Susan Pendleton Jones: Salt and Light

Several years ago as I was putting our youngest son to bed, after we had turned off the lights and said prayers, I bent down over his bed to kiss him goodnight. As I did, he reached up and pulled my face toward his. Seven kisses he gave me on my forehead - four down and three across. And as he let me go, he looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, you are blessed.” “Ben, did you realize you kissed me in the shape of a cross?” I asked him. “Yup,” he answered. “I planned it that way.” Wiping a tear from my eye I said back to him, “Thank you, Ben. You are blessed, too.” Over the years Ben had seen the sign of the cross made on other people’s foreheads, as well as his own, with ashes during Lent and with water during services of baptismal renewal, but never before had he seen the sign of the cross made on the forehead in kisses. From this little boy, often so full of mischief, I received an unexpected sign of grace from God - kisses in the form of a cross.

Kisses and a cross - blessing and sacrifice.

The gospel writers regularly link these two themes together - and Jesus does so as well in his first teaching in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes. A few years ago our family stood at the site where tradition says Jesus preached this “Sermon.” When you stand on the top of the hill, the valley below forms a large, natural amphitheater that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. It is pristine, pastoral, serene. It feels like sacred space - totally different from the tourist sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, places where they tell you that Jesus was born or was crucified in that exact location. There, by the Sea of Galilee, there is a sense of peace. You can begin to get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was describing in these words - and it’s still there, as if lingering in the air, waiting for other expectant ears centuries later - others who still want to hear how to live lives that God would call “blessed.”

But Jesus surprises us with his description. It’s not the rich who are offered the kingdom of heaven; it’s not those who are filled, satisfied, and accomplished; it’s not those who are proud and strong who are described as blessed. Through the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges the wisdom teachings of old. His listeners had been taught that you were blessed if you were wealthy and healthy, if you had lots of land and children and happiness. But in the Kingdom Jesus is inaugurating, those who are blessed are quite the opposite: they are poor in spirit, they are the ones who mourn, they hunger and thirst. All those things which we are taught to value so highly - achievement, strength, power, plenty - that is not what Jesus blesses here. He promises hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, satisfaction for the hungry and thirsty. He blesses those who are empty, who stand with hands open and outstretched, wanting to be filled with God’s abundant love and mercy, ready to receive. With these words, Jesus offers a radically new vision of what it means to be blessed.

The Beatitudes are about what we cannot achieve, what we cannot accomplish on our own, what we can only receive as the most startling of gifts. The -ed at the end of the word blessed is a hint: there is something passive about being blessed - about receiving something we cannot achieve.

And yet, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end with the Beatitudes: Jesus keeps preaching. Just after he finishes describing this new vision of what it means to be blessed, he immediately turns to what it means to “be a blessing.” If you are blessed, how then do you use that gift of being blessed to become a blessing to others? He shifts from the passive concept of “being blessed” to active images of how to “be a blessing.”

The word “blessing” has its root in the word bene like the words “beneficial,” “benefactor,” or “benediction” - each of these has the idea of “good” or “well” at its root. So, one way to be a blessing is to focus on the “good” - to “call forth” or “draw out” the good in others. When we bless other people, we are calling forth the good that already exists in them - oftentimes without them even knowing it. We see good in them that they might not even see in themselves! When we bless others, we enable them to be their best selves - we draw out the good in them that already exists but might be hidden.

There is a beautiful image of this kind of blessing found in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, which tells the story of a minister nearing the end of his life who is writing his memoirs to leave for his 7-year-old son to read as he grows up. It’s a story of adventure and pain, of grace and sacrifice. He tells the boy about his best friend’s son, his namesake who, it turns out, has let the family down again and again. Though disappointed at every turn by this young man, the elderly minister seeks him out before the younger man leaves his dying father and his hometown for a final time. Before he boards the bus to leave, the elderly minister asks his namesake if he can offer him a blessing, right there at the bus stop. The young man bows his head, and the older man lays his hands on his head, offers a prayer, and then speaks these words: “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he writes: “I would have gone again through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”

After Jesus speaks his words of blessing to the crowd, he immediately introduces two new images - Salt and Light - and in effect he says, “This is how you become a blessing.” This is how you draw out the good in those around you. You become Salt and Light. They each exist to draw out the good in things around them - they don’t exist solely for themselves.

We know that salt actually tastes pretty nasty by itself - we would never sit down and eat a bowl of salt. Salt only works in relation to other things. It draws out the true flavors of the food it touches. In other words, salt’s purpose is to bless other things.

Salt relates to the past - as preserver of various kinds of meats and sometimes even vegetables. It preserves what we want to keep - somewhat like tradition and history do. Salt acts as a preservative to allow us to hold on to the good of the past. Salt also relates to the future - when a pathway is blocked by ice or snow - we put down salt to open up a way to move forward. Think about it. When you are a blessing, you help others move into a future they might otherwise not have imagined. But most of all salt relates to the present - drawing out the best flavors in the food on which it is sprinkled; we call it a flavor enhancer.

And it’s the same with Light. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Thank you, sun, for rising this morning!” No, you wake up, you look around you, and you appreciate the beauty of all that the sun illumines with its rays. The sun blesses God’s good creation by warming it and illuminating it. Its rays illumine the beauty of God’s world which cannot be seen in total darkness. In this way Light also helps make a path into the future more visible for those who are searching. So we, who are disciples of Jesus, are called to be Salt and Light in the world - to draw out the best in everything around us in a world that too often has lost its flavor and is sometimes overwhelmed by darkness. Being blessed is a gift from God - being a blessing to others is our most appropriate response to this gift. And we do that by being Salt in a world of decay and Light in a world of darkness.

And yet, some decay and darkness still remain. There continues to be sin and brokenness - places in our world and in our own lives where we are invited to confess our complicity and where God continues to meet us to offer healing, forgiveness, and hope.

Toward the close of her hauntingly beautiful novel Beloved, Toni Morrison tells of a conversation between two former slaves, Sixo and Sethe. Sixo had met a woman a few years back, he called her the “30-mile woman” because he had to walk 30 miles to see her and spend time with her. He tells Sethe about what this woman had meant in his life - how she had met him in all his brokenness and, over time, had mended his life. “She take the pieces that I am,” he says, “and she give ’em back to me, in all the right order. It’s good, you know, to have a friend of your mind.”

God befriends us like that. You’ve probably noticed that whenever Jesus eats with his disciples, he takes the bread, he blesses it, he breaks it, and gives it to them - a four-fold pattern that is repeated over and over and over - take, bless, break, give. In that pattern of Eucharistic hospitality, the brokenness - the sacrifice - always comes under the blessing: a reminder that whatever broken places there are in our lives, they always belong under the blessing of God’s forgiveness and all-sufficient grace.

Similarly, God takes the pieces - all the broken places of our lives - gathers them up, puts them under his blessing, and then offers them back to us redeemed and whole, in all the right order, so that we may live in the world as the Body of Christ, redeemed - and blessed - by his love.

Blessing and sacrifice: the two are inextricably connected. As people of faith, we are enabled to live as a blessing only when we take on the yoke of dependence on Jesus and follow his example of self-giving, sacrificial love. When we are emptied, we are able to receive; when we are hungry, we are able to be filled; when we are merciful, we find ourselves receiving mercy. We all yearn for God’s grand story of redemption to be our story, to know in the depths of our being that we are forgiven and deeply loved. And in response to this blessing of God’s love and grace in our midst, we become Salt and Light for the world.

Who are those in your community, in your church, who live as Salt and Light, calling forth the good in others around them? Where do you see and experience signs of the Kingdom here on earth as in heaven? Where are the stories of hope in your midst? Of forgiveness being offered in spite of old grudges and resentments? Of those who may see the painful truth of reality but who also have eyes to catch a glimpse of something deeper and better, where the brokenness is always found under God’s blessing?

When my son Ben kissed me on the forehead that night years ago, I received an unexpected sign of grace from God - and a challenging reminder of the cruciform shape of a life truly blessed… kisses in the form of a cross.

Would you pray with me?

Most gracious and loving God, equip us to be Salt in a world of decay and Light in a world of darkness. Empower us to call forth the good in all those whom we encounter in our daily living, and inspire us to be a blessing each day in the communities where we live and serve. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.