The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 9, 2020

Would you please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, Our Rock and Our Redeemer. Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Salt. I remember all too well my dad covering every dish he was served with a more-than-healthy dose of salt. Mom would usually make some comment about how he had learned to eat inferior food in the military by using salt…and after using it for so many years, he couldn’t eat without it anymore. I think I tried it once or twice, but soon figured out that I didn’t need much, if any at all, or the plate would be inedible. So, I didn’t use it much. Of course, then I joined the military, and soon learned that salt was a terrific aid for those less-than-4-star-dishes we were sometimes served. So, I began to understand what my dad had been through.

Fast-forward to having children of my own and trying to teach them healthy eating… salt has now earned itself something of a bad reputation. As though it contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease… doctors and spouses tell you to “cut down on your salt”. Not eliminate it entirely, but certainly to cut down on your intake. Look at the ingredients of the things you eat during the course of a day; you’ll find it nearly impossible to completely eliminate salt.

Salt, when used properly, helps to bring out the real flavor in a food. It can really accent the flavor already there and make a dish go from “meh” to “yum”.  It is intended to enhance something else. It’s supposed to be additive, not eaten alone. But salt can be used to enhance the flavor of a wide variety of foods…foods that range from appetizers to desserts, from soft drinks to…ummm…frozen mexican drinks. It is incredibly versatile, and it is used by virtually every society in the world.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they are “the salt of the earth”, what does that mean? Did you notice that he doesn’t really explain that? He really only talks about what is done with salt that isn’t salty anymore.

You don’t have to be a professional theologian to see what Jesus is getting at here. Skip down a little farther in Matthew’s Gospel lesson for the day, and we find that charge that’s given us in baptism, verse 16: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.” When we baptize a new Christian, we hand them a candle lit from the Christ candle, and recite this exact verse. “Let your light so shine before others…” This is the flame of faith that is lit in each of us when we are claimed by God in our baptism. We are called to let that flame burn brightly. “This little light of mine…I’m gonna let it shine…” right?

If you recall last week’s Gospel, it came from the verses immediately before this. “The Beatitudes” we call them: blessed are the meek…blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you… remember those? So now that Jesus has described those people, those who seem like they are on the low end of the social ladder…now Jesus is telling those in his audience that just as they are blessed, they are also called. They are not allowed to sit and enjoy their blessings among themselves. They are called to take their blessings and USE them.

These blessings that people have received from God are given them specifically for the purpose of enhancing the lives of others. Of adding flavor to community. They are to take that humdrum existence of the community around them and add the spice of brotherly love to it. Help those who can’t help themselves, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, give aid to the poor. This is what it means to *be* salt.

If you haven’t been on one of our Sharing Shepherds trips around Christmas, I would encourage you to grab someone who *has* gone and talk to them about the experience. (Who has gone either with me or with Pastor Marty?) I particularly encourage you to talk with one of our kids who have gone. I’ll volunteer mine, but you’re on your own getting them to talk. You just can’t believe how much joy you can bring to a house by spending 20 minutes with them and bringing them some presents. Yes, Virginia, there actually ARE children who appreciate getting socks under the Christmas tree. The smiles you see in those moments can only be described as pure, raw joy. And that kind of joy can only be found in acts of Godly love.

Those sorts of experiences are a perfect example of what it means to be the salt of the earth. Those families had their Christmas seasoned to make it better than they’d had for, I’m sure, years before. And if you want to talk about a light in the darkness? The love of Christ shone brightly in those moments both years now that I’ve done this. It’s just amazing to see.

But this is an all-the-time calling, not just at Christmas. And I’m pleased to inform you that our church *is* answering this call year-round. For instance, I know you’re probably tired of seeing the “needs” list for flood buckets every week…but the need is on-going. Every time we take flood buckets to the warehouse, they always say “Oh THANK YOU, we really needed this!” It doesn’t matter what time of year we take them; it’s always needed.

Our quilters and yarners put their handiwork to good use in a variety of ministries. Creativity has lent itself very well to helping others in both of these crafts. Our Youth have done some good work last year, and we’ll do more in the year ahead. We’re answering God’s call to be salt and light.

But this is a call that each of us has to answer individually. And I need to remind you that sometimes that call changes. How is God calling YOU to be salt this year? Is he calling you to be a part of worship on Sunday morning – an usher, an acolyte, a sound technician? What about altar guild? Or maybe to start coming to one of these new Bible studies we’ve been doing? Or…and this might be a radical thought…maybe God is calling you to start something at this church that hasn’t been done before. Yes, that’s do-able. (If it’s intimidating, just come talk to me and I’ll pretend it’s my idea, and I made you do it.)

Brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you, I think that our church family has a lot to offer our community. I was driving toward church one night a few weeks ago, coming up that back road that comes out at the CVS. The sky was black – it was well-past sunset. There’s a spot where you can clearly see our steeple. But it was so late and so dark that actually, all I could see was the lit cross, because the dark steeple didn’t show against the black night sky. It looked like it was floating in air. That cross glowed brightly high above the Hickory skyline.

There’s a message in that image for us. People SEE the cross on the top of our church building. What does that mean to the St. Stephens community? What does that mean to the city of Hickory? That cross is pulling people this way. That cross is telling people something…so what are they going to find when they get here? Are we a church that welcomes the stranger? Are we a church that feeds the poor? We’re trying! We’ve been helping our neighbors to start that food pantry across the street. They’ve redesigned it (with our help). Now they’re asking us to help them run it. They need volunteers. We can do that. We can help give food to the hungry in this community, whether the sign out front says NALC, ELCA, or even LCMS. Yes, all three churches are working together on this. If passing out food sounds like something you can do, let me know!

The cross on our steeple speaks to people. And it should. The cross of Christ SHOULD speak to people. I hope you hear me say something about it in every sermon, because the cross is why we are who we are. How many of you wear a cross around your neck? I’ve had a cross around my neck for YEARS. It hangs very close to my heart. I can feel it under my shirt. Do you know that little loop that attaches the cross to the chain around my neck? Do you know what the proper term for that is? It’s a chest-hair-ripper-outer. All kidding aside, yes, sometimes I feel a little pain from that cross. Personally, I take that as a reminder of something in my life that needs to be ripped out. And it’s a reminder of how much pain Jesus endured on that cross for me. Not a fun reminder, but definitely effective.

Does the cross atop our steeple send that message? Does that cross tell people that Jesus died for them? That it was the ultimate demonstration of God’s love when Jesus went to that cross willingly? Is it a symbol of hope and peace and Christian love when it shines high above Springs Road? When that light shines brightly in the dark, cold night, do the homeless in St. Stephens see that as a beacon that gives them hope, or just a bright decoration?

Our cross stands high above the other churches on Springs Road (and don’t think that doesn’t bug them a little bit). What message do WE WANT it to send? What do we want people to find when they come to our door to see what’s underneath that cross? Here’s the first thing we should challenge ourselves with: look around. Do you know everyone here? You should. It’s the same faces just about every week. And that’s a good thing. But let me tell you this: that makes it SOOOO easy to pick out a visitor. You know who’s new. Greet them! Let them know you’re glad they’re here. Smile. And yes, let them have the pew you’ve been sitting in since Reagan was president…just this week. And invite them to come back next week and sit beside them.

You don’t have to solve world hunger, or cure cancer, or do something on a global scale to be the salt of the earth. Jesus didn’t command us to a specific outcome. He commanded us to love, even if it’s just a little bit.

In the 1880s a young man who was an earnest Christian found employment in a pawnshop. Although he disliked the work, he did it faithfully “as unto the Lord” until a more desirable opportunity opened for him. To prepare himself for a life of Christian service, he wrote on a scrap of paper the following resolutions:

“I do promise God that I will rise early every morning to have a few minutes–not less than five–in private prayer. I will endeavor to conduct myself as a humble, meek, and zealous follower of Jesus, and by serious witness and warning I will try to lead others to think of the needs of their immortal souls. I hereby vow to read no less than four chapters in God’s Word every day. I will cultivate a spirit of self-denial and will yield myself a prisoner of love to the Redeemer of the world.” That young man was William Booth, who later led thousands to Christ and founded the Salvation Army.

Sometimes even loving your neighbors “just a little bit” can make a big difference down the road.

How are you called to be salt and light? How are we as a church family called to be salt and light? What could our church do to enhance the life of those around us? I ask all of us to pray about this in the weeks ahead. Let’s let our light shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in Heaven.

Would you please pray with me once more: May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.