What makes a nation great? This is a question that has been floating around the internet this week with a video of a Q&A session in an American university. One student asked a panel why they thought America is the greatest country in the world. Leaving aside the local patriotism, one of the panel answered that it isn’t. He went into an angry monologue about all the things that are wrong with it and it is clearly a critique of some of the darker aspects of recent years and being espoused now by their new president: torture camps, the attacks on liberal thinking, low ranking for life expectancy and infant mortality, and so on. But he went on to say it used to be great, and then he listed the contribution that the nation had made to advances in science, learning, innovation, liberality in thinking, culture and moral reasoning. Well we could join in. The point was to ask what is the real test of a great nation, of a people. And sadly the panelist in the video didn’t go on to inspire his young audience with something along the lines of ‘And it can be great again, go and make it so’. That would have been an inspirational video, rather than just a rant.
That kind of inspiration was what our first reading was aiming to do (Isaiah 58:1-9a). There is a prophetic attack on the state of the nation: rebellious, sinning, self-interested, oppressive employers, quarrelling, violent, blinkered vision and a failure to see what is around them. Instead the religious observance that is sought is one where justice is lived: the oppressed are set free, the hungry are fed, resources are shared for the good of all not just a few, and the homeless are sheltered. Then and only then does light break forth like the dawn and healing spring up like plants growing from seeds, the seeds of righteousness. Rather than just moan about how things are, the role of the prophet is to inspire a different way of being, to call people back to living in harmony with the justice and purpose of God. When we do that we are like a light for all to see, one that makes the world brighter rather than darker.
So into that tradition walks Jesus in our Gospel reading (Matthew 5:13-20). His call is for his followers to make a difference and to be seen to be people who make a difference. Salt is only good on chips because it is salty. It can only preserve meat because it dries out the moisture that the bacteria feed on and breed on. It is only good to make roads safer because it lowers the freezing temperature of water and so melts the ice. That same principle makes it good for drawing out red wine spillages on tablecloths and carpets. It has properties that make it useful for cooking, preserving, making John the Baptist’s straight paths safer in cold weather and cleaning. Actually salt can’t lose its saltiness; it is against its nature to do so, it would cease to be sodium chloride. A chemical change would have to take place. Likewise to be a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we are expected to live as people of hope, justice and faithfulness to the Gospel. If we don’t we cease to be disciples!
There have been attempts to deal with the puzzle of the saltless salt, explaining it as impurities in the rock which when the salt dissolves leave behind something that looks like salt but is actually not salt. That may well be in the imagery, drawn from life-scenes around at the time of Jesus, but the point remains, if salt loses its salt it is no longer salt. Likewise if the people lose their grip on justice, on their commitment and identity drawn from their faith in God, then they cease to be the people of God. This passage after all follows on from the Beatitudes, which are often taken as a recalibrating of the spiritual tone, and is itself followed by further teaching on what it means to live the heart of the Law.
Jesus carries on, this time with a city on a hill – perhaps Jerusalem, with lamps on lampstands, and the bizarre behaviour of lighting a lamp only to hide it so that its light fails to shine. The effect of the ‘bushel basket’ is that of a snuffer used to extinguish the light so that it goes out without smouldering. Anyone who cares for candles in churches knows that snuffing stops the wick from continuing to burn so that you have something to light next time you want it. Blowing them out not only makes a mess with the wax but the candle continues to smoulder and you lose the wick. The completeness of the extinguishing makes the image of a useless light even more powerful. Lights have a purpose and we are to be people who shine light in the world and the world needs it.
There is a lot of violence around. This can make us frightened, but we combat it with love, generosity, compassion and openness. In that warmth the freezing temperature is lowered and the spillage stains drawn out, as with ice and wine. I was in a meeting this week when we talked about recent stabbings in the city, involving gangs. Communities are saying ‘no’, which shines a light of hope into areas where that is needed. There is anxiety among European nationals living here, unclear what Brexit will mean for their residency status. Words of welcome and embracing, calls for protection of status, shine a light in the darkness of worry and instability, and challenge xenophobia. There is no place for hatred of the foreigner. There is a mood of anti-liberality, by which I mean the whole ‘post-truth’ nonsense and refusing to listen to experts, as in people who might actually know something about a subject so that prejudice and muddled thinking can reign unchallenged. There is a need for liberal Christians to be heard and to stand up for the critical thinking that gives faith credibility and intelligibility. It is a vital component in Anglican DNA, part of our saltiness and light.
Each of us in our own small corners can be lights of hope, of grace and of faith. Each of us can be salt by virtue of just being who we are shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and living it. By coming here today you have come to be renewed, refreshed and restored in that grace. That makes us all, collectively, a powerful and inspirational force sent out into the world. The salt of the Gospel is to be in our chemical make-up.
So what makes a nation great is people who live as lights and as salt, as people inspired to make a difference for justice; people of hope and faithful living. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (v16)
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 5th February 2017