Jesus said, “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 hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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.
On a hot and steamy August afternoon in 2003
the unthinkable happened.
The lights went out in New York City.
I happened to be walking across Ninth Avenue,
on my way to Rite Aid,
when the traffic lights went out.
You can imagine the immediate effect
that had on the city streets!
As the minutes ticked by,
people streamed outside onto the sidewalks,
gathering to share what little information
there was to be had,
to alarm and reassure one another in turn.
I was in seminary at the time,
and the seminary community gathered on the Close
as the afternoon waned.
We quickly decided to have a community cookout,
sharing the food that would quickly spoil
in our powerless refrigerators.
The children played, the adults conversed;
aside from our unease
in not knowing what was going on,
it didn’t feel too different
from most other summer nights on the Close.
And then the sun went down.
Now I will admit that
I have always had
an uneasy relationship with darkness.
I like nightlights and street lights
and I’ve been known to sleep
with lights on in certain parts of the house.
Darkness fills me with both
a sense of wonder
and a bit of fear.
I thought I had experienced total darkness before,
but let me tell you,
there is nothing like the darkness
of a city without power,
a city known for its bright lights,
a city that reputedly never sleeps.
That hot August night it was DARK.
Of course flashlights came out
and candles – lots and lots of candles –were lit.
We managed to get home;
for me that meant across the street
and up four long flights of steps in a sweltering
and pitch black stairwell,
into an equally dark apartment.
It was disorienting.
It was disquieting.
It was strange.
It was fearful.
As it turns out, our little neighborhood,
Chelsea if you know the city,
was the very last part of Manhattan
to get its power back.
So the next night we were again
gathered on the Close,
sharing the last bits of our still edible food,
in the pitch black.
We knew that many areas of the city
had power restored,
but we couldn’t see it.
And then, there was light!
First only in distant skyscrapers.
But LIGHT nonetheless.
And when about 11 pm
our little corner of the city lit up,
a cheer went up.
We could see.
There was LIGHT!
Thanks be to God!
The power outage inconvenienced us
in more ways than lack of light, of course.
We lost our refrigerators,
our way of preserving food.Elevators didn’t work;
not too much of a hardship if you live on a low floor,
but a big deal if you had to climb 20 flights or more.
Traffic was unregulated,
we couldn’t charge our cell phones,
the subways couldn’t run,
it was wicked hot and we had neither fans nor ac.
But with all that,
the most profound difference came at night
when there was no light.
In today’s gospel, Jesus proclaims to his audience,
“You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.”
YOU are the light of the world.”
In this season of Epiphany,
light has been a predominant theme
in our preaching, in our gospels,
in our prayers, in our singing.
But it’s always been JESUS who is the light,
Jesus, son of God, bringing light into the world.
Now Jesus has turned the tables on us.
YOU are the light of the world;
not me – YOU!
Salt and light
two basic elements,
two things we take for granted,
two things we miss most in their absence.
Think about it…
Salt is one of those things
that we don’t consume by itself;
rather it is something
that enhances the taste of other things.
French fries and popcorn
are not the same without salt, right?
And even in foods where
the taste of salt does not stand out,
we include it because
it makes other seasoning brighter, more distinct.
And likewise, we notice light the most
when it is in short supply,
when the power goes out,
when things are too dim,
when we can’t see clearly,
it’s then that light becomes a precious commodity.
Jesus makes this proclamation
at the very beginning of his ministry,
as he is just beginning to teach his followers
about he meaning of discipleship.
Jesus says to his disciples,
“You ARE the salt…you ARE the light…”
Not you should be,
not you will be,
but you ARE, already,
I imagine that the disciples were as puzzled and unsettled by that thought as we might be.
So let’s cut to the chase.
For the last 50 years at least,
the church has been shrinking.
Yes, for that long.
We didn’t notice it as much at first.
It’s in the last 5 to 10 years or so
that the decline has been sharp enough
that we can no longer miss it.
There are fewer people in our pews.
There are fewer people on our roles.
There are fewer people who claim
their identity as Christians.
And because we are so wedded to numbers
that disturbs us.
In fact, in some ways that makes us
more like the world
that Jesus and his followers lived and move in,
more like the early church
in the first couple of hundred years
after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
From the beginning Jesus’ followers
were an odd mix of ordinary people,
fishermen, tax collectors, housewives, widows,
eventually some former Pharisees,
and even some who were Gentiles.
They lived and moved in a world
dominated by Rome,
whose emperor had the status of a god,
and whose rule was ironclad.
They were small in number.
There was no organized church,
there were no formal structures,
no special buildings,
no membership roles,
but none of that mattered.
What mattered was the actual ministry
that happened as those
who understand the gospel message
tried to live that message out
in their own communities
and in the midst of others
who did not share their faith.
What mattered was the way
that their witness acted
as salt and light in the world around them.
Jesus tells us that
we are already the salt of the earth,
already the light of the world.
So what if we worried less
about the strength of our numbers
and more about our witness to the world,
the ways our ministries might
enhance the lives of those around us,
the ways our witness,
witness by word and example,
might bring light into dark corners
of our community, our country, our world?
Have we, here at Trinity, and in the larger church,
let ourselves be so consumed
with committees and structures
and budgets and buildings and numbers
that we have lost our saltiness?
Do we let our worldly concerns conceal our light?
Perhaps it is time to be less concerned
with success by worldly standards
and more concerned with God’s standards.
Jesus said , ‘… let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Give glory to your Father in heaven.
That is why we are here,
that is why we do what we do, isn’t it?
Now I’m sure that
many of you are thinking,
what is she crazy?
Of course we have to think about numbers
and money and the building.
And that is true.
The point is that those things
cannot dominate what we do.
Maintaining our numbers
and our building
just for the sake of doing so,
or even just because “we’ve always been here”
(well always for the last 200 years)
is missing the mark.
We do those things to give glory to God,
to spread the good news of Christ,
alive and moving in the world
– through us and our ministry.
And if we do that well,
all the rest will fall into place.
We’ll grow – or we won’t.
We’ll maintain our building
or we’ll find another way
to be church in the world
but how we do it won’t be the point.
Being salt and light in the world will be the point.
If we have people in the pews
and a beautiful building
and we fail to preach and live the gospel,
we fail to be the people God created us
and calls us to be;
if we call ourselves Christians
but fail to live as Christ calls us to live,
if we exist only to perpetuate our own future,
then we have indeed lost our saltiness
and we will be trampled.
We have indeed hidden our light
so that it cannot be seen.
We are ALREADY the salt of the earth.
We are ALREADY the light of the world.
How can we share that more fully?
How can we live it more completely?
We have so many blessings here at Trinity.
We have a congregation with a rich past and deep roots
and we work to welcome newcomers into our midst.
We have financial resources to rely on in spare times.
In the coming months our challenge is,
I believe, to broaden our focus,
to learn to look beyond just maintaining ourselves
and to develop a vision
of what we believe God is calling us to,
in Seymour, in Connecticut,
in the world, in the 21st century.
That is the challenge I will be presenting
to our vestry, our congregational leaders.
It is not just the responsibility of the vestry, however, to do this work;
it is a task for all of us.
My prayer for this parish, Trinity Episcopal Church,
is that we may truly be the salt of the earth,
that we may truly shine as the light of the world,
that we may truly become the people
God calls us to be.