One of my favorite things about being a pastor is diving into the Bible each week and looking for something fresh and exhilarating to share with you each week.
But, its also one of the hardest things about being a pastor—trying to come up with something fresh and new each week!
In those times when I’m stumped for ideas, how to take a message from the Bible and put it into words we can understand today, I often look for ideas in movies and in Ted Talks.
If you were here last week, you saw an example of that.
This past week, I was stumped again trying to figure out a way to make an iconic teaching of Jesus seem relevant for today.
I just so happened across the movie Blinded by the Light, a 2019 British comedy-drama film directed by Gurinder Chadha, inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his love of Bruce Springsteen music.
Set in 1987, the movie tells of Javed Khan, a Pakistani teenager who experiences racial and economic turmoil while living in Luton, England. He writes poetry as a way to escape the intolerance of his hometown and the stubborn views of his traditional father.
In his final year of sixth form school, the final step before university as they call it, he takes a writing class and is challenged and encouraged by his teacher, Miss Clay to find his voice and write with passion. She tells him, “writers tell the world something it needs to hear.”
Still trying to figure things out for himself, a classmate introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and Javed sees parallels between the singer's powerful lyrics and his own working-class environment. Springsteen's melodies soon inspire Javed to find his own voice and follow his dreams.
But his dreams would not come without overcoming some obstacles along the way. His father is laid off as a result of economic turmoil and Thatcherism, his family and friends face constant racism and taunting due to their immigrant status, and Javed struggles in finding the balance betwen becoming his own person and honoring the legacy and traditions of his families.
Through it all, Javed succeeds. He wins over the cute girl, he gains an internship at a local newspaper, and even wins a prestigious award from Monmouth College in New Jersey, including a trip to America where he’d also go and see Springsteen’s hometown, Asbury Park, NJ.
But despite all his external success, Javed finds himself hiding it all from his parents, especially his father, who does not approve. His dad wants Javed to find a more solid footing financially and encourages him to pursue a more lucrative industry while staying true to traditional Pakistani values.
Javed’s father, Malik, wonders how a white American, Bruce Springsteen, has anything in common with a poor, immigrant family on the other side of the ocean.
But Javed counters that the struggles Springsteen sings of echo their own family struggles; working class, factory life, familial strife, and disappointments, all written from the perspective of Springsteen’s blue-collar New Jersey upbringing but also true for millions around the world, including Javed.
But most importantly for Javed, Bruce sings about not letting “the hardness of the world stop [us] from letting the best of [us] slip away.”
And, this is ultimately what has made Bruce Springsteen’s music so iconic. Because the music Springsteen sings about; having faith in yourself, in those you love, and in the things you want most—these are universal struggles—struggles that even you and me, some 30 years later, can still relate to.
We all have likely felt the pressures of money, intolerance, and bullying working against us as we seek to create a better life for ourselves and those we love. We’ve likely felt the weight of carrying not only the hopes and dreams of our own, but also of our families.
We understand how hard it can be, no matter how passionate, or determined, or visionary we once were, to let the hardness of the world snuff out the best of us.
Whether it’s the constant struggle of making ends meet financially, the unending onslaught of prejudice and intolerance, or the emotional weight of our family of origin, it’s so easy to find our once bright and passionate selves worn down and blurred out by all these challenges and more of life.
It’s why Bruce Springsteen’s music has had such wide acclaim—because he speaks to that deep down struggle we all face, in one way or another; how to not let the hardness of the world let the best of us slip away.
And while the Boss is, well, the Boss, and certainly worthwhile of our attention.
I’d like to point another hero of the “everyman” and “every woman,” namely, Jesus.
This is the second week in our series called, “It’s better up here,” and we’re looking at one of Jesus’ most famous teachings often referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.”
In this lengthy section, Jesus describes what are the central tenets of what it means to be a Christian.
And while following the way of Jesus is often described as being about dying to self and sacrificing an old way of life—I believe that following the way of Jesus ultimately leads to a life of ultimate meaning and purpose.
So, it’s this better way of living that is described in the Sermon on the Mount, hence why I’m calling this series, “It’s Better Up Here.”
Today, I’d like to point out a section where Jesus talks about something similar to the Boss, telling his hearers not to lose their saltiness or let their light be hidden.
Let’s go ahead and read the scripture, (Matthew 5:13-16).
If you remember last week, I talked about how when Jesus called people Blessed, he wasn’t telling them to be a certain why, he was describing something true about them already. It’s the same here.
Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.”
If you’ve gone to church for any length of time, you’ve probably heard people talk about the ancient uses of salt for taste, preservation, and purification. And we can all imagine how essential light—or a lamp—was to people before the invention of electricity.
Either way, whether we know about ancient uses of salt or we just like the taste of salt on our French fries, we know salt matters—as does light. It’s important, it’s distinct, it adds value to our life.
So, when Jesus is telling people to be salt and light, he’s telling people to be distinct, to act with purpose, to make a difference in their world.
Which, while it sounds easy for us today, wasn’t that simple back in the day.
Now, I need to first explain that during the time of Jesus, there weren’t journalists and bloggers like today. The vast majority of the people couldn’t read. Stories were told orally and that’s how the stories of Jesus began to spread; people telling them from one person to another.
Obviously, at some point, people started thinking, “hey, this Jesus stuff is pretty good, we should write it down.” So, they did. This is why we have what are known as the four gospels, or four stories of Jesus, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Now while there is not complete consensus on when these accounts were first written—it was almost 2,000 years ago mind-you—the majority opinion is that Matthew’s version was written some-time after 70 AD.
That date is significant because just a few years prior, some Jewish people had led a revolt against the Roman occupiers, leading to a bloody and brutal war, which eventually ended with the Romans exacting a heavy price in victory with hundreds of thousands killed, scattered, or sold into slavery and the Jewish Temple, the center of Jewish politics, religion, and culture destroyed.
It’s into this context that scholars think Jesus’ words of salt and light would have had a profound meaning. Again, for many, if not all, of these early followers of Jesus, their life as they knew it would have been completely wiped way, destroyed by the Romans, and they would have left trying to pick up the pieces.
And so among the survivors, there was the question, should we just keep our mouths shut and not make any more trouble? Or, should we keep trying to be true to the words of Jesus, words that while not responsible for this latest rebellion, were seen as rebellious and inflammatory in their own right?
At their core, they were asking themselves, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
Can we simply compromise some things to avoid further conflict, even collaborate with the Romans if necessary, just to survive?
So, that’s why it’s so compelling that Mathew made sure to include in his story of Jesus this particular teaching of Jesus about staying salty and not hiding your light.
Matthew wanted his people to understand how powerfully and prophetically these words of Jesus spoke to their current time and place, to not let the hardness of the world allow the best of them to slip away.
Thankfully today, we don’t face the cultural upheaval and threat of violence as did those early followers of Jesus. And arguably, we’re in a better economic situation than 1980’s England. And while in some respect our circumstances aren’t as grave as these times in the past, if we’re paying attention, we know there’s plenty of turmoil happening within our own world.
Last week, social media was a flutter with conflicting opinions regarding the Super Bowl halftime show, the State of the Union Speech, the Iowa caucus results, and the ending of the Presidential Impeachment trial.
It seemed no matter who you listened to, no matter which voice or perspective you followed, this was a scandalous time in the life and culture of America.
And while perhaps much of this drama can be attributed to social media itself, it’s not hard to see and hear and feel all this very real anxiety and uncertainty over the morals, values, and vision of America and get just get sick of it.
I mean, for one, if you’ve been on social media following any of these topics, you’ve seen how so many people who’ve spoken out for or against any of these topics often face significant blow back.
For instance, regardless of our opinion on the matter, I think wee can all agree that Senator Mitt Romney’s life will be forever changed because of his vote in the Impeachment Trial.
My point is, with all this turmoil, all this partisanship, all this disagreement, it’s easy just to want to throw up our hands and give up, to stop caring, to quit trying to make a difference.
To let the hardness of life wear us down and blur our brightness.
But let me tell you, now more than ever.
We need salty people.
We need some people not afraid to let their light shine.
In the movie, Miss Clay’s job was convincing Javed that he had a voice that the world needed to hear. I sort of see myself in that same role.
You that you are salt, you are light, and you have something the world needs to hear.
Your voice matters and you matter.
Don’t let the hardness of the world let you and your voice slip away.
And while we all won’t become world-famous musicians like Bruce Springsteen or have a movie based upon our life, I believe we can make a huge difference in our corner of the world.
We can be like the neighbor who recognizes Javed’s talent and laments the rise of white nationalism in his community.
We can be like the childhood friend who befriended Javed and stood up for him in the face of bullies and racists.
We can be like the teacher who encouraged Javed to find and develop his voice.
Whatever your role, whatever your opportunity, what you do—or can do—matters. It’s important.
You have an identity as a child of God and a purpose given to you from God to be salt and light—to be distinct, to be different, to bring light and goodness to the world.
Don’t let the hardness of the world let the best of you slip away.
Don’t let the hardness of the world blur the brightness that is within you.
Don’t let the hardness of the world dull the saltiness of you.
You don’t want to wake up in one year, five years, ten years and realize you’veave lost your saltiness to the point that people have just been walking all over you.
You don’t want to suddenly come to the realization when it’s too late that you’ve kept you and your God-given talents and abilities to bring God’s love and goodness to the world hidden.
Whether it’s 1st century Palestine, or 1980’s England, or 21st century America in these tumultuous times we need people who fill do the right thing, even when the stakes are high.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Let you light shine before others so that they may see your good deeds and glorify God.