Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Today, November 2, is All Souls Day. Yesterday was All Saints Day, the day before that was Halloween, and the day before that was trick or treating in the city of Columbus. My relationship with this cluster of days has undergone significant shifts over the years.
During my growing up years, our family didn’t celebrate Halloween – meaning we didn’t dress up or go trick or treating, and we were taken out of school early on the day of the Halloween costume parade. My parents weren’t comfortable with the way Halloween seemed to glorify death and fear. I don’t remember feeling left out or upset that we didn’t get to do what everyone else was doing. This was probably aided by the fact that we lived a few miles out of town so didn’t have to peer longingly out the window at all the action we were missing. We just skipped it, not a big deal.
When Abbie and I had Eve and Lily and lived in a neighborhood in Cincinnati with lots of foot traffic, including for trick or treating, we joined the festivities. Along with the fun they had, and our enjoyment of getting compliments about our cute costumed kids, there was another feature of the experience that stood out to me. What other holiday or event do we have that brings a good portion of a community out of their homes and on their front porches to meet and interact with neighbors? I’m not sure there is one quite like it. As a person whose job description, in part, is to build community and foster intergenerational relationships, I was pleasantly surprised at how this evening enabled neighbors to meet each other, and how adults welcomed children and treated them with kindness. Granted, the interactions were usually brief, and the kindness was mostly embodied in the form of sugar-dense treats we actively try and keep to a minimum the rest of the year. But the irony was not lost on me that a holiday I had skipped out on for religious reasons was able to bring diverse people together in a way that religion values but often struggles to do.
We are now regular trick or treaters, and it’s a good thing because Oakland Park Ave is a seriously happenin’ street for this. And recently I’ve started to pay more attention to those mysterious days that happen after Halloween, All Saints and All Souls Days. Mennonites in general are working at reclaiming some of the connections to the liturgical traditions of the historical church, including this observance. While the Catholic Church separates All Saints Day and All Souls Day to first remember those who have officially attained sainthood, followed by the whole host of faithful departed, all souls, Protestants tend to conflate the two days into one observance with the recognition that in Christ we are all called saints, as is mentioned in the greetings of many of the letters of the New Testament. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1). “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Colossians 1:2). In this season when the trees let go of their leaves, which nurture the soil and sustain life through their death, the church universal pauses to remember those who have died but are alive in God, and who, through their witness, continue to nurture us, the living.
In Matthew 5:13 and 14, Jesus says to his listeners, “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” It’s hard to tell who all Jesus was addressing with these words. Just before this Matthew notes how Jesus had been going throughout the villages of Galilee and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. He cured diseases and sicknesses and Matthew says that his reputation spread and that everywhere he went people “brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” Now great crowds are following him and when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, his disciples came to him, and he began to speak. Whether he went up the mountain to get a break from the crowds, or to have a good spot to address the multitudes, isn’t clear. But we might imagine that as Jesus kept giving this sermon on the mount, the group of listeners kept growing and swelling as the crowds learn where he is and go to hear him.
So it may have come as somewhat of a surprise to these peasants – laborers, fishermen, farmers, disabled – to hear this great teacher and healer who is bringing such good news into their troubled lives look out at them and declare, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
It would feel much more fitting for Jesus to have said what he says in John’s gospel to a different audience, a group of religious leaders and chief priests. On this occasion Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). That makes more sense. That’s why these masses of people keep following Jesus. He has brought light into their darkness, has been a sign that God has not abandoned them, but is with them.
But that’s not what Jesus tells them. To this expanding crowd of anonymous nobodies, hungry for salvation, Jesus declares, without a hint of sarcasm, “You are the light of the world.”
This is somewhat reminiscent of an old Simpsons episode in which Bart approaches an interactive robot of Smokey the Bear. Smokey the Bear Robot asks, “Who can prevent forest fires?” Bart looks at the two buttons he is supposed to choose from: One says “you” and the other says “me.” He presses “you.” Smokey the Bear Robot says, “You pressed ‘you’ referring to me. The correct answer was you.”
Who is the salt of the earth and the light of the world? The correct answer is you!
This could feel a bit heavy, a lot of responsibility we didn’t necessarily ask for.
One consolation in these words from Jesus is that, in both cases the “you” is plural. This is not a task Jesus is assigning any one individual, or even to lots of separate individuals, but is offering it as an identity for an entire body of people. If Jesus were from the southern United States, he would have said, “ya’ll are the salt of the earth.”
It’s also significant that this is not a status to be obtained through striving, but is one conferred by Jesus. Salt, to be salt, need only be itself. It is by nature an agent which brings out the rich flavors of whatever it is a part of. One way we might think of salt losing its saltiness, as Jesus cautions, is not through some unforeseen chemical process that changes its molecular structure, but by isolating itself from the collective ‘you all’ and trying to do its work independently. It doesn’t take much salt to have an effect, but it does take more than one.
Light will be light. But it can be hidden and covered over. The purpose of the light shining is not for its own sake, but to enable others to see, and better know the Source of that light. “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father/Mother in heaven.”
In this All Saints and Souls observance, we remember that the “you all” of God contains not only the living but also the dead. We remember the delightful flavor of those dear to us who have died, and the light of those we never met in person but whose lives continue to be a light to guide our way. We have no need to make these lives appear to have been perfect or saintly in all categories. What is remarkable about these lives isn’t that they were always clear and focused beacons of light, but that, despite their imperfections and brokenness, that the light of God shone through them anyway. And that they in their utter uniqueness as a creation of God, added a Divine flavor to the world that only they could give. And we miss them.
Jesus sees the light of God emanating out of these people gathered around him who most likely don’t see it themselves. For some reason it’s easier to see the light that others give. And after someone has died, and that space that they occupied is open, we are especially aware of the gift they were.
I want to close with a final thought that comes out of the other part of the text that was read from Matthew. After speaking of salt and light, Jesus talks about how he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. As Matthew keeps reminding us through his gospel, Jesus’ life is one of fulfillment. Thus fulfills what was written by the prophet. Matthew says this many times.
The Law and Prophets are not always lovely in appearance, but they did carry the hopes of the community of Israel, and came before Jesus. I’m intrigued by this idea of us contributing to the fulfillment of what comes before us. To be human is to carry a set of hopes, and our ancestors, and our dear ones close to us, carried their own hopes. And no one lives long enough to fulfill all those hopes. And so it is the task of the living to continue to fulfill what was not completed by previous generations. Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill. And our task is not to abolish the memory or dreams of those who have died, even if they were not all lovely, but to be a part of their fulfillment. We will undoubtedly not complete this task, but this is our life work. This is what the Spirit is doing through us. So as we consider the saints and souls we honor today, I invite you to consider one way that you are a fulfillment of their life, even if this looks very different than how they would have imagined it themselves.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are here not to abolish, but to fulfill the hopes of the saints and sinners who are no longer with us in the body. “So that they may see your good works and give glory to the Source of all Being.”