even though wounded, can be salt and light because Jesus has touched us. How do we become salty salt and shining light?  We become wounded healers.

A third reason we might become unsalty salt is that we are afraid. Fear keeps us from being salt and light, from being change agents and light in the darkness. Sometimes I am scared when I read the Gospels and see how Jesus lived and listen to the things he said, like sell your possessions and give them to the poor; your family will disown you; you will have to carry the cross.  But then I need to pay attention to the times when Jesus says, as he does in Luke 12:32:  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Don’t worry, and don’t be afraid, he said. How do we become salty salt and shining light?  Trust God, knowing that God has given you the kingdom.

Still Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and give glorify your Father in heaven.”  As we do deeds inspired and directed by God through the Holy Spirit, the light of Christ shines through us and draws other people.  The thing is that because they see us doing the good, they might give us the credit.  So we must be careful not to take the credit for ourselves, but to point them to God through our actions and words.

Flo Wheatley is an example of salt and light.  She had brought her son to Manhattan for chemotherapy treatments.  One bitter winter afternoon, after her son’s treatment, they were trying to get back to the subway when her son got sick.  A homeless man nearby said, “Lady, you need help.”  Before she could stop him, he came over and picked up her suitcase and started walking toward the subway.  She gathered her son and followed.  On the way, she told him where they were headed, and he took them to the station and got on the train with them.

When they arrived, he carried the suitcase to a nearby taxi stand and helped Flo and her son get a cab to their destination.  As she put a $5 bill in his hand to thank him, he said, “Don’t abandon us.”  His face and words haunted Flo for many restless nights.

Over the next two years, she and her husband made many trips from their home in Pennsylvania to New York City.  She began to notice homeless people and recognized familiar faces on each trip.  She didn’t know what she could do, and she began praying.  Then it dawned on her:  she loved to sew.

One evening she went through her fabric scraps and asked her kids for their old clothes.  She designed a sleeping bag large enough for one person and a few possessions.  She got her family involved and that first year, they made eight sleeping bags.  They went into the city and passed them out.  That was the beginning of a ministry they called “My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Project.”

When a neighbor heard about it, she encouraged Flo to talk to other women at the church.  Soon women from local United Methodist, Quaker, Catholic, and Assemblies of God churches were making emergency sleeping bags.  They prayed over each sleeping bag.  Flo, her husband and others continued passing them out. 

Today that idea has spread across this nation and around the world.  Their website (thesleepingbagproject.org) tells their story and how others can get involved.  Flo’s message is simple: “Start here. Start now. Everyone can do something.”[3]

We can spend our lives thinking about how to change ourselves through things like eating right, exercising, saving money, and growing as people. We should seek ways to experience positive change. Even more important, Jesus is saying, “I will change you. You can change the world.”  He invites us, no matter how common, ordinary or unimportant we feel, into life with him. Then he says there’s a result of that commitment to follow him:  “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  Don’t stay in the shaker, and don’t hide the light of Christ shining through you.  Find ways to flavor your world with Christ’s grace and to shine God’s love in your world, and see what God can do.  And remember to give glory to God.  Amen.


[1] Julie Pollock, “Salt Doesn’t Melt Ice – Here’s How it Makes Winter Streets Safer,” “The Conversation,” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/salt-doesnt-melt-ice-heres-how-it-makes-winter-streets-safer/, 02/12/2019. Accessed 01/23/2020.

[2] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Colorado Springs: Image Books, 1979).

[3] Adapted from www.thesleepingbagproject.org and Roger Crawford, How High Can You Bounce? (New York: Bantam Books, 1998), 210-211.

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