Magical Thinking

Magical Thinking February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:13-20

Salt-and-light-1080x6752017 is bound to be a tough year for folks who are superstitious.  Beginning with the month of January, there are two Friday the 13ths in this year.  I wouldn’t generally think of myself as superstitious, but when I was talking to a friend this week about choosing her wedding date in October—a Friday—I immediately counseled: well, Friday October 13 is definitely out.  Why? Marriage is hard enough as it is; why would you want to start things off on a universally recognized day of unluckiness?  I don’t believe Friday the 13th is particularly unlucky…but why risk it?

Because even the most pragmatic among us can sometimes engage in magical thinking: knock on wood, cross your fingers, don’t walk under a ladder, careful with that mirror, a black cat ran across my path—oh no!  The term sounds fanciful, but it’s a real, psychological exercise in which every human engages: the attributing of causal relationships between actions and events, when there is no logical or discernable connection.

All of us do this: it’s a default human tendency.  In some cases we do it for comfort: like, every Christmas Eve at my house we would gather around the piano and sing Jingle Bells at the top of our lungs because we were sure that Santa Claus wouldn’t show up if we didn’t.  And in some cases we use magical thinking to avoid our own responsibility for action: “Well, there’s nothing we can do but pray about it—place the situation in God’s hands!”  Magical thinking then becomes a default for difficult action we know we need to take.

And I think perhaps it was something like magical thinking that Jesus was addressing in today’s little piece of the Sermon on the Mount, part of Matthew’s gospel we just heard read.  If you were here last week you will remember that we heard the whole of the Sermon on the Mount—two chapters from Matthew’s gospel—read from the pulpit.  It’s Jesus’s most famous teachings, aggregated into one sermon—a lot to hear at one time, as we experienced last week.

The part we’re looking closely at today is Jesus talking about salt and light, two metaphors that sound nice and easy but that are, in effect, his rejection of any kind of magical thinking. Jesus seems to be saying that you and I have intrinsically within us these qualities of radical love—whether we feel like it or not.  We don’t have to magically manufacture them, or wait for God to do that, as so many of us like to do.  We are salt in the world.  We are light in the world.  Our task is not to manufacture these qualities, but only to make sure they are being used with lavish application in the world.


Everyone listening to Jesus that day would have immediately known that salt was an incredibly valuable commodity.  It was used to flavor food, but also to preserve it in a day when there was no refrigeration.  It was so valuable, in fact, that it was often used as currency—the term for Roman soldiers paid with salt was “salarium argentum”—sounds a lot like the English word “salary,” right?

And the same was true with light: in a world where there was no electricity, where creating sources of light to navigate the darkness took tremendous effort and expense, Jesus’ listeners that day did not discount their call to be light.  It’s hard work.  They also knew, living in a world where pitch black darkness settled over everything as soon as the sun set, that light—even the tiniest little pinprick of light—could be seen even in a vast and overwhelming darkness.

So, try to imagine the scene.  Jesus had been mobbed by folks who wanted to see, hear, and touch him.  His message was resonating with the crowd, but more than that, word had gotten out that he was performing miracles: manufacturing food out of thin air to feed hungry crowds and healing people from devastating, life-ending illnesses.  He was a celebrity, not just because he was the latest rage, but because he was magically giving people what they wanted—really, what they needed.  Who wouldn’t want to mob him?

But the constant attention of the crowd was wearying him, especially since Jesus knew that crowds were fickle, and it would be easy for his message of sacrificial love to be misinterpreted or repackaged in a more palatable version.  He didn’t want to get caught up in all of that, so he decided to go for a hike up the mountain.  And he asked his disciples, who were all high-fiving each other for their incredibly lucky career move of giving up everything to follow the newest celebrity, to join him on his hike up the hill.

When they got to the top of the mountain, everybody breathing hard from exertion, Jesus must have motioned for everybody to take a seat.  He had something to say.

And you know the disciples were relieved to be resting from their hike, away from the crowds and recipients of a coveted in person audience with celebrity Jesus.  They spread their cloaks out on the ground, leaned up against rocks and tree roots, passed around a flask of water to share, and got ready to hear what they hoped would be the key—the secret to Jesus’ success, the magical words or whatever it was that enabled him to perform miracles and make him so popular.  Can you imagine what would happen to them if even just a little of his magic could rub off on them?

But then Jesus started talking about so many things, and as they gazed at him ready for a show…he turned the spotlight on them.  YOU are the salt of the earth.  YOU are light of the world.  Why are you sitting there looking to me?  There is no magical formula for bringing God’s hope into the world.  It’s ALREADY HERE.  What’s in question is your willingness to apply it.

See, salt doesn’t lose its saltiness on its own.  It only becomes undiscernible when it’s withheld or applied too sparingly or diffused so far and wide that you can’t taste it.  And light?  Look up into the night sky.  From millions of miles away, we can see the stars.  Darkness cannot overwhelm even the smallest light.  Here’s what can make the light invisible: when it’s covered with a basket or hidden behind a tree, its view completely blocked.

I’m not going to teach you magical words to manufacture the presence of God’s hope in the world, I imagine Jesus saying.  It’s already here, in each one of you.  Will you join me I putting your light up on a stand, like a city on the hill that everyone can see, even in the darkness?  Will you apply the saltiness of the gospel with liberal generosity so that the taste of hope and love and justice and peace is sharp and tangy in the experience of everyone who encounters you?

There’s nothing magical about the work of God in the world.  There’s only the question of whether we will participate in it, whether we will insure that God’s presence and influence is undiminished, undiluted.

When I was a little kid my Grandmother would sometimes talk about what it was like to live in Hawaii before and during the second World War.  The islands were annexed by the United States in large part because of their strategic location in the Pacific, and the unique land masses that offered natural harbors to protect large ships.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hawaii was filled with US military presence and the islands subjected to all of the regulations that come in times of war.  Because the islands were such an important part of the US’s Pacific strategy, everyone living there knew that they were easy targets.

Indeed, as you know, in 1941, in the early hours of the morning on December 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers who flew through the mountain ranges on the islands and bombed the harbor.  They struck in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was rising, because…of the blackout.

In the islands at this time it was a rule that every night, once darkness fell, everyone had to turn off their lights or cover their windows with heavy cardboard, tarpaper, or paint.  It was essential that not one window be uncovered, because even the tiniest pinprick of light would enable the enemy to see the islands and, with their radar, have a better sense of the critical places in which to attack.  When the blackout was in force—when everyone participated in covering up the light—the islands could almost hide in the vast expanse of darkness that was the Pacific Ocean, making the task of the enemy much harder.

It seems strange to think about it, but it’s true.  Even one little light would be visible in that vast expanse of darkness—just one.  It doesn’t matter how big or how deep the darkness is, if you don’t hide even the smallest light, it will breach the darkness.

This is what Jesus meant that day, and his words mean the same thing for you and me.  YOU are the light of the world, Jesus said.  YOU are the salt of the earth.  Are you going to apply your lives to the work and witness of the gospel in the world…or not?

And while this might seem overwhelming to each of us individually, it’s interesting to note that when Jesus said this to his disciples, he used the second person plural form of the word you—as in you all, or all of you together.  They didn’t have to show up in the world all alone—the work of God in those days—in these days—is going to take all of us.  Together.  Jesus’ question for the disciples was not whether they were light or whether they were salt, it was whether they, together, would apply that light and salt to a dark and tasteless world.  Because if they would—if they were willing to show up with the radical presence of the gospel—there is no way they would not be noticed.  And the same is true for us.

Here we sit this morning in the nave of The Riverside Church, a cathedral built up on a hill at the edge of the Hudson River.  It’s the tallest church in America, rising up off the island of Manhattan to say…something.  The light and the salt are here, in the witness of this tower and in all of us, Jesus’ disciples.  If he were here today, I have to think that he would look out over all of us and say, YOU—all of you—you are the light of the world.  YOU are the salt of the earth.  You’re out there on a hill, up on a lampstand.  There’s no way this world of darkness can ignore your light if you let it shine.  And you’re the salt that makes people sit up and take notice in a world of monotonous dismay, sin, injustice, evil.  With the salt of your presence and your message, people will sit up, begin paying attention, realize that the way things are is not the way they have to be.

In this moment in particular, perhaps we the church—perhaps we The Riverside Church—need to be reminded of Jesus’ message to his first disciples.  With societal pressure to fit in, to make people happy, to preserve the status quo, the church in America has spent so much of its time and energy diffusing the salt so the message is more palatable; covering up the light like a blackout so we avoid becoming a target.

But in this moment when the world seems darker than ever, perhaps it’s even more critical that we listen closely to Jesus’ words and consider their challenge.  We are the salt of the earth.  We are the light of the world.  When we step through these doors we are not in Donald Trump’s America; we are in the church of Jesus Christ.  And as the church of Jesus Christ, we all together should always be present to spice things up, to offer something different than the standard fare.  And we should never, ever, cover up our light on a hill.

We gather here to name this work, so that when we leave this place and head out into a fear-filled and darkened world, we will remember that within us is the salt and light of the gospel.  When we, followers of Jesus, persist in letting the salt of the gospel sting and the light within us shine, the world can’t help but notice.  May it be so.  Amen.

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