What an amazing spectacle it has been to watch events unfold in Egypt. All eyes have been on Tahrir Square as tens of thousands of protesters have flooded in day after day to demand their basic human rights and to insist that the dictator Hosni Mubarak step down. This has become an everyday part of conversations in offices and at home as we have pulled for those courageous freedom fighters determined to throw off decades of oppression. This is one of those rare moments in history, like Tiananmen Square in China and the end of Communism in Europe, when vast numbers of ordinary people have stepped forward to claim their liberty.
In a column in The New York Times this week called “We Are All Egyptians,” Nicholas Kristof gave us snapshots of some of these brave demonstrators. There was the carpenter Mahmood, whose left arm was in a sling, his leg in a cast, and his head bandaged. He had come to the field hospital for treatment for the seventh time in 24 hours, and as soon as he was bandaged again he “tottered” off back to the front lines. “I’ll fight as long as I can,” he said.
There was Amr, who had lost his legs years ago in a train accident, rolling his wheelchair back into the Square and hurling rocks at the pro-Mubarak mobs. “What’s a double-amputee in a wheelchair doing in the thick of a battle of clubs, machetes, and Molotov cocktails?” Kristof asked. “I still have my hands,” he said. “God willing, I will keep fighting.”
There was Maged, a 64-year-old doctor who walks leaning on a cane, who hadn’t been involved until the government’s assault on the peaceful pro-democracy protesters. He got up the next morning, prepared his will and drove to Tahrir Square to treat the injured. “I decided I had to be part of this. If I die, this is for my country.”
And there was Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist, who turns 80 this year. She intended to sleep with the protesters in the Square. “I feel I am born again,” she said.
These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things—putting their lives on the line to claim their freedom as children of God. It is something to see what people of great heart and deep conviction can do.
A few moments ago we listened to a portion of what we could call Jesus’ State of the Union address. It comes from his Sermon on the Mount, a gathering of his teachings that lays out the agenda for his ministry.
He began his sermon in a strange way in the passage we read last week, not by giving instructions and orders to his followers, but by painting a picture of what it means to be a disciple: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek.” No demands, no orders here. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples what to do, but telling them what real life and blessedness looks like. The poor, the empty, the bereft are on to something, he says, because they know what it means to get their strength and hope from God.
In this week’s passage, Jesus wheels around, focuses his eyes directly on his disciples themselves and says, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.” Here he is talking to a ragged band of fishermen, ex-IRS agents, and stragglers he’s pulled in off the streets. He doesn’t give them orders. He doesn’t tell them what to do. He doesn’t tell them to clean up their acts and become salt. He doesn’t tell them to be become focused, effective high functioners so that they can be light. He just says that they are salt and light, right now, right where they are. I imagine that Peter sitting out on that hillside may have leaned over to James and John as they were gazing out into the fields and said, “Hey, you better listen up to this. This is about us.” “You are salt. You are light,” he said.
Jesus starts rallying his troops not by offering a lofty vision or finely honed plans, not by calling for a massive organizing effort. He just says, ‘I’m going to turn the world upside down, and I need you to be the salt and light to help me do that.’
Now I ask you, is this any way to start a revolution? Imagine a researcher over at NIH looking around at a batch of new interns and research fellows with shirt-tails hanging out and distracted looks on their faces and says, “My colleagues and I are going to chart the human genome and turn the whole field of medicine on its head. And you know who’s going to help me? You.” Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook look around to their unshaven, shabby companions and says ‘We’re going to change the way the world thinks and communicates, and you’re part of it.’ Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
I don’t know about you, but most of us never set out to be salt. We imagined some bigger role for our lives. We want to make a difference, leave our mark, make the world a better place. But Jesus says he wants his followers to be like this insignificant substance that nevertheless is essential. Salt is something you add to other things so that they can have the taste they are supposed to have. Without salt, bread won’t rise; without salt, our muscles won’t function. Disciples are supposed to be the salt of the earth. Without them, Jesus is saying, the world will lose its vividness, its zest; it will never become what it could be.
And light isn’t much more of an impressive image. What difference can one light make? But I remember years ago exploring caves in the Tennessee mountains and encountering the deepest darkness I had ever seen. In those caverns where you could see absolutely nothing, a single small flashlight when turned on could illuminate a whole cave and cast light and clarity as far as the eye could see. When things are at their darkest, even a little light can make all the difference.
Light doesn’t draw attention to itself. You don’t stare at a light bulb, but instead the light enables you to see. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Without you living your God-filled life, the world can’t see what it is—how driven, self-absorbed, and divided.
It is surprising, isn’t it, that when Jesus reaches for an image to describe his followers he doesn’t reach for the grand and the powerful—“You are the Lord’s army, and I’m sending you out to claim the world.” He doesn’t say go and make the whole world Christian. He says go and be salt and light, and that can change everything.
Jesus isn’t interested in grand gestures. What matters is that we know who we are and whose we are and live God’s truth right where we are. That’s what we are watching in Tahrir Square–the spectacle of ordinary people claiming who they are as full human beings and God’s children. They are salt and light too, and they are changing the world.
For a century and more mainline Christian churches—Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and others—dominated the religious scene in America. The 20th century was being called “the Christian century,” and those denominations grew and thrived and built grand cathedrals like this. But for 40 years now they have been shrinking, shifting to the margins of society, becoming less confident of their role. The age of the worshipers gets higher as the numbers in the pew get lower. Non-denominational and evangelical churches have grown, but maybe the fastest growth has been in the group that is finding a Sunday morning with the newspaper, or going for a bike ride, or to junior’s soccer game, a fair substitute for church. I doubt the traffic was too hard for you pulling out of your neighborhood to get here this morning.
But while mainline churches are getting smaller these days, many are also getting more focused, creative, and committed, more open to where the Holy Spirit might lead them. The worship is becoming more moving, they are learning to hand on the faith better to their children and are teaching people to pray more. They are serving in countless ways. Back in the old days when everyone went to church it was often hard to find much that was challenging or different there. Now there’s a sense of freshness, experimentation, and discovery in the air. They are becoming salt and light.
Do you see then why Jesus says it is so urgent for the salt to keep its saltiness? If salt loses its taste, its edge, he says, it’s no good for anything. And do you see why Jesus says we shouldn’t hide our lamp under a bushel? Disciples and churches are supposed to look strange and different—more compassionate, more generous, more welcoming, more brave. As the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once put it, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
I can’t help thinking as I watch the events in Tahrir Square that there are moments and movements that change history. We’re watching a democratic movement grounded in brave people ready to be salt and light in their tradition.
And we Christians are part of a movement too, a movement that began 2,000 years ago to bring God’s hope and healing and justice for our world. We come here on Sundays to get caught up in that grand, cosmic program. It’s the calling we heard in our Old Testament lesson today – to loose the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house. When you do those things, Isaiah says, “Your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
You see you are the way God intends to bring this lost world around. That is happening as you are salt and light in the little things, such as how you deal with other people, how you handle your money, how you raise your children, how you give your time and energy to this great cause. The world needs your oddness. And, we Christians are the first to rush to the sites of earthquakes and hurricanes, the first to serve the homeless, builders of the community centers that welcome the youngest and oldest, the ones who keep saying that forgiveness and non-violence are the world’s only hope. In the name of Jesus Christ and for the sake of his kingdom we welcome, embrace, feed, shelter, and love.
I don’t know what you expected when you came here today. Probably, as usual, a few good hymns, a fine anthem or two, some lessons and prayers, and maybe a laundry list of things you really ought to be doing. Well today you’re getting a surprise. As you make your way forward to receive the bread and wine today, this man Jesus is going to look you in the eye and say, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
You are God’s way of healing this world. You have a role to play, every bit as much as those Egyptian heroes in Tahrir Square.
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.