United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“Salt and Light”

Feb. 5th, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        When we were doing the years-long work of merging our different congregations leading to the 2010 creation of United Presbyterian Church of West Orange, one of the issues we discussed was our name.  We quickly decided that it had to be a new name (not Patterson or Ridgeview or St. Cloud).  And then we asked people to offer suggestions.  I don’t even remember all the possibilities.  But I do remember one: Church on the hill.

        This name had some good arguments behind it—we were physically “up the hill” (terminology that West Orange has used for years to distinguish those on the ridge from those in the valley).  There was the connection to this Scripture passage where Jesus commands us to be a city on a hill—a place that cannot be hid, and which stands as a beacon for all to see.  There was also the association with the old cross that you can see as you exit the sanctuary on the right hand side.  It used to be on what was called the Christian Path (a walkway used by worshippers to make their way from the Pleasant Valley Rd. area, up over the first mountain and down into Orange where a church stood [the forebear of what became First Presbyterian]). 

        John Crosby Brown, a prominent banker from New York City, erected a stone cross (originally on his property) in 1878 as a remembrance to all those who had walked on that way.  It was later moved, and ended up here on the St. Cloud property.  If you look closely, you might see the date 1878 and be able to read the inscription: “The Christian pilgrims who this pathway trod, are now in Heaven and walk with God.”

        Church on the Hill had a compelling argument.  But the assembled group--who had spent years talking with one another, sharing hopes and dreams, worshipping together, being in mission with one another, compromising on so much (with two of the three groups leaving their buildings)--were very proud of all the work they had done in coming together.  And thus when we voted on a name for the new church, United won, hands down.

        But whenever I read this passage, I think of how we truly are a church on a hill and the big shoes we are encouraged to fill.

        City on a hill is only one of the three images Jesus uses in this second part of the Sermon on the Mount that we are reading this year.  The other two are salt and light.  What great illustrations of the call to discipleship, as individuals and as a church.  “You are the salt of the earth” Jesus declares.  We still use a form of this saying when we talk about someone as “salt of the earth.”  Meaning: down to earth people, rock solid, can be counted on.  Merriam-Webster says “a very good and honest person or group of people.”

        Salt is tangible.  We can see it.  We can taste it.  It has so many wonderful properties: to heal, to preserve, to season.  It is something that helps make up our very selves—our bodies need just the right amount of sodium to function correctly. 

        Whereas light is something that can’t be pinned down.  You can’t capture light in a bottle.  It travels so fast that our minds don’t fathom its speed.  It is so complicated that even scientists have a hard time explaining exactly how it works.  But we all understand light versus darkness.  And Jesus, in Matthew, says “You are the light of the world.”

        So I was thinking about salt and light on this annual meeting Sunday.  How are we, as a church, as UPC, as United, doing in terms of being salt and light to the world? 

        Under the category of salt, I thought of our Hunger Ministry.  For this little church, we have an outsized weekly support of the Holy Trinity/West Orange Food Pantry, as well as our monthly connection with St. Andrew’s food distribution in Newark, and our couple of times a year hosting Christine’s Kitchen.

       We are starting to find our footing in providing connection for Eco-justice through Java’s Compost.  Every little bit we can do to move food waste from landfill to compost is beneficial. 

        We try to provide space for community groups—like the seniors, and the West Orange Women’s club, and the Jack and Jill teens, and Vitalant’s Blood Drives, as well as space for workshops and candidate debates and such.  We also have great salt for each other—you are so good at listening to one another’s joys and concerns, you try to show your care for those in need, you are welcoming, willing to widen the circle of hands engaged in ministry in this place.  I had no problem coming up with examples of how we are doing our part to be the Salt of the Earth.

        What about light?  Certainly, we could use all the examples cited above as showing how to be caring, how to act upon our Matthew 25 pledge as evidence of our being light in our world.  Light is more difficult to describe, it illumines wider spaces even as it can be as dim as daybreak or as strong as noonday sun.  When I think about being the light of the world, I think about what our Micah Project conversations have touched upon. 

        We have read books and shared feelings and talked about such topics as: How do we create spaces where people can trust that they can speak (even hard truths) and be heard?  How do we (as UPC) use our unique crucible of conversation between African-American experience and the foundation black church provides and the liturgical tradition of set prayer and quietness and the framework of Presbyterian polity?  Have we learned something (although we are still learning from one another) that could be shared?  How might we widen the conversation partners?  Would there be others in the religious congregations who worship around us: Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Antioch Presbyterian Church, Empty Cloud Buddhist Temple to name a few, who would be interested in this “sharing of perspectives”?  Are there other connections, other ways that we could further West Orange to be all it can be?  Light is not as easy to measure (fancy that).  And sometimes it is hard to see the work that you are doing.

       But light is sneaky.  It finds a way of getting through even the smallest cracks.  It just won’t be stopped. We are exploring ways to let our light shine.

        Two final comments.  I notice that Jesus doesn’t say, You need to work on yourself so that you can be salt, or can be light or can be a city on a hill.  No he makes proclamations: “You are the salt of the earth.”  “You are the light of the world.”  “You are a city on a hill.”  We don’t have to wait for permission or education or money or a five-year plan.  We are already commissioned by Jesus.  We already have our orders.  To be solid and ethereal.  To have our feet on the earth even as we have our heads in the sky.  To recognize that our purpose is not just for ourselves—but encompasses out there, way out there—the earth, the world!

        Now I know that being a small church we sometimes say, we are tired, we can’t do anymore, and what we do, is it really making a difference?  Remember we are salt and light.  A little salt can go a long way!  And as I was thinking about this sermon earlier this week, there was a very grey day—I knew that the sun had come up.  I knew that it was “light” as opposed to “dark.”  But I looked at my solar lights on my back deck and I thought, “Oh, there won’t be enough light for them to come on today.” 

        But I was wrong.  That night, my beautiful multi-colored solar lights were shining for all they were worth.  So a little bit of light can go a long way as well.

        You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You are a city on a hill.  Jesus says, Go and share your gifts with all.

        May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.