Can You Smell The Coffee?

Matthew 5:13-20 Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher preoccupied with words and their meaning. How better to ponder this than by writing about, well, coffee?

“Describe the aroma of coffee. Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible?  . . . Have you tried to describe the aroma of coffee and not succeeded?” (Philosophical Investigations, §610)

When I hear Jesus saying to his friends that they are salt and light in the world, I am reminded of the philosopher trying to describe the aroma of coffee.

How can we describe salt, its taste, without using the word itself?  We can speak of how some characteristics, some behaviors, of Christians might be like the properties of salt – a preservative, warning off decay, a catalyst of taste.  When salt is added to something it uncovers flavors that might otherwise be hidden. 

Whenever Jesus moves into metaphor, it is a signal for me that Jesus is reaching for something that is both like, and unlike, anything that we really know.  The word pictures indicate that Jesus is opening the hearts and minds of his followers.

Something similar is true for descriptions of light.  What is it?  What is light?  Other than something by whose presence you see other things.  We switch on a light in order to see something else.

“Neither salt nor light is usually meant to be a direct or main object of perception.  No one makes salt for dinner . . . we turn on a light not in order to look at the light . . . but in order to look at other things by  means of the light.” – Eleonore Stump.

Christians are people that others experience, “taste and see,” so that they might experience the reality and depth of something else; and in this case that something else is Jesus, who becomes the Christ, and the way in which Jesus walks through the world.

Jesus indicates that our good works, those things done for others, will be a sign to others that we are motivated by our faith and love of God in the midst of our lives; our good deeds point beyond ourselves.

Early in the ministry I was part of an effort to build a clothes closet and free lunch counter in a rural part of the South in a poor neighborhood.  This effort brought together wealthy and poor congregations from across the town in what was to become one of the first “joint” efforts in a town that had been significantly changed by the Civil Rights Movement. 

I found the whole experience very moving.  People who had lived physically together for so long, as Christians, and yet who had maintained such dramatic and significant boundaries regarding race, money, and culture following the Civil Rights Movement.  Although I did not describe it as such, I would have pointed to our efforts as the kind of “salt and light” that Jesus is describing following the Sermon On The Mount – “the lamp on the lampstand giving light to all in the house.”

I imagine that my excitement and earnestness was apparent; and perhaps I was taking a bit of comfort in the knowledge that I was with a group of Christians doing Christian things – bringing all of this food and clothing into the run-down neighborhoods of our town.

Following one of our meetings, I was sitting with one of the pastors from one of the churches on the “other side of town.”  I don’t recall what I had said, probably something finished with a tone a self-satisfaction about the work we had been doing.  He was nodding his head, and then he said something I still remember, “It’s nice that we are giving away food and clothes to many of this folk; but it wouldn’t hurt me, or some of my members, to miss a meal or two.  That thing in the Bible about fasting might come in handy every now and then.”  And we laughed.

“But, you know Pastor Johnson, we are not really doing this for the food and the clothes – we already got those things – we are doing this for yall, and for the fellowship.  Because we know you folks have a need to give; people who have much are never more poor than when they are stingy.  The most important thing is that we doing this together.”

That is when I learned that some kinds of poverty are not really about a lack of calories – some kinds of poverty have to do with a lack of charity, a lack of faith, a lack of adventure.

In the moment that I thought our “team” was bringing all of the “salt and the light” to this joint project, I came to see that there is a another, perhaps deeper and wider, “salt and light” that was being carried by our new friends in Christ.  My colleague in the ministry was encouraging his flock to work with us with kindness and patience as we discovered that our good deeds were a portion of a much larger “good” that Christ was accomplishing for us all within the scope of that project.  In the end good deeds were done with used clothes and simple food for the poor; but through the salt and light of new friendships, new trust, new beginnings out of old hurts, doubtless we were all enriched.

Although I have not been asked to describe what it means to be the light of the world, or a city on a hill, and I am not so sure that I could give an adequate description . . . I know that I can tell a story about what happens when people who differ bring their own version of “salt and light” into the world, and how they unwittingly give glory to our Father in heaven.

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