Sunday, February 9, 2014
Matthew 5: 13-16
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Parent in heaven.We come from light. On this point scientific cosmology is not at odds with Christian scripture: Genesis 1:3 imagines that “Let there be light” was the decree that sparked creation. Science posits that life was created from an explosion that formed stars that eventually produced a terrestrial Petri dish for all living organisms. We were made from light. And Jesus would add, “We are made for light.”
Within today’s Gospel there may seem to be two contrary properties of spiritual light. Light is both the activity and the thing, both the signifier and the referent, both the verb and the noun. Light, as depicted in this brief passage, is at once the spectacle people should be seeing—and the means by which they are to see something else. So if we are beings of light—is our purpose to be the thing on which all eyes are cast—or the means by which the world sees something more ultimate?
It might seem that the weight of the passage falls on the side of lifting up the Church as the focal point of illumination. Disciples should be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Written for a persecuted sect a couple of generations after Jesus lived, Matthew’s Gospel urges the Matthean community not to turn inward, not to live fearfully sequestered from the world, but instead to be a very visible “city on a hill” and a “lamp on a lampstand.” You can’t disengage from the world if you follow Jesus, they were told. Of course, being a lamp on a lampstand is not a call to grandstand. But disciples do have a distinctive way of being in the world. Disciples do not let fear or callous disregard isolate them from the world’s cares. And their compassion is witnessed in the world.
Our faith community is seeking appropriate ways to invite others to join us and we hope to demonstrate our distinctive definition of church in our city. We are allergic to smug and coercive evangelism. And we’re rightly wary of ways the shining “city on a hill” analogy has been appropriated by various American ideologies: from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon for the Puritans (to whom we trace one branch of the United Church of Christ)–to John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who cited the verse to bolster their different versions of American Exceptionalism. So we will remember that refusing to hide our light does not mean we impose that light on others through political or religious imperialism or through narcissistic overexposure. (The trend in reality television and social media, by the way, suggests that a lot of Americans are not hiding anything under a bushel these days. Likewise, religious broadcasting seems lit more often by a spotlight than biblical lamplight.) Nevertheless, just because some folks grandstand doesn’t mean we should not be the lampstand.
This theological balancing act—of offering a distinctively flavored Christian congregation without seeming exclusive or arrogant—is also a very practical concern to us as a congregation. We believe there are others in our larger community who have perhaps foresworn church years ago but will “get” us if they ever get to us. We are reaching out to those who are not looking for a church but might appreciate companions who are spiritually adventurous, long to explore the big questions without having to reach the same answers, admire the life and teachings of Jesus but do not assume that Jesus’s way is the only way, hunger for a diverse and inclusive community, are committed to social justice and radical hospitality, will be intrigued to see that Christian theology is evolving in response to science and world religions.
Our print ad series last year focused on slogans like these:
“We believe in the separation of church and hate.”
“Bible belt too tight? Try us on for size.”
“Our religion is 2000 years old; our thinking isn’t.”
We’ve shined a light not only in print ads but by doing service and advocacy.
We’ve advocated for immigration reform and published our Open and Affirming statement and hosted community discussion sessions in coffee houses and cafes on topics ranging from evolution to homosexuality and attended coastal clean ups and community forums on clean water.
I hope we’ve taken these stands with humble clarity, courage, and conviction without demonizing folks who disagree with us. I hope we have been edgy without being offensive. Whenever we take a stand on something, as the UCC is wont to do, we risk moving from lampstand to grandstand. But let us never avoid the lampstand.
As individuals, we share most authentically in the course of natural conversation—a story around the water cooler about something meaningful our church has done recently, an invitation to a friend to join in a different kind of Bible study that takes the Bible too seriously to read it literally. You’ll notice on the last page of your worship bulletin a request for information from you. You’re invited to write 2 numbers in the 2 blanks provided: number of people you invited to Open Table this week, and an estimate of hours you personally spent serving our community in some way through Open Table or just out of your own commitments to be Light in this world. This report is anonymous. We think we’ll understand more about how we are inviting and serving by watching these numbers over the coming weeks.
We at Open Table are aiming to shine like that “city on the hill” that offers the light of radical invitation and inclusion, of compassion and justice. We are light—light as a noun.
But contrast the “city on the hill” image of verse 14 with the light imagery in verse 16. Light in this section is the means of illumination not the object of illumination. Light is not a thing but a process or energy or movement—which is good physics, by the way. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see . . . you? your church? No. So they may see . . . your good works (light in action!) and give glory to God (that is, to point to the ultimate source of that goodness). We might sometimes stargaze or focus in meditation on a flickering candle, but usually the purpose of a light is to reveal something else. We can’t see light itself—just “what light lights up” (Buechner 62).*
Much of ancient mysticism, Christian and otherwise, understands spiritual growth in terms of enlightenment. Jesus teaches disciples a radical new way of thinking as we humbly empty ourselves of ego to become a vessel of light. When we give up dark delusions that everyone has to agree with us, that grasping ambitions satisfy, that we are can control our little universes, then we take on the mind of Christ (Paul’s phrase) and are united in Christ, the light of the world.
I see an analogy to this enlightened way of following Jesus, of taking on the mind of Christ, in the way Annie Dillard describes good writing. A beautiful prose style, she says, “is humble. It does not call attention to itself but to the world. . . . It praises the world by seeing it. It seems even to believe in the world it honors with so much careful attention. . . . [It] is not a pyrotechnic display, but a lamp” (Dillard 120-122).** The best writers do not call attention to themselves or even to their words but to the world their writing illuminates.
By letting go of the world’s labels of who we are and what we have to acquire and do in order to be valued, followers of Jesus hold and convey light—which the first chapter of John tells us is the essence of the Christ. Jesus’s own path of enlightenment allowed him to relinquish all claims except the claim to being a signpost—a well-lit signpost—to God.
In English the word light can mean both illumination and the opposite of heavy. I suggest that people of Light will also travel lightly, hold this world lightly—which is not to say we hold the world carelessly or un-appreciatively—but it is to say we hold the world un-possessively). Light, sheer energy, the fastest force in the universe, cannot be contained. Being light is being free. To follow Jesus is to feel light—light as an adjective here. And though the original Greek does not carry this added meaning, Jesus said elsewhere that “my burden is light.”
Perhaps you don’t feel you’re shining all that brightly. Perhaps you’re not sure you are the best beacon toward hope and help. Perhaps your spiritual journey feels heavy with thoughts so deep they pull you down or burdens that deaden your spirit. But Jesus might say this to you: You are light. You are lit up by the Godlight. Recognizing the light within can be your liberation, but not yours only. Carrying in you the light of God is a responsibility you hold for the world. Most religions teach that enlightenment is to be shared.
Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory, not to you, which would just weigh you down again with heavy expectations, but will instead give glory to the Love that shines out through you.
PRAYER:Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Help us shine that light, share that light, and do so with a lightness of spirit. Amen
* Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).
**Dillard, Annie. Living By Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).