Speaking to a crowd of nearly 7,000 in Tupelo, Mississippi Saturday afternoon, Gov. Sarah Palin said, “We cannot retreat, ladies. We have to reload with truth.” She spent time drawing a parallel between the Tea Party movement and the salt and light of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 5.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Salt and light seem like pretty ordinary things don’t they? We use them everyday. But these ordinary things are very powerful change agents. Just a little salt can make a big change in the taste of your food. A little lamp can change a whole room from dark to light. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used these two ordinary change agents to describe you. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. What did He mean?
He uses this two seemingly ordinary items to show us that we have influence; that we make a difference just like salt and light do. However, we doubt that we make a difference. We don’t see ourselves as change-agents. In fact, we see ourselves as “ordinary”. How many of you feel pretty ordinary? I do! And that’s why I think Jesus chose salt and light—two very ordinary things that are very powerful change-agents. You may feel as ordinary as table salt. You may feel as unspectacular as a table lamp. But try living without salt and light for a while and you’ll see what an extraordinary difference these ordinary things make. The Romans had a proverb: “Nothing is more useful than sun and salt (Nil utilius sole et sale).” Very ordinary, but very useful.
In Elmer Bendiner’s book, The Fall of Fortresses, he describes one bombing run over the German city of Kassel:
Our B-17 (“The Tondelayo”) was barraged by flack from Nazi antiaircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a twenty-millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was not quite that simple. On the morning following the raid, Bohn had gone down to ask our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of unbelievable luck. The crew chief explained that not just one shell but eleven had been found in the gas tanks–eleven unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had been parted for us.
Even after thirty-five years, so awesome an event leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn. He was told that the shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused. The armorers told him that Intelligence had picked them up. They could not say why at the time, but Bohn eventually sought out the answer. Apparently when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless. But not all of them were empty. One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was a scrawl in Czech that read: “This is all we can do for you now.”
The Germans forced Czechs to work in their munitions factories; the Czechs were slaves. But they fought back in their own small way. “This is all we can do for you now.” Do you think they felt like they couldn’t much? Do you think they did? Just ask every man who was on that bomber.
Jesus could have said, “You are the nuclear bombs of the world.” Nuclear bombs are big and loud and when they go off, they change everything. Most of us don’t see ourselves that way. “I’m no nuclear bomb—I’m more like a fire-cracker.”
So Jesus didn’t pick those kinds of extraordinary change-agents. He knew that we’d disqualify ourselves. He picked ordinary change-agents—salt and light—things that we use so often that we take them for granted, but you wouldn’t want to live without them. “You are like this ordinary table salt. You are like this ordinary table lamp.” Ordinary things that make an extraordinary difference. Ordinary change-agents.
Salt was one of the most common substances in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and would revolt if they didn’t get their ration. Indeed, our English word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium which literally means “salt-money.” And our expression, “That man is not worth his salt,” is a reminder of the high value that salt had in biblical times.
How do salt and light make a difference? Salt has two primary uses. First, it is a seasoning. This is a good time of year to be reminded of that. Just pick up any cookbook and count how many recipes include salt. Almost everything you will eat on Thanksgiving Day will have some salt in it. Even the cakes and pies will use a pinch of salt. Second, it is a preservative. Salt retards spoilage. It doesn’t prevent the process of decay, but it slows it down and prevents its spread. Meat left to itself will spoil. Cure the meat with salt and it will last a long, long time. Third, salt stings. We speak of pouring salt on an open wound. “We are called to be not the honey of the world but the salt of the earth. Salt stings on an open wound, but it also saves one from gangrene.” (Donald Bloesch in “Theological Notebook”, Volume 1). Fourth, salt gives strength. You can’t live with sodium in your diet. Without it, your body quickly weakens. That’s one reason the Romans gave their soldiers salt. They knew that putting salt on their vegetables would give them needed strength. (The word “salad” is related to the Latin word for salt.) Fifth, salt creates thirst. That’s why they put it on potato chips and pretzels. It creates thirst and causes you to crave something to drink. Salt seasons and preserves because it is different. Its an ordinary change-agent that makes things extraordinary.
I think that is the point Governor Palin was making in implying that the Tea Party movement can be salt and light in America. We can, although seemingly insignificant, are making a difference in America. We can change the direction America is headed in by being salt and light to each other. In other words, our impact on others should be as significant as the effect salt has on food or light has on darkness. People should see something compelling in us.
You are the salt of the earth. You need to be a seasoning influence on the world around you. You are to spice up life and make people thirsty for a fundamental restoration of America. You need to be a preserving influence on the world around you. You and I are to live in such a way that we arrest the tide of decay in our country. We are to have a purifying and preserving influence on this nation.
By the way, that ‘you’ is plural; You don’t put one grain of salt on anything. You don’t say, “Pass the salt,” and then pick out one grain and drop it on there. It only functions in combination with other grains of salt, and we the people, to influence the direction America is taking, must be collective salt. It’s not enough to be all alone at it, we must be at it together using collective influence. That said, it doesn’t take much salt though to make a difference. Just a little bit in the right place will do the trick. Robert Bellah is a sociologist and is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. These are his words: “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world… . The governing values of a whole culture may be changed when 2% of its people have a new vision.” Think of it. All you need is 2% and you can change an entire culture.
Like salt, light also makes a difference. Light is different than darkness, so when the light goes on, it changes everything. Houses in the ancient world were very dark. There would generally be a small bowl of oil with a floating wick. They didn’t have matches and they didn’t even have cigarette lighters, and the oil could be difficult to re-light. So if they left for awhile, they would often put the bowl under an earthen basket so it could burn safely.
But you know what? The light was not meant to be put under basket; it was meant to be seen. You are also to be the light of the world. What does light do? The dictionary defines light as “a source of illumination.” That provides the key to our definition. To be the light of the world means illuminating the darkness so that others may see reality.
One of the most frightening things in the world is to be alone in the darkness. You lie in bed trying to go to sleep when suddenly you hear a creak, a little odd sound in the darkness. You strain to see through the darkness but all you can see are vague shapes. Darkness distorts reality. Everything looks different. It is only when you turn on the light that you see things as they really are.
Light illuminates. Light makes it possible to see; light makes invisible things visible. You are the light of the world. “Let your light shine before men.” The key is in the little phrase “before men.” You can turn on a light in an empty room. It will dispel the darkness and no one will see it. Light is meant to be seen. Likewise you can want to bring America back to her Constitutional roots, but if you don’t make a stand publicly, no one is going to be helped. If your light is going to shine, it’s going to shine before men. Somebody has to see it before it will do any good.
The push for freedom in East Germany began in several places, mostly in churches. There was a movie called Nikolaikirche, named for the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig in what was then East Germany. The demonstrations in Leipzig began in that church. They started with prayer meetings. Then the people moved into the streets, much the way the Civil Rights demonstrators left the churches after prayer and singing, and went out into the streets.
The police tried to break up those prayer meetings. But the people kept coming. The police would sit in the church to take up the seats, but the people would come anyway and stand around the walls and in the balconies. Finally one night, 70,000 people in Leipzig filled the streets of that city, filled the main square, each one carrying a candle. They expected to be met with force. They expected that the troops would disperse them, but the order never came. In the movie, the security chief, in his headquarters overlooking the square in Leipzig, looks out over this crowd of 70,000 people, each one of them holding a candle, and says, “We planned everything. We anticipated everything. Except for candles.”
G. Campbell Morgan once said “The world needs salt because it is corrupt and it needs light because it is dark.” Much of our world is dark and tasteless. Too many people live a bland existence amongst the shadows. The United States of American and her people need flavor. They need light. They need you and me to make a difference. How are we being salt, flavoring the life of another? Where is our light dispersing darkness?
We have all been given a light to shine – in our neighborhood, in our family, in our classes, in our dorm, where we work. A light to shine in our community, a light to shine in our America. Like salt, we may may seem small and insignificant, even powerless. Yet, you do not need a lot of salt to make a difference to a meal. Its properties far exceed its value and the amount used. The preserving qualities of salt remind us that this country if left to itself, without the benefit of our salt,will rot and deteriorate. Isn’t it amazing how God uses something as humble, useless, and basic as us? God gives noble purposes to ignoble things, doesn’t He? When He made man in the Garden, He didn’t use gold or silver, He didn’t even use iron; He used dirt. When He called David to deliver Israel from the Philistines, he didn’t use a great, flashing sword; he used some little pebbles. When He came into the world, He didn’t enter a family of wealth and nobility; He wasn’t born in a castle, He came to a peasant girl and was born in a stable. God wants to take you and me, sinners saved by grace, and make us salt and light. He literally wants to use us to retard the corruption and bring the truth to light.
We need to stand against our country’s decay, against injustice, against the dehumanizing forces that squeeze the life out of people. It may mean rocking the boat where you work. It may mean taking some criticism for your faith. It may mean taking an unpopular stand on public issues. Remember, salt stings and then it cleanses. It means revealing things as they really are. In her closing remarks of the speech at the Every Woman Conference in Tupelo on October 22, 2011, Governor Palin encouraged everyone to “get up, get out there, and do good” because America is a shining city on a hill and God has shed His grace on America.
We aren’t called to save the world. But we are called to make a difference. We can’t do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That’s what being salt and light is all about. Jesus said to us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”Are we worth our salt? Have we turned our lights on?