Nelson Mandela once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 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 all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[I]
This, it seems to me is the perfect way to begin to understand the Sermon on the Mount. I say this because Mandela’s words offer us the security of balance over the fear of chaos. What do I mean? Well, there’s an important balance that can be found throughout Scripture. And although it’s foundational for truly grasping the message of the Bible, I’m afraid that far too many of us have missed this balance across the years. The balance I’m talking about here is the balance between grace and demand.
You see, in the Bible, God’s grace, God’s gift of life and love and mercy, always precede any demands. This is true from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Apostles’ teachings. Grace always precedes demand. The point here is that we who have experienced God’s amazing grace in the gifts of love and new life and community are to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.[ii]
Now, this balance is crucial for our understanding of Scripture and our understanding of live in general, because when we downplay one side or the other, it skews our vision. When we overlook the fact that all the demands of the Bible are grounded in the grace, we tend to turn those demands into rigid rules that are often applied in a strict or exclusionary way. I mean, we can all think of various communities in our world who enforce a ruthless set of demands and expel those who don’t live up to them; and often, unfortunately, in the name of religion. But I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God who has lovingly called the human family into relationship throughout the centuries.
However, the opposite is also true. It’s far too easy for us to focus only on grace and ignore the very real demands of living a life of faith. And when we make this mistake, we miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace in the first place. The point is to shape us into the people we we’re meant to be from the beginning. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “…when we ignore the demand for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands, we turn all that God has done for us into ‘cheap grace.’”[iii] In other words, grace is something that needs to be lived-out through our participation in acts of justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another. Does that make sense? The invitation to love our neighbor is equal and inseparable from the graciously-restored beauty of loving God with, as Jesus tells us, “all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.”
Now, we see this balance of grace and demand beautifully reflected when we look at the imagery of our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus says that we are the “Salt of the Earth” and in the same breath, he also says that we are the “Light of the World.” Remember now, this invitation to be salt and light comes at the beginning of his very first sermon to his followers, as reported by Matthew anyway. So, it makes sense that he would tell them what it would look like to be his disciple. What the demands would be to follow him.
Which begs the question for us: what does discipleship look like? Well, simply put, Jesus is telling us that we are no longer expected to live or work for ourselves alone, but for others.[iv] And that, for me anyway, is the very foundation of morality. When we are able to think of the other, whoever the other may be, if we are able to think of the other before ourselves, that’s the beginning of what it means to live a virtuous life. So, the balance between grace and demand that Jesus invites us to consider today is really at the core of what we should aspire to as a community of faith. And these images of salt and light challenge us to strike this moral balance.
First consider salt. Salt is the doing. It’s the “boots-on-the-ground” work of peace and justice. It’s the finding-it-within-ourselves grit to stand up for those on the margins of society, even when it’s unpopular. Salt is speaking out for those who are oppressed, befriending those who are lonely, bringing hope to those who are hopeless, loving those whom society has deemed unlovable; salt is becoming good news to the “poor in spirit” who Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes. Being salt is being the hands and feet, the heart and voice of God in this world. And Jesus warns us here, doesn’t he? What good is salt, he says, if it loses its saltiness? What good is it to say we’re followers of Jesus, that we’re people who stand for social justice and inclusion and equality, if we don’t actually practice what we preach? If we’re going to be salt my friends, we have to be “salty.”
Now, being light isn’t completely disconnected from being salty. When Jesus says that we’re “the light of the world” he’s inviting us to be shinning examples of discipleship for all the world to see. My friends, when we overcome that “fear of being powerful” that Nelson Mandela so beautifully articulated in the quote that I begin this message with, it’s then that we can display who we are as God’s people on that metaphorical lampstand. And remember that Mandela said, “it’s a power that’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. [When] we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
So, if salt is the acts of compassion and justice that come from the power of God within us, then light is the display those powerful actions for all to witness. And these “witnessed actions” find their grounding in God’s invitation, God’s call, God’s demand, to practice kindness, to promote peace, and to participate in bringing the justice of God into this realm. But remember, grace always precedes demand. So, it’s though the grace of God and because of the power of God that resides within all of us, that we are invited to act.
One final thought this morning. I know that being salt and becoming light isn’t always comfortable or easy. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said it this way. “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”[v]
As we journey together, my siblings in Christ, the path won’t always be sunny. Sometimes there will be naysayers along the way. People who have let their fear of the other, fear of the unknown, or just plain self-righteousness cloud the mission of justice and ministry of extravagant inclusion to which Christ has called us. Don’t let that stop you! When someone’s throwing shade, let your inner God-light shine through. When someone’s degrading or cutting down people from other races or ideologies or from other nations or religions, no matter how self-important that person thinks they are, let your saltiness overcome their fear, their hurtful words, with the wonderful flavoring and preserving power of God’s justice.
One final, final, thought. Please remember that we do all of this because the Reign of God, realized in the person and life of Jesus the Christ, is walking this path with us. God is present through the Spirit in the world and deep within our very being, right now and forever from now. And it’s because of this presence that we can continue to be salty; it’s because of this presence, that we can shine, that we can reflect the Light of God, to all the world.
May it be so for you and for me, Amen & Amen.
[i] Nelson Mandela quoting Marianne Williamson.
[iii]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4. Pg. 43.
[iv] Common English Study Bible. (Lowe Publishing: 2013) Gen. Ed. Joel Green – Commentary on Matthew 13 & 14. pg. 13NT.