Jesus’ followers are finding that it is not easy to follow him. There are not many people in the early Church. Rome wields power freely and cares more about the empire than faith. These Jesus-followers are an “odd lot of fishermen, homemakers, tax collectors, and eventually, former Pharisees and assorted Greco-Romans” These Christians have no church building. They are un-organized. They have no stated goals or vision statements. Yet this ragtag group of people have followed Jesus of Nazareth for three years. They remember what Jesus has taught them in this brief span of time.
Jesus uses ordinary things in the world to make points about God and God’s love in the world. In Matthew’s gospel, he has just sat on a hill and told a big crowd of people who is is blessed, and who is not. After Jesus concludes what we call the Beatitudes, he turns to his followers and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Thanks, Jesus. We’re going to be reviled and persecuted by people who will spread fake news about us. . .
Jesus then goes deeper as he teaches these people who follow him around Galilee. Who are they—what is their identity as Jesus-followers? If they follow Jesus, exactly what are they supposed to do to change the world? To teach them, Jesus uses ordinary things in the world around him. Here, he uses the ordinary, yet essential, elements of salt and light.
First, salt. In the ancient world, salt is an important preservative, highly prized, and used judiciously because it is expensive. “Salt brightens and sharpens other flavors already present” in food. In other words, salt is subtle, yet distinct. Whatever flavor a particular food has does not change dramatically. It’s just that salt, added at the right amount at the right time, “enlivens and enhances a meal’s other flavors. It brings them out. It makes them themselves, only more so.”
The second element Jesus refers to is light. Natural light, which is part of the world God has created, is something over which we have no control. The sun comes up, and we are blessed with natural light. Yet human beings figured out this thing known as fire. That changed the evolution of our species. Now we could see at night. We could cook. And yes, we could destroy things and people with it.
Jesus says to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” You may not be a huge group of people. You may be a disparate collection of fishermen, homemakers, tax collectors, and converts. Yet even a little bit of light in deep darkness makes a difference. And if the light is up high—like on a hill—then it really is a beacon of hope to people who need hope.
Jesus does not say to his followers, or the gathered crowds, or you and me, “You will be salt. You will be light.” No. He says “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Present tense. Like, right now, this minute, you have something in you that can enhance and enliven. Right now, this minute, you carry light within you.
You would not hide something that is necessary under a bushel basket, would you? Of course not. That would be wasteful. You must realize that you carry the light. Hold it high. Shine it into the world. You may think it’s a little light, but even a little light will pierce deep darkness.
Being salt and light in the first century is different than being salt and light in the twenty-first century. Matthew’s gospel was probably written between 80 and 90 CE. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians—what we heard some of this morning—was written even earlier—probably about 54 CE. So how could people be Jesus’ salt and light to the world in which they lived? Paul, and the writer of Matthew, took up a quill and a papyrus scroll. As one contemporary blogger has noted (with tongue firmly in cheek), “For you young people, a pen is something you pick up. Writing is where you move your wrist across paper.” So being salt and light in that time meant you wrote a letter.
Or you stood in the center of town and debated with philosophers or village leaders. Yet before people stood in town centers, or in synagogues, or in the Jerusalem Temple, or on hillsides, and talked about God’s new beloved community come to earth as it is in heaven—even before this, a group of ragtag people followed Jesus around every day. They asked questions, watched how he behaved, listened to him speak. They had to learn, every day, what it was like to be salt and light.
What about us? We may not have been physically present on that hillside in Galilee, listening to Jesus. However, Jesus was talking to you and me too. We know this, because e someone wrote a gospel we know as Matthew. These words mean something to you and me, just as they did to the first Jesus-followers.
How are you and I salt and light to the world right now, today? Jesus challenges us to know him better. This is how we begin to think about how to be “beneficial, useful, life-giving elements in the world” How do we know Jesus better? We may do daily devotions—either using real books and Bibles, or by using apps on our I-Phones or I-Pads. We begin to pray every day—we talk to God a little, and we listen to God, to see if something pops into our minds that we know we didn’t think up. (This is how I think of God answering my prayer. . .)
What else do we do to be salt and light? Since the 1860’s, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Main Street has been part of this Laurel community. This church was part of the village. Leaders in this parish were leaders in the local community. Whether in the barbershop, or the hardware store, or through the local newspaper, St. Philip’s was known to the local community.
About 150 years after its founding, St. Philip’s began to change how it was salt and light. Laurel grew rapidly. Fort Meade grew. Businesses grew beyond Main Street.New developments and communities popped up in other parts of Laurel. The village grew more diverse; thanks be to God, so did St. Philip’s.
Now, in 2017, where are we? How is St. Philip’s, one Episcopal parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, being salt and light? A few months ago, our bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, came out to talk to a group of leaders in this parish. She shared some research with us, the same research she shared last Saturday at our diocesan convention. Here is what she told us: “15% of our EDOW parishes are moving in a positive, fruitful direction. 15% are experiencing worrisome decline. 70% are in a state of homeostasis. That means that they are just in a maintenance mode, stabilizing themselves by doing what they’ve always done.” Many of our parishes have buildings that are beautiful and historic but which need lots of money to maintain or restore them. The Episcopal Church’s membership is aging. We depend on a few people to make things happen. The 21st century culture either thinks we are out of touch, or irrelevant, or just plain off the deep end.
Yet I wonder if we continue to live in an ethos of a time when the little church on 6th & Main had an impact, when it really meant something to the people who lived in the community.
If you came to St. Philip’s since September 1, 2007, which is when I arrived, perhaps you should know some facts. In 1990, average Sunday attendance was 300, with three worship services every Sunday. In 2000, ten years later, average Sunday attendance was 200, with three worship services. When I arrived in 2007, average Sunday attendance had dropped significantly, to 141, there were only two worship services on Sunday, the full time parish administrator had been cut to half time, the full time Christian Education minister’s job had been completely eliminated, and there was not even a part time associate rector.
What has become obvious to the leaders of this parish is a couple of things. One, we continue to try to do all of the same programs in 2017 as you did in 2000. If you are a thoughtful, logical human being, you know this is impossible. Well, it is possible, but the burn-out factor is high.
Another thing that is obvious is that once again—and now in the face of a largely agnostic culture—we must figure out how to strategically plan to expand our influence, our core leadership, our numbers, our walk with Jesus of Nazareth. How are we to be salt and light to the Laurel community and to the surrounding communities who need God’s love and light?
I believe this parish is standing at the edge of the Promised Land. Moses is dead. A small group of people have gone into the Promised Land as scouts. Some who went to scout things out have returned and said, “Oh, we can’t go in there. It’s too big and scary. We don’t want to get too big because we won’t know everyone. We just need to open our doors and turn on the lights, and people will wander in. They’ll figure out when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel. Eventually, they’ll figure out what book is the Book of Common Prayer and which is the Hymnal, and when we aren’t using either one. By some kind of Harry Potter magic, young parents will figure out where the bathroom is with the changing table, and where the nursery is. And then people will get real courageous and wander around until they find the hot coffee in Wyatt Hall. But really, we don’t want to go over into the Promised Land. It’s too big and scary, and we are comfortable camped out right here. We have everything we need. We need to just take care of the people we already have.”
No. No. No. Joshua walked with Moses for a long time. Joshua has led the people for a while. Joshua loves the people. Joshua knows that they can be more than they are now. They can make the journey into that Promised Land. Joshua knows that no one knows what is ahead. Yet Joshua knows that this parish could get to a place where we have so many children in Godly Play, we have to finish Wyatt Hall in order to accommodate these children. Joshua knows there will be more meeting rooms available then for other parishioners. Joshua knows that we can be people who learn to share the Gospel on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Instagram. Joshua knows that we have a Robert Bunker, who, very soon, will lead a Newcomers Class where people can learn about what it means to be an Episcopalian, and a Christian. What that stained glass Fish Window up there means, what some of the history of this parish is all about and how it has shaped and formed Jesus followers since the 1860s.
Joshua will soon invite key leaders to be part of a Welcome Team—one that not only greets new folks on Sunday, but follows up to be companions on the journey here in this parish—like inviting people to events and groups in the parish. Joshua and others will show up on coffee shops and make space and time for some deep, honest conversations about God, and what it looks like to be salt and light in a time when it looks like bigger principalities and powers are wrestling each other in our world.
It is time for this parish, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, to pick up the salt shaker, to pick up a light, and move together into the Promised Land. As your leader, I am going there, wherever there is.
The question is this: are you willing to go with me?
(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Christine Chakoin, in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 81.
 Matthew Myer Boulton, in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 82.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid, Chakoin, FOTG, 83.
 From Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde’s address to EDOW Convention on Saturday, January 28, 2017.