This Sunday, I began a month-long series in what congregation members have identified as their favorite scriptures. Anything was a possibility, really anything. Of course I was a little afraid as to what I might get as suggestions! But the responses I got were actually pretty tame (thank God!). First up, Matthew 5:13-16. Thanks for reading:
I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me to proclaim that I am the light of the world, my spirit might cringe a little.
We might say that we are good at this or nice in this way or even pretty or handsome in this way or that way, but a light almost sounds extreme doesn’t it?
And I don’t think it is about a sense of false humility. Being called out as a light– a presence of being whose essence is to do nothing but shine– can be overwhelming to our sensibilities. For everything about most of our upbringings and the messages we’ve all received about ourselves since birth has NOT been about bright illumination or drawing attention to ourselves.
We’re told over and over again: be normal. Fit in. Don’t stand out of the crowd. Do what you are told. Pick out your clothes based on trends of what is in. And when in doubt, always color inside the lines whenever you are given a sheet in which to color.
Furthermore, we are prone as human beings to think (and be encouraged to think) the worse about ourselves, especially when it comes to what religion tells us to think about God. Professor David Lose in fact says this: Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. (Frankly, I don’t know if anyone has studied this in groups other than young children, but I suspect that number doubles during adolescence and then recedes to about 10-1 again by adulthood!)[i] We are a people who live in the negative.
But such sentiment stands in contradiction to the words of our gospel text for this morning, words of Jesus that were chosen among some of you as your favorite scripture passages you all submitted last month.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
What was Jesus up to as he laid these very direct words on the crowds gathered? What was he trying to say to this gathered community of disciples– those in his context and those communities he knew would gather together in the future in his name?
In most interpretations I’ve heard of this beloved passage– dear to the hearts of many Christians and part of popular cultural rhetoric in productions such as Godspell, for example– have usually directed my attention to the potential negative aspects of Jesus’ words here. When Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” And the interpretation goes in this direction: “Yeah, you are a light, but it is your job to keep it going. You could mess up your job of being a light. So, God is warning you– don’t mess up. Don’t put your light under a bushel basket. So it will go out and you’ll lose it forever. And you wouldn’t want that would you?”
But, such harsh, self-condemning words are not what I think Jesus is up to here. This is not another time in scripture when we are reminded by Jesus to feel bad about ourselves. Notice with me the direct nature of this declaration. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
It not something, we are told, that we have to work up to. It is not something that we have to learn to create. It’s not even something that only the select chosen ones get to claim. No, rather, it is simply what we are. We are told by Jesus that we are the light of the world, not just some of us. All of us.
We all have the light of God within us. It was the ultimate Jesus pep talk to his disciples. Remember who you are my friends. You are light and there is not a thing you can do about it. These are words of sheer blessing from the Divine to us.
Sure, a case could be made that there are times in life that each of us could hide our light (hide it under a bushel if you will), but it doesn’t change the fact that the light in us– given to us by God and shown to us by Jesus– is there. All we have to do is just stand and let it shine!
Look at someone sitting close to you this morning and say to them, “You are the light of the world” and then have them say it back to you.
How did that feel? Strange? Comforting? Calming?
If this is where you are today– in need of some self-confidence after coming out of a life damaging situation or relationship, then I say stop with me here and receive this bountiful blessing from our Lord. You are called a light, just as your neighbor has shared with you. And Jesus calls you very good. Can I get an amen out there about this?
But, if you are able to hang with me for more– hear this, all you light bearing friends of mine. Being light comes with a responsibility (not burden) but joyous responsibility. When Jesus says to us, we are the light of the world, we are asked not to just keep it to ourselves. We are asked to share it. Again, not something that my raise flags in our heads from our more conservative traditions of door to door bang people over the head evangelism. And, not something that we have to work at or achieve, but simply and courageously being willing bear in vulnerability our light to others.
Light that comes in speaking aloud the name of Jesus as our Lord.
Light that comes in sharing kindness, even when we are tired, because we feel God has asked of us to go the extra mile of compassion.
Light that comes not in just “being a good person” for the sake of being good or avoiding punishment, but for the sake of the name of Jesus who is our teacher of all things that are good.
This week, I graciously had the opportunity to spend some time learning about the practice of spiritual direction in interfaith setting– from those who very much cared about being attentive to the light of God within them, but not explicitly from an Christo-centric tradition. Though interfaith work is nothing new for me, when I showed up in Berkeley on Monday ready to learn, the experience I received was not exactly what I expected.
My first shock came when we were asked to break up into partners and share in two minutes to our partner what the practice of spiritual direction meant to us.
I went first sharing something to the effect of “I feel spiritual direction is in my experience the practice of sitting with another person who serves as the deep listener to my stories, who helps me pay attention to the presence of God in my life, sensing movements, patterns, feelings of God’s working all around me.”
Then, my partner shared. Moments later when the teacher call us back together as a group in attention to what we noticed in the exercise, my partner was the first to speak. She mentioned how strange it was that I wanted to used the word “God” — not a word that she uses anymore. Saying that she much prefers the word “divine” alone for all things God.
I went home the first night and sounded off to a friend or two on the phone, “I am in a program to learn about God and I can’t even say the word God?”
As an act of resistance the next morning, I was careful to use the word God and Jesus when I came to describe my own faith. (Who knew saying God’s name could make you such a rebel?) Though I could have easily done otherwise. I didn’t have to say I was a Christian pastor. I didn’t have to say that I actually believed in Jesus. I am a Baptist after all where we believe in the priesthood of all believers, nothing in my dress (or your dress either) says anything about the nature of faith. It would have been much easier to become what was most acceptable to the group.
Yet, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
As an aside, I am happy to say that I continued to be in dialogue with this colleague and our understanding of one another got better. We were not as far from one another as I first might have thought– just with different baggage around language.
But this one encounter reminded me that showing the light that God has asked us requires courage to speak up from time to time– to show with our words and our deeds that our light comes from Christ. And, yes, calling God by God’s name is a non-negotiable for us. We worship the God who says, “I AM who I AM.”
But what does this look like in our daily lives– when we aren’t at Interfaith training or spiritually focused dialogue groups? I believe we must be ready to stand out.
Not blending in– showing what we believe.
Not going with the flow of acceptance of everyone and everything– saying what we believe.
Not being politically correct all the time– when truth needs to be spoken.
Not just doing the same old things the same old ways– open to the new.
Instead, remembering that because we are the light of the world, we’ve got FIRE within us. Fire from God that is constantly molding us, reshaping us, growing us and asking us to give voice to the fact that the light of God comes from within.
One my Baptist colleagues and I were having a conversation about this passage this week– my colleague a former pastor of a church much like ours– of the liberal Baptist flavor. And, we were talking about how most churches like ours aren’t so comfortable in our practice of being light. For after all we’ve come from places in our journeys as individuals who make up this larger body which that are often of abuse, frustration with the institutional church and it is just now that many of us have wandered back into a faith community. We’ve got enough of our own stuff to deal with than to CHOOSE to stand out.
But, when we consciously or unconsciously make this decision to leave the “being the light of the world” business to someone else, we my friends– are robbing God of the process of using some of the only hands God has (ours) to be the people God created us to be.
For after all, wasn’t the mission statement of this congregation, when it was visioned out several years ago to be “The Light of the World.” Weren’t there leaders and faithful members including some of you still around today who took seriously Jesus’ words here and said, “Yes, we have purpose to be a different kind of church. To welcome the un-welcomed. To not judge the stranger. To always make room for one more to feel the love of God in this place.”
So where are we today? I fear sometimes that we are somewhere between the great fervor of the congregation of the past, “We want to be a light in our community” and those who have forgotten that the light of God is within us as individuals and as a body at all.
It has been said that the greatest sin against God of all is forgetfulness.
So today as we soon will approach the table. I invite you to remember again your light and dream with me for a moment what it might mean to have this light brilliantly shinning in our midst. I invite you to remember.
If we were Christ’s light here in the Northern VA area, in our Lake Anne home, what would be the fruits?
Might there be more hours when our sanctuary was open for prayer and meditation? So that our building was truly God’s house– not just for us Sunday worshippers, but for everyone who needed a place of peace.
Might there be more of us writing about our experience of God in this congregation– spreading the world of the good news of a welcoming and loving church– to ALL those, in every nook and cranny of Reston, Herndon, Manassas, Sterling, and the list could keep going on and on– that there is a church for them, a Baptist church where that can worship Christ and grow in their faith in him?
I hope that as I’ve been sharing with you my “might” list, in your head you are making a list of your own– of your own dreams for where our light will shine, how it growing brightness will touch exactly the folks that God wants to use us to reach.
And that as we together come to the table, we remember the source of our light– our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This little light of mine. I’m going let shine. This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.
[i] “Dear Working Preacher” http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=451