Dr. David Livingstone, who died in 1873, was a Scottish missionary and explorer. He spent over half of his life serving in Africa. He went to unchartered regions of the continent where no Europeans had ever been before. He took no guns or supplies to trade. The Africans who were with him carried medical supplies. Dr. Livingstone just carried his bible and Dr. Livingstone became a legend.
In an effort to document his remarkable achievements for his readers, the publisher of the New York Herald sent their London correspondent, Henry Stanley, in search of Livingstone. When Stanley finally found the missionary he greeted him with those famous words, “Dr. Livingstone I presume.” The Doctor was in ill health, he was failing. But his ability to make a difference in the lives of those around him never failed. With his medical supplies he set up a small hospital. He even went to other villages to care for the sick. Every night wherever he was he would read stories from the bible and lead prayers.
Stanley, who was a tough reporter wrote, “What keeps him going? Little by little, I found myself helping in the hospital. He became contagious, his sympathy and love for others spread to me. His Piety, his holiness, his zeal and gentleness affected me. I was converted by him although he never knew it. He was truly a light to the world, he was truly the salt of the earth.” In our reading today we hear from Jesus and Isaiah. Both are uncomfortably challenging, both are strong, blunt and uncompromising. Each tells us something we really would rather not hear.
Because Jesus tells us what we should be and usually we are not. And Isaiah tells us what we should do and usually we do not. The two metaphors that Jesus uses today, salt and light would mean a great deal more to His listeners than to us. To them, salt changed what it touched in an age without refrigeration. Salt was a lifeline, it kept food from spoiling, rotting and corrupting. Salt even purified, that is why in the Old Testament salt was used to season every sacrifice. And Moses tells the people, with all your offerings, you shall offer salt.
What can we say about the meaning of light? In the one-room cottage of the oriental peasant, the small oil lamp was essential. Without it, so much of life would have stopped at dark. And people could not have seen each other, could not have read the Torah. Today Jesus tells us you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Note, He does not say I want you to be or would you mind being salt and light. No, it is almost a command. And we want to reply, are you being serious Lord? Is this a joke or one of your deliberate exaggerations like pluck out your eye or cut off your hand?
Jesus would say, no this is not a fantasy. Like it or not, the world depends in large measure on people like you. Not just on the Apostles like Peter and Paul, not just on Saints like Francis or Mother Teresa. If we are ones to move from war to peace, from starvation to fullness, from hating to loving, then every follower of Christ has to at least try to be a light or salt. Or in some small way to make a difference. And the Prophet Isaiah tells us how to make a difference. Listen to it again, share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless. Clothe the person you see naked and turn not from your own sin. And do away with the clenched fist and the wicked word.
A few years ago on Christmas Eve in Dallas, Texas; the Lutheran Church was burned to the ground. Mrs. Green lived across the street, there was an abandoned children’s building on the site. Early on Christmas Eve morning, Mrs. Green started making calls. People came with saws, hammers, brooms, mops, brushes and paint. By Christmas morning the building was ready for worship, even with new carpeting.
Mrs. Green is not a Christian. She is Jewish, she told the Dallas morning news that it was not such a big thing, she was just doing her little part. But who knows how many lives were enriched by reading that story in the paper. Who knows how much healing took place in that community. Just a little salt, a little light can make a big difference. The Quakers have a wonderful slogan that says, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the dark.” That is a wonderful Christian response to a sick world. I have never forgotten a sign I read years ago, in a Convent Chapel.
It read, “Priest of God say this mass as if it were your first mass, as if it were your last mass, as if it were your only mass.” Something similar can be said of each of you. Live this day as if it were your first day, as if it were your last day, as if it were your only day. Each new day is a chance to be more Christlike. A well-known singer and bandleader wrote in his autobiography, “Women, horses, cars, clothes, I did it all and do you know what that is called ladies and gentlemen? It is called living.” Wouldn’t it be more satisfying if someday you could say about yourself….people those I liked and those I did not? All people but especially, the homeless and the hopeless.
The naked and the hungry, the lonely and the unloved, those who are different from me. Drug addicted and the aids afflicted. I did not do it all, but I did what I could. And do you know what that is called, ladies and gentlemen? It is called loving, it is called being a light to the world and the salt of the earth.