Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
A Communion Meditation by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time February 5, 2017
He was laughing through his pain, telling stories of his youth. That day in his hospital room George was every bit of eighty-three-years old and dying after a long and courageous battle with cancer, but in spirit he had traveled back to an earlier, more carefree time in the 1920s. He told stories of his childhood and youth. Apparently quite the practical joker, he told of tying one end of a rope to his older brother’s new automobile and the other end to a nearby maple tree. He erupted into wheezing laughter when he described his brother’s befuddled look when he was unable to move the car.
He told other stories that day, punctuated by laughter that served as a comforting analgesic. Three weeks later the laughter of his life served to comfort those who gathered for his memorial service. People remembered the stories he told, and the creeping smile that would betray his punch lines before their time. But what I remembered most of George was something else he said to me that day in the hospital.
We had talked for a good while, and he was tiring, so I had a prayer with him and was preparing to leave, but he held onto my hand and asked, “Can I be serious for a moment?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Preacher, I’ve lived a pretty good life, and I’m not afraid of dying,” he said. “I’ve outlived all my family and most of my friends anyway. But if I do have regrets, it’s for the times I held back.” After a pause, he said, “There were times in my life when I might have been able to make a difference… and didn’t.”
He told me of his work as a pipefitter in the Charleston shipyard, and of the time when several of his co-workers had harassed and then assaulted a young black worker. “I could have intervened,” he said. “I should have intervened, but I was scared, so I held back. I didn’t say a word. I feel so bad about that.”
He told of a time when his daughter had asked him a question about his faith, and particularly about his unwavering practice of tithing, and he sloughed it off with a little joke rather than treating the question with the care it warranted and giving witness to his faith. “I missed that opportunity because I held back from saying what I really believed; she never asked me another question about my faith. I think I missed a great opportunity there.”
He told of a time at a party when a friend made a crude, anti-Semitic remark about one of George’s friends. “I held back; I even pretended to laugh,” he said, “when the truth was I was offended. But I never said anything, and I’ve never forgiven myself for not speaking up.”
He was still holding my hand. “Preacher, I never hurt anybody intentionally. But I have been guilty of holding back, and I’ve missed my chances to make a difference.” Then he squeezed my hand even more tightly and said, “Don’t hold back. You hear? Holding back ain’t never a good thing.”
I’ve thought of George so many times across the years. “Don’t hold back. You hear?” He has forced me to think about my own silences, my own reticence to get involved, about my own acquiescence. I remembered his words again this week when I read the prophet Isaiah’s account of God telling him, “Shout out, do not hold back!” as he brought a powerful message of God’s demands “to loose the bonds of injustice…and let the oppressed go free” (Is. 58:1, 6). I remembered George’s words again when I read Jesus’ familiar exhortations about salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount, for if ever there were admonitions against restraint, against holding back, Jesus’ words are among the clearest.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “You are the light of the world.” These words follow right on the heels of the Beatitudes, conveying the message that Jesus’ disciples are not only blessed, but are to be a blessing to others. You are salt. You are light. He spoke the words in the indicative, but there is an implied imperative… an imperative contained in the modifying phrases he employs: “of the earth” and “of the world.” You are salt, yes, but for the earth, not for yourselves. You are light, but for the whole world, not a closed fellowship. I remember a conversation once with our own resident New Testament scholar, the late Paul Meyer, who talked about the repeated movement in Matthew’s Gospel from grace to expectation. Every act of grace, received with gratitude, will yield a desire to serve, and more than that, grace always anticipates a response.
To be light and salt in the world is to bear God’s light and to season the world with God’s passion for what is right, through bearing witness and through acts of compassion and justice. We are not expected to call attention to ourselves. After all, too much salt, and the dish is ruined; too much light, and people shield their eyes. Rather, we are asked to be bearers of light and salt for the sake of others, for the sake of the cities where we live and our neighbors in need. I can think of no time when the need for such salt and light has been greater than it is in these days.
I like the way Tom Long places these words of Jesus in their context and sets a challenge before us:
The church that lives according to the vision expressed in the Beatitudes is a colony of the kingdom of heaven placed in the midst of an alien culture. In a bellicose world, they are peacemakers. In a world that turns its head away from unpleasant sights, they mourn for the homeless, for the refugee, for the lost, for the brokenhearted.
But what good is that? The church, for all its vision, is overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked. The ordeal of Matthew’s church is representative of the experience of the church in many times and places – a small group trying with mixed results to live out an alternative life, set down in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands them. The hardest part is not in being Christian for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears to be a losing cause.
In the middle of these concerns, Jesus provides two astounding images of the church. First, the church is “the salt of the earth.” The witness of kingdom people, seemingly drowned out by the noise of the world, works like salt; though it is only a little bit, it flavors the whole, sometimes in ways that cannot be seen. Second, the church is “the light of the world.” One lamp, lifted up on a lampstand, can banish the gloom from a whole house; the flickering lights of a hilltop village can be seen for miles around.
In other words, what Jesus is saying is that what the people of God do in the world really counts. A pot of soup… for hungry people, a missionary physician giving a shot of penicillin, a team of Christians working for improved conditions in a refugee squatters camp, a word of tender comfort spoken in the name of Christ – all these deeds of mercy, and others like them, are the works of a church that flavors the world like salt and illumines the world like a candle held high in a cave.
Deeds of mercy, compassion and kindness are at the heart of the expression of our Christian faith. They are what we do when we are at our best. But mercy without justice is incomplete; kindness without advocacy for the poor and powerless is unfinished. Jesus followed his teachings about salt and light with a word about the law and the prophets: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And what did the law require and the prophets seek? The answer to both is justice, fairness, equity, and a special concern for those who live without status or wealth or claim.
Justice is not a work we can accomplish individually; it is best achieved together. We will not always be in agreement when we try to discern where God is moving toward justice in this world, but it is our calling to try, and of this much I am certain: we will discern God’s path and serve God’s purposes best when we do so in community with one another, open to God’s leading Spirit. In the community we find courage and comfort and strength. Jesus never called his disciples into solitary witness; he called them into a community. Even his words on salt and light echo such a calling, for all through his Sermon on the Mount Jesus employs the plural form of the second-person pronoun. When he says, “You are salt…you are light,” he is speaking corporately. Here in the South we have a simple way to translate accurately: “All y’all are the salt of the earth… all y’all are the light of the world.” These are words for the whole Christian community. The tasks Jesus gives us are ones to which we will respond most faithfully when we do so together. But make no mistake: it is hard work, and not without ambiguity.
Some of you have heard me tell of an experience I had while serving as pastor of a congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. I was at the historical center in Montreat for several days, reading the Session minutes of that congregation back into the nineteenth century. For the most part, it turned out to be not much more than a cure for insomnia, but along the way I found some accounts that brought me to my knees. Over the course of a century, that church had faced several clear tests to its faith, several moments when decisions had to be made…whether to flee a changing neighborhood, for example, or stay and deal faithfully with the changes; whether to help some poor neighbors in a time of need; how to respond, during the struggle for civil rights in this country, if people of different races came to worship among them. At every critical decision-time, the Session of that church had made what anyone would surely say now, with the benefit of hindsight, was the wrong decisions.
The cumulative effect of those discoveries was for me troubling and disheartening. I tried to put myself back into their context, tried to understand the forces and emotions at work in their decisions, and I have to confess that I’m not altogether sure what kind of different leadership I would have been able to provide. I found those minutes profoundly unsettling. The church had had numerous opportunities to be salt, to bear light, but had held back at every turn.
After a time of wrestling with what to do with my discovery, I decided to share what I’d found with the Session of the church, and the resulting conversation was most gratifying. Together we talked about how the church might have been different, more faithful, if other decisions had been made. The principal effect of that discussion was a new spirit of humility it infused into all of us. One of the elders said, “Who knows when we might have to put ourselves on the line like that? Who knows how we’ll respond? Who knows if we’ll even know such a moment is at hand?” And then he said, “I just hope that when the time comes, we’ll listen more to the Holy Spirit than to our own fears and prejudices. Maybe then we’ll make a difference.”
Friends, I would argue that the time has come; the time is now.
Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world. Remember the grace behind those words. Remember also the implicit expectation within them. And take to heart the counsel of my old friend George: “Don’t hold back. You hear? Holding back ain’t never a good thing.”
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation commentary, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, 44.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 51-52.