Rev. Teri Peterson
13 February 2011, Ordinary 6A (5A text)
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
When we give advice, whether it’s about a relationship or an outfit, choosing a school or interviewing for a job, one of the most common phrases we use is “just be yourself.” We want people to be who they are so they can get the best fit, best express who they are and what they are looking for, and be happy. Of course, sometimes when we say “just be yourself” what we really mean is “just be nice” or “just be the bubbly, happy, enthusiastic you,” which is not always the same as being yourself. And occasionally, “be yourself” really means “be who they want you to be” in order to land the interview, get the job, or score the second date.
If we stop to think about it for a moment, the advice to “be yourself” is not the simple proposition most people seem to think it is. It’s actually pretty difficult to first know yourself well enough, then to be able to express who you really are, in all the various settings you might find yourself in. Knowing ourselves, and being ourselves, is hard work. There’s a reason therapists always have full practices and the self-help shelves take up so much of the bookstores.
There is a story about a rabbi who was wandering through the forest one evening. As he was praying and walking along, he lost his way and found himself in front of a military base, where a guard brought him out of his reverie by shouting, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" The rabbi replied, "How much do they pay you?" "Why do you ask?" the guard wondered. "Because," said the rabbi, "I need someone to ask me those questions every day.”
So we are here to wonder together: who are we? And what are we doing here?
The very first question in one of our Presbyterian teaching tools is: “who are you?” and the answer is “I am a child of God.”
Not, “I am an enthusiastic and passionate person,” not, “I’m a pastor/teacher/computer geek” or “I’m a daughter/parent/friend,” but “I am a child of God.”
Today Jesus reminds us what that means, and he says to us, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” He doesn’t say “you should be” or “one day you will be” or “you are like” or “work harder at becoming” the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says, “you ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world.”
I wonder how many of us think first of these kinds of descriptions when we think about who we are. We are children of God, made in the image of God, salt of the earth and light of the world.
We are things necessary for life—salt and light. Nothing can live or grow without them.
We are symbols of covenant—in the ancient world salt was exchanged to seal the deal, to create an unbreakable promise.
We are the ingredients that bring out the flavor and character of things around us, the way salt brings out the flavor of veggies or tomatoes or chocolate and caramel; the way light makes it possible to see the details of what’s around us.
And we didn’t become this by ourselves—God created us this way, and called us very good.
So I am here today to tell you that regardless of what other words you might use to describe who you are—whether you look at yourself and think “beautiful” or “plain” or “fat” or “stupid” or “awesome” or “freak” or “witty” or “geek” or “teacher” or “unemployed” or “sad” or “passionate” or “graceful” or “frazzled” any of the other millions of words we use to think about ourselves, good and bad…no matter what words you think when you look in the mirror or hear the question “who are you,” you are a child of God, loved by the creator, and made to be salt and light for the world.
The same is true when we think about the church—whether we start out with words like “welcoming” or “dynamic” or “broken” or “lost” or “dying” or “faithful,” our primary identity is that we are the people of God, salt and light, made to bring zest and show truth and offer flavorful hope to the world, pointing to the glory of God.
So then the question becomes WHY do we so often turn to those other identities first? Why do we so often believe the other descriptors but not the ones God has given us? Why is our saltiness always either too strong or too weak, our light so often hidden under a bushel basket? Why do we so often forget the answers to “who are you?” and “what are you doing here?”
Sometimes I think we forget because those other words are so much more prevalent, so much more accessible, so much more real-feeling. That whole business about needing 10 positive words to counteract one negative word is true for adults as well as children. It’s easy to become who the culture tells us we are, whether that’s beautiful, smart, and talented or whether that’s lazy, at-risk, and dangerous.
Sometimes I think we choose to forget, we choose to hide under the bushel basket, because we are afraid of making a scene. We don’t want to be the one who points out the problem or the one who suggests the unpopular solution. We don’t want to do too much—to blind people with bright light or to over-salt the dish. We want people to like us, we want to be part of the in-crowd, and that means not drawing attention.
And sometimes I think we reject our primary identity because we DO want to draw attention to ourselves, and so often the purpose of salt and light is to enable us to see something else—salt is there not to be tasted on its own, but to bring out the natural flavors of other ingredients; light is there not to be looked at directly but to let other things be seen. Which means that salt and light are not the center of attention, and for some of us that is just too much to handle.
But we don’t get to choose…God has created us to be mirrors of the divine image, to reflect God’s glory into the world, to be children of God, salt and light. God has told us who we are, and what we are doing here. In the words of another of our teaching tools, “the chief purpose of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” There’s a reason that’s the first sentence! So, friends, it’s time to cast off our bushel baskets. It’s time to claim our true identity, to let go of our fear and our need to be liked, to stand on the lampstands of the world and let God’s light shine through us.
I’m reminded of a quote from a book by Marianne Williamson. She says, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."
Friends, we’ve just received the best advice in the world: just be yourself, the person God made you to be.
May it be so.