Matthew 5: 13-20
February 9, 2020
Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon
There are resume people and there are eulogy people. To be more accurate, according to David Brooks, there are resume ways of being in this world and there are eulogy ways of being in this world.
Can you see the difference? The resume way of working in the world is focused on achievements, goals, and selling oneself for the next big opportunity. It’s about success and self-promotion. The eulogy way of working in the world is focused on values and relationships, on what it takes to see through difficult times and persevere for the sake of another. It’s about character.
In his book, The Road to Character, columnist David Brooks takes on our culture for being too much a resume culture - where we have trained at least two generations of people to be concerned more about their own degree of success, at the expense of community and personal humility.
He writes, “We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. . . .
The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions. The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”
This morning as we hear Jesus preach about salt and light, I think this is what he is promoting - a way to be in the world that gets each of us to think about the character we are developing. In the spirit of God.
Jesus reminds us that salt without its taste is of no use. To quote the musical Godspell, “If salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor. You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.” Without that tanginess, there’s no point to salt.
To follow the David Brooks line of thinking, character is like the salt in both the potato chip and the bread. On the potato chip, the saltiness really stands out. Many would say, it’s the whole point to having the chip in the first place - to enjoy the salt that coats and infuses every crispy bite. The salt is the essence of the chip, it’s reason for being.
In bread, the salt is more intrinsic to the loaf. Rather than standing out in a potato chip, the salt in bread just makes everything else taste good. Absolutely necessary, but in a completely different way. Have you ever tried eating bread where the salt is left out? It tastes a little like eating your slipper. All the parts of there, but they don’t fully shine without the salt there to lift them up and help them work together in a wonderful, yeasty, oven-fresh way.
Salt is the character in the food. The driving engine that gets parts to work together. That gets others to shine. That works for the common good and is willing to put itself out there when it will help the team.
Then Jesus follows right on the heels of salt with light. “You are the light of the world.” Or as he sings in Godspell, “You are the light of the world! But if that light is under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. You have to be bright to be the light of the world.”
The light metaphor reminds us that this is not effort just in terms of making ourselves look great - or in the case of the salt metaphor, taste great. The light stands on a hill so that everyone can see it. The light shines in the darkness so that everyone can find their way, can know of God’s power and goodness. The light shines so that something other than personal agenda is served.
That is character.
Jesus’s teaching is never about developing these traits in order to shine more than the next person. It’s not about getting ahead and feeling secure. Rather we go to the depths of ourselves in order that our good acts speak to others about God’s goodness.
Character is a tricky thing. How easily it can get warped by the sticky tentacles of self-interest. How do we draw the line between being a good person, and being a good person because it will make us look like a good person? What is character and what is image?
In an image-driven culture, we are often at a loss to know the difference, or at the very least, we are seldom encouraged to take the time to discern the difference. And so fortunately for us, Jesus ends this section of his sermon on the mount by reminding everyone that their efforts at character - their work at remaining salty and bright - are always held in check by the law of God. The law of God that is ultimately and always about the other.
Even in the good news that Jesus is sharing, he wants us to remember to stay rooted in the why. That there are real reasons to keeping the most vulnerable and the most wounded at heart in all we do. The laws of God remind us about the community that we are called to create, how we are called to live and work with each other. We do not develop character because it makes us feel good, we develop character because it is what is best for the everyone else - to grow and thrive.
So, we let our light shine, and we keep ourselves salty in order that all might have life and have it abundantly - together. The quality of our character matters - matters for the whole. Skills at humility, perseverance, honesty, kindness, self-sacrifice - these are all gifts for the people gathered, in church, neighborhood, nation.
When our light shines and our character has flavor, God’s love shines all the more boldly in this world. And this world is hungry for our efforts at community - for our real efforts at leaving image behind and growing in character.
This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on February 9, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.
 David Brooks, The Road to Character. New York: Random House, © 2015, xiii.