Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sermon: "Clear the Fog", Psalm 112:1-9/Matthew 5:13-20 (February 9, 2020)


Today’s gospel reading, from the so-called “Sermon on the Mount”, is an important one. In it, Jesus offers a job description to all those who would call themselves his followers. As usual, his sermon is peppered with metaphors pulled from everyday life in the first century C.E., and given that he explicitly interprets those metaphors in verse 16, we can probably assume that Jesus expects all of his listeners to get what he’s trying to say.

But as is so often the case, our 21st century experiences are different than the earliest disciples’ would have been, so we don’t necessarily comprehend Jesus’ metaphors in quite the same way as they would have. For example, the idea of “salt losing its saltiness” is a strange one to us, since pure sodium chloride doesn’t become less salty over time—a saltshaker can sit on a table or in a pantry for years without any impact on the taste of its contents. But in antiquity, when salt was rarely, if ever, purified before use, it could lose its flavor relatively easily if not used.[1]

Likewise, while the concepts of light and darkness have remained consistent throughout the centuries, our perception of light’s significance has changed.[2] We take light for granted in a way that Jesus’ contemporaries never would have. We seek out opportunities to “unplug” and get away from all of the light-producing technology in our lives. Our society even has a concept called “light pollution”, which is when there’s so much light that it inhibits our ability to observe the night sky. Light is so readily accessible to us that even though we don’t have any kids, my husband STILL has to do that “dad” thing of walking around the house turning off lights while passive-aggressively wondering out loud, “Why are there so many dang lights on in this house?!” Light is abundantly and readily available to us today.

So does that mean that this scripture is useless to us? Of course not! All it means is that we need to give careful consideration to the context in which Jesus originally spoke these words and the context in which we’re hearing them now. Then, we use all of this information together to develop an informed understanding of what God’s Word (with a capital “W”) is telling us (rather than what God’s literal words on the page are telling us). This process is called “doing theology”, or if you’re extra fancy, “theologizing”. Every time you read scripture, you’re not just taking in information; you’re doing theology inside your own head, whether you realize it or not! So let’s theologize together and get to the bottom of this passage.

According to the “answer key” that Jesus so generously gives us in verse 16, the bottom line is that we need to “let [our] light shine before people” so they can see the good things we do and, as a result, praise God. The point of the light in this context is clear: light helps us to see the things around us. In a world where darkness was a regular companion that more often than not brought danger along with it, Jesus’ disciples would have understood how crucial a reliable light source can be to existence. Light “illuminates” what’s already there so that we can be prepared for it. If we “let our light shine”, then we’re helping others see what God is doing in the world. So Jesus’ statement about being “the light of the world” is really about the difficulty that humanity has seeing and recognizing God’s work without help.

Now, we can’t quite grasp the true gravity of this situation when it’s illustrated with a light metaphor. It just doesn’t seem like that big a deal to people for whom light is just the flick of a switch away. But there are other things besides darkness that keep us from seeing. Since moving to Idaho, I’ve seen more fog than ever before in my entire life. When a nice, thick fog rolls into the valley, we all know how difficult it can be to see anything around you. It makes driving especially exciting (if you find the inability to see where you’re going while navigating a one-and-a-half-ton vehicle exciting). Even light is helpless here: the tiny water droplets in a fog actually reflect light in a way that decreases visibility. Fog utterly inhibits our ability to see and navigate the world around us. This makes it an excellent metaphor for humanity’s inability to see what God trying to do for us.

Today, we’re living in the middle of what feels like a permanent fog. We may think that we know where we’re going, but there are forces all around (and even within) us impeding our vision. In a world of “alternative facts”, ideological echo-chambers, unconscious privilege, and sanctimonious talking heads insisting that their perspective is the only valid one, it can feel nearly impossible to discern the truth. The fog around us is so thick that we can’t even begin to move through it; we’re paralyzed by the heaviness pushing in on us from all sides. This is worse than darkness. At least we know that darkness will be driven away with the inevitable sunrise. We just have to wait it out, and the light will return to illuminate the world once again. But fog can occur at any time and linger indefinitely. And it seems like the voices in OUR fog are determined to stick around. We know how to dispel the darkness, but what on earth can we do to disperse this suffocating fog?

At airports, the question of how to disperse fog is particularly urgent, so there’s been a fair amount of research into this matter for the sake of air traffic. As a result, scientists have come up with a technique called “cloud seeding”. In seeding, millions of tiny particles are released into the foggy air. As the airborne water droplets encounter these particles, they condense around them and begin to fall down as precipitation, clearing the murky air. There are several different chemical substances that can be used to seed a fog, but do you know which substance is being used more and more as an eco-friendly option?


In the midst of a stifling fog, simple salt can be used to bring about clarity. Although the science behind this technique wasn’t known in Jesus’ time, I think he’d appreciate how effectively it can convey his over-2000-year-old message. Even today, we’re STILL being called to be the “salt of the earth”. We’re STILL being called to help all people see clearly in a world where clarity can be hard to come by.

But in order to clear the fog, we have to be willing to get in the middle of it. Just as salt does nothing to flavor food if it’s confined to the pantry and light does nothing to illuminate a house if it’s under a basket, we can’t draw the fog away from one another unless we allow ourselves to engage with it. We need to boldly condemn lies that obfuscate the truth. We need to draw out that which is inconsistent with God’s law of love and show it for what it is. We cannot allow it hang in the air, even in the interest of “balanced perspectives”. A lie isn’t a perspective; it’s a falsehood designed to confuse and obscure what’s true. And we owe it to God and to one another not to allow it to cloud our vision, making us prisoners to its false certainty.

How do we do this? How do we know if we’re being useful salt? How do we know when we’ve cleared the fog and are gazing once again upon reality? Recall last week’s scripture: “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good.”[3] The answer is already there. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, because in them dwell God’s enduring truth. And this truth, this righteous law, is constant throughout the ages. All of the voices in the fog tell us that THEY stand for righteousness, but theirs is the self-righteousness of human hubris. It crumbles when confronted by the righteousness that comes from God.

Righteousness is key to being the salt of the earth. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for “righteousness” have the connotation of “being as one ought to be”. So if we want to be the salt of the earth that dispels the fog around us, then we need to be as God created us to be instead of who the world wants us to be. Psalm 112 tells us what this looks like: those who rise in the darkness as a light for others—or as salt to dispel the fog—are merciful, compassionate, generous, and just. This is who Jesus calls us to be when he asks us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world: God’s children, helping God’s children. As long as we seek to be as we ought to be—God-righteous instead of self-righteous—we don’t need to worry about somehow allowing the fog to overcome God’s truth. “Yes,” declares the psalmist, “these sorts of people will never be shaken.”[4] We are charged to be God’s truth bearers, and God’s truth stands forever. When we finally clear the fog, only righteousness will remain.

For now, we all live in the fog; it’s the human condition. What fog is standing in the way of you seeing God’s truth? What message is drowning out Christ’s? We can disperse this fog, but we can’t do it alone. A single grain of salt can’t flavor a meal or seed a fog. What fog is the Holy Spirit calling you to help lift from someone else’s life? What righteous truth is God empowering you to speak? You ARE the salt of the earth. God has declared it so. Go forth and flavor the world, light the path, work to clear the fog that surrounds us. Make way for God’s Kingdom to break through. The fog may be thick and overwhelming, but it’s just vapor. It doesn’t stand a chance against the one whose righteousness stands forever, whose truth is enduring, and in whom we place our trust. So fellow salt, let’s get to work seeding that fog, so that we can finally see clearly once again. Amen.


[1] Christopher T. Holmes, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Yr. A, Vol. 1), p. 238.

[2] I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that in our 21st century American context, steeped as we are in centuries of systematic racism propped up by both our politics and our religion, the idea of “light = good & dark = bad” is unintentionally problematic at best, explicitly harmful at worst. Even though we don’t intend this language to imply anything about skin color, the subconscious is a treacherous thing. If we want to be a people who seek justice, equity, and love for all, then we need to be thinking critically about the language we use when we invoke God and talk about righteousness. Yes, this is the language that Christ used, but it’s impossible for us to read it without the lens of our own modern experiences impacting how we understand it.

[3] Micah 6:8a, NRSV.

[4] Psalm 112:6a, CEB.

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