I feel confident you all remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Think heavy, heavy mascara and the spectacular public crash and burn of a television ministry, followed by a jail term. At least, that’s what most of us are most likely to remember. There was more to the Bakkers, of course, than extramarital affairs, financial shenanigans and drug overdoses. The “Praise the Lord” television ministry was a pioneer of its genre, at one point spawning a bible-based theme park while being broadcast into more than thirteen million homes. At the height of their ministry, the Bakkers closed each show with the utterly true and encouraging Good News, “God loves you. He really, really does.”
Still, crash and burn the family did, and standing very close to the flames was a little boy in a suit named Jamie. His birth had been announced to the “Praise the Lord” audience eleven years earlier via the words “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” flashing on television screens in the middle of one of his father’s sermons. Jamie, or Jay, as he is known now, had a front row seat for the good, the bad and the ugly things his parents endured as their lives were unraveling. And at that point in his life, the message that “God loves you” was a difficult one to swallow. At a very early age he turned to dependable comforts of wine coolers and cigarettes to distract him from the pain all around him and inside him. By age eighteen, in his own words, he was a raging alcoholic, and he was through with church and God.
But you know how these things go. God wasn’t through with Jay. And God spoke to Jay through the voice of a close friend, D. E.. Jay lived with D. E. and his family through some of the worst of his alcoholism, during which time D. E. would follow him to bars, sipping seltzer, and making sure Jay got home safely. D. E. didn’t try to change Jay. He simply repeated one message to him over and over. God loves you. He really, really does. It doesn’t matter that you drink. It doesn’t matter that you don’t go to church. It doesn’t matter that you think you’ve had it with God. God loves you. Rinse and repeat.
Through the patient ministry of this friend, Jay underwent, over time, what he calls a “grace evolution.” He came to see and understand and even believe what D. E. was saying. At D. E.’s urging, Jay started reading the bible. Only after a more or less steady diet of Galatians and Romans over an extended period of time did Jay actually succeed at getting sober. And ever since, this heavily tattooed and pierced young man has been on a mission, and that mission, in a nutshell, is to spread the word about grace. The truth, that God loves you, just as you are. God really, really does.
This message, I believe, is at the deep heart of our gospel reading today. We are in our second Sunday of immersion in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, and almost by definition, we are reading words that are incredibly familiar to us. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” The first of these sayings requires a little more parsing than the second. Salt was an incredibly important commodity in ancient times, as it is in modern. Salt was an essential preservative for meats—some credit salt with making settled societies possible. Once people didn’t have to hunt for their meat daily, they could stay in one place. Salt was so precious the ancient Egyptians used it as a funeral offering on behalf of the dead. In the Japanese religion Shinto salt is used for ritual purification. Perhaps most important for us, as we read this very Jewish gospel, salt came to symbolize the covenant between God and the people Israel. Salt means wit or humor. Salt indicates anything that gives life flavor or zest. Salt, despite our anxiety about sodium levels in our diets, has a wholly good meaning for us in this reading.
You are the salt of the earth. You have wit. You have flavor. You are a participant in God’s covenant with God’s beloved people. God loves you. God really, really does. You are the light of the earth. People will look at you and understand that God loves them too.
Jesus is giving the law here, and yet, once again, he is not telling us what to do, exactly—at least at the beginning. Jesus it not saying, “Be salt. Be salty!” Jesus is not saying, “Try to be light—you can do it!” Jesus is talking to us about who and what we are already. Jesus is simply telling us the truth about our natures. Just the facts, ma’am. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. In fact, Jesus is warning us against losing those attributes that make us who and what we are—you are salt already, don’t lose that saltiness! You are light already, don’t hide the radiance of your glow! God loves you. God really, really does.
Now, am I suggesting to you that Jesus has no opinions at all as to how we should behave, what we should do? Of course not! Jesus has strong opinions on that. A grace-filled life should reflect the kingdom of heaven’s core values. Of course. But: even if it doesn’t, that does not change this central fact, that God loves us. Each and every one of us, in our flawed and struggling and incomplete states. God loves us, as we flail about in addiction to booze or drugs or pornography or food. God loves us, as we wake up each day hoping to do better, or even hoping it will all go away. God loves us, whether we look like the disciple who gets an A-plus or the one who is tagging along at the back of the pack.
Jay Bakker said in an interview this week, “Just accept that you are accepted and let it transform you.” God loves us, period. Who and what we are. He really, really does. And the day we know that, the day that reality sinks deep down into our bones and starts to sing in our sinews, is the day we truly become salt and light for this beautiful and broken world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Jay Bakker with Martin Edlund, Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society (New York: Faith Words, 2011).