When the Church Is Salty and Bright

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 5
February 5, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Salty Christians show a powerful love that prevents the church from going bad. Bright-light ones act in ways that are good and right and true. When we put salt and light together, people will be drawn to Jesus Christ.

For most of her adult life, the author Anne Rice was an atheist. She became famous as the author of a number of novels about vampires and stories about witches. In 1998, however, after nearly 40 years of denying God, Rice returned to the Catholic Church of her youth. She produced two novels about Jesus, and wrote an autobiography that described her journey back to Christ, along with her decision to become a Christian.

But then, 12 years later, Rice announced that she had "quit being a Christian." Yes, she was done with the church. She said that she wasn't leaving Christ, and that her faith in him remained central to her life. What she was abandoning was the church, which she had come to see as a "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group."1

Quarrelsome. Hostile. Disputatious. Yes, the Christian church is sometimes like that. We can understand why people would not want to join such a group. The challenge for us is to focus on being "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world." Jesus says that when we act as salt and light, people will see our good works and give glory to our "Father in heaven." The church is attractive - not repulsive - when it is salty and bright.

Salt of the earth

So, what exactly does this mean? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his followers, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" In this passage, Jesus is speaking of salt as more than a flavor-enhancer - he is implying that salt is a preservative. In the ancient world, long before refrigeration, salting was the prime method for preserving food such as meat, fish and olives. Without salt, food would go bad quickly. The same is true for the church, if it does not have salty members. When salt loses its power, Jesus says that it is "no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

Did Anne Rice quit Christianity because it had lost its saltiness? Hard to say, since she died in 2021. But a novelist named Michael Rowe believes that Rice fully intended to continue following Christ, even though she no longer gave herself the title "Christian." He points to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."2 Rowe says that the "title 'Christian,' in short, is meaningless in and of itself, especially without love."3

Christians are salty when they are loving: Not just loving toward family members and friends, but loving toward enemies and willing to pray for those who persecute them;4 loving toward people on the margins of society, as Jesus was toward the tax collectors, sinners, lepers, women and children of his day; loving enough to forgive those who hurt them, not just seven times but "seventy-seven times."5

In the novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden loses his wife and daughter in a terrorist attack, one carried out by Islamic extremists. He spirals down in grief and anger until his bishop sends him to a new community. There, he meets two neighbors named Youssef and Sofia. They are Coptic Christians, immigrants from Egypt, and they invite Harley to dinner.

As they are eating, Harley thanks them and says, "Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other."

"No doubt about it," agrees Youssef. "Back in Egypt, Christians and Muslims are getting together less and less, which has caused the animosity and violence to increase. Did you hear about the attack last December in Cairo?"

"No, I missed that," admits Harley.

"A suicide bomber attacked St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. More than two dozen worshipers were killed, including a 10-year-old girl."

"It was horrible," Sofia says, shaking her head. "The worst attack on Copts in years. The Islamic State claimed responsibility."

"How did the Copts respond?" asks Harley.

"With increased security, of course," says Youssef. "But also with prayer - prayers for the victims, and for their attackers."

Harley is impressed that the Coptic community could respond with prayer for such evil-doers. Thinking back, he realizes that he has not said a single prayer for the terrorists who killed his wife and daughter. And yet, he knows that Jesus commanded his followers to pray for the people who persecuted them.6 Youssef and Sofia, along with the Coptic community, are salty Christians. Without their powerful love, the church goes bad quickly.

Light of the world

Jesus then says, "You are the light of the world." You are a person who bears the light of Christ - a light that glows with humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity and peace. "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket," says Jesus. There, it will go out quickly. Instead, put it on a lamp stand, so that it can give light to your home, your congregation, your community and your world. "In the same way, let your light shine before others," says Jesus, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

Let your light shine before others. That is the command of Jesus to all of us who are trying to follow him. When we allow our light to shine, we are like the bright flashlights that guide campers through a dark forest at night - flashlights that prevent them from tripping over things, hurting themselves, getting lost or becoming frightened. When we live "as children of light," as the apostle Paul encourages the Ephesians to do, then we discover that "the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true."7 Yes, we let our light shine when we behave in these beneficial ways.

The trouble we have gotten into as a church is that we haven't been focusing on living as children of light. We have looked around, seen darkness in the world, and become anti-this and anti-that. But Jesus never says that our job is to curse the darkness - instead, it is to let our light shine. In so many ways, the church has failed in its mission of bringing light into darkness and pointing people toward Jesus, the one who is the light of the world.

Be like Christ

When the missionary E. Stanley Jones met Mahatma Gandhi he asked him, "Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?"

Gandhi replied, "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Why did Gandhi feel this way? It had nothing to do with theology, and everything to do with personal experience. When he was a young man practicing law in South Africa, he became attracted to the Christian faith. He studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and began to explore becoming a Christian.

One day, he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the church, a white South African church elder barred his way. "Where do you think you're going?" the man asked.

Gandhi replied, "I'd like to attend worship here."

The church elder snarled at him, "There's no room for [blacks] in this church. Get out of here or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps."

From that moment on, Gandhi resolved to adopt what was good in Christianity, but never to become a Christian if it meant being part of a church.8

As Christians, our mission is to be like Christ: To bring light into darkness. There are so many people who are attracted to the light of Christ, and who need his illumination if they are going to avoid getting lost, hurting other people, damaging themselves, knocking things over or living in hopelessness and fear. We can help to guide them to the light of Christ, but first our churches have to be places of welcome instead of rejection, love instead of hatred, grace instead of judgment, humility instead of arrogance, gentleness instead of violence, unity instead of disintegration and light instead of darkness.

We are most like Christ when we are part of a salty church, made up of people who are willing to love both friends and enemies. Without this kind of love, the church goes bad quickly. We are also like Christ when we are part of a bright church, one that acts in ways that are good and right and true. A church that shares the light of Christ knows the truth of what was said by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."9

When we are salty and bright, the people around us will see our good works and give glory to God. They will observe that we are acting in ways that are gentle and loving, rather than quarrelsome and hostile. And they may even see the powerful brightness of the light of Christ, reflected in what we say and what we do.


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