Let Your Light Shine – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon on Matthew 5:1-20 is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you prefer, you can read it below.

One of the things that I love about the Anglican tradition is its repetitiveness.  Many see this as a problem area in Anglican liturgy, and I get that.  They think that because we say the same things day after day, week after week, year after year, they become rote and we don’t even think about it anymore.  We know that there is some truth in this fear, which is why as Keith and I plan our liturgical life, we make sure to make seasonally appropriate changes: in the opening rite; the Prayers of the People; the Confession; the Offertory Sentences; the Eucharistic Prayer; and often, the Blessing.  For me, however, there is something deeply powerful in the practice of saying and hearing these words over and over again.  They ingrain themselves within me and become a part of who I am.  Often, they come out in my sermons – phrases like “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” or “live and move and have our being” or “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”  Throughout seminary, it was expected that we would attend chapel every day, and while I didn’t quite achieve that goal, I did attend Morning Prayer with enough regularity that the Psalms and Canticles almost became second nature to me.  Some of those memories have since faded, but there are two liturgical phrases that I still hold very dear.  They have been with me since my childhood – phrases recited by two dear clergymen, both now passed on to larger life.  The first comes from Deacon John Baldwin who whenever he preached began every sermon by reciting a paraphrase of Psalm 19, verse 14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.”  These words still echo through my mind every time I prepare to step into the pulpit.

The second comes from my childhood priest, The Reverend David Powers Thomas, who invited the people of God to the make an offering not just of their money in the plate, but of their whole lives by paraphrasing the King James Version of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  As I read through the prescribed lessons for this week, these words from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount were the first thing that jumped out at me.  “You’ve got to preach that line,” I thought to myself, “you’ve just got to.”  As the week went on, however, it became clear that although this line has been formative for me, it ought not be read in isolation.

In isolation, it reads as if it is one more “thing” that we have to do in order to secure God’s favor in some way.  In isolation, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is adding yet another law to the 613 commandments already put in place by the Pharisees.  In isolation, these words feel heavy, but like I said, they ought not to be read in isolation.  Instead, this morning we hear these words from Jesus as part of the opening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a three chapter long sermon that Jesus gives at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel.  We’ll spend four weeks here, but we should have had five.  The Feast of the Presentation meant we missed hearing the Beatitudes last week, so I threw them in with this week’s lesson for good measure.  What we find in these first twenty verses of the Sermon is Jesus laying out the main theme of the next three years: God’s deep and abiding love for humanity means he’ll meet you where you are, but he won’t leave you the way he found you.

It all starts with the Beatitudes, nine statements of blessing that assure the hearer that God will make himself known in the most unlikely of places.  Are you poor in spirit: at the end of your rope?  God is there to bless you.  Are you mourning: have you lost the thing most dear to you?  God is there to bless you.  Does your heart ache when you see a world full of injustice and unrighteousness?  God is there to bless you.  Do you find yourself being persecuted because you believe that God cares even for the least and the lost?  God is there to bless you.[1]  If the Beatitudes tell us anything at all about the nature of God, it is that his love knows no bounds: God will make himself known to the corrupt politician and the unethical businessman just as sure as he’ll make himself known to the junkie in the gutter or the single mother on her last two pennies or the high school football captain who only looks to have it all together or the young executive who is losing the work/life balance game.  In the incarnation of Jesus, God shows us that he is willing to go anywhere to give you his blessing.

Jesus goes on to tell his followers that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  You’ll notice that he didn’t tell them “If you want to be salt and light, you have to do this…” or “before I’d even think of calling you salt and light, I need to change these things…” Instead, Jesus uses the present tense to tell them and us that we are salt and we are light.  He then hammers the point home with two absurd hypotheticals.  You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing.  Can salt ever lose its saltiness?  It is a mineral, millions of years old, mined from the ground.  No, salt can’t lose its saltiness and neither can you.  You are the light of the world.  When you light a lamp, do you cover it up?  No, that would at best snuff out the flame and at worst start a fire.  You are the light of the world and even if you work to hide your light, it won’t go out.[2]  Jesus invites his disciples across the ages to live into their identities as salt and light.  He loves us and enters into relationship with us no matter what, but our response to that love should be to get about the work we’ve been called to do.

As salt, our job is two-fold.  The most common and important use for salt in the ancient world was as a preservative.  In the days before refrigeration, it was the job of salt to keep the very limited meat supply from going bad.  As the salt of the earth, followers of Jesus are tasked with the preservation of creation: working to ensure that God’s good work is kept sacred and wholesome for generations to come.  The other use for salt is, of course, as a seasoning.  Salt makes bland food taste descent and good food taste great. My cooking idol, Alton Brown, says that salt turns up the volume on our taste buds by way of some sort of electrochemical reaction.  I don’t know the science behind it, all I know is that last week, when Cassie and I were eating only seven foods as part of our study of “7: An Experimental Mutiny on Excess”, salt kept me from going insane.  As the world’s flavor enhancer, Christians are meant to be filled with and share the joy that comes from life in Christ.   Following Jesus isn’t meant to be boring, but rather it is a chance, as Bishop Curry said in The Big Class, “to be truly you.”  That means being the student, softball player, mom, doctor, teacher, sales rep, grandfather, or hospital golf cart driver God created you to be.  Do it to your fullest potential.  Do it because it brings you joy.  Do it to the honor and glory of God.  Do it with a smile.  Enhance the experience of life by being the salt of the earth.

As light, our job is simply to help others see how the love of God enters their lives.  We do that, not by shaming them or guilting them, but by being present with them, even and especially in their darkest hours.  And while just showing up is 90% of the task, we only fully shine the light of Christ in the world through our good works of care and compassion.  Which brings me back to that phrase etched on my heart from childhood: a phrase not to be taken insolation, but to be heard alongside God’s promise of blessing and our commissioning as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Let it shine. Let it shine.  Let it shine.  Amen!


[1] Some of the expansive imagery in this section is borrowed from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

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Can Salt Really Lose its Saltiness?

During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I had the great privilege to travel to Germany for three weeks in a foreign exchange program.  It was, ostensibly, our reward for sticking with our study of a language that would be of no use to us as adults (though if this was the reason, I’m not sure why French 4/5 students didn’t get to go France for a year).  One of our stops during the three-week whirlwind tour of Bavaria and the Alpine regions of Switzerland and Austria was a trip to the Salzburg mines.  There, deep below the surface of the earth, we saw where salt comes from.  Frankly, I don’t remember much of the tour other than sitting on leather pads to slide down to the bottom of the mine, but what I can infer from my fuzzy memories is that salt is a very resilient thing.

Salt is, according to the Biblical scholars I’ve read this week, the only mineral that humans consume in its natural state.  This may or may not be true, but what I’m sure of is that after millions of years of compression underground, being mined by heavy machinery and conveyed to the surface, being separated from contaminants, packaged, shipped, and sold, salt is still salty.  In fact, I can’t think of a way in which salt become unsalty.  It could, I suppose, become contaminated and rendered useless.  It could be dissolved, but then its saltiness is spread throughout that which dissolved it.  It can’t become unsalty.

And neither can you.  In this Sunday’s lesson, we hear Jesus tell his disciples (or the crowd. or both.) that they are the salt of the earth. Period. Full Stop.  He then goes on to name the absurdity of salt not being salty (the Greek word there is where we get “moron” – read more on that here and here), in order to prove to his listeners that they have been commissioned.  Their responsibility then is to live out their saltiness: to preserve and season God’s good creation.

How do you live out your calling as “salt of the earth?”

Let your light shine

When I read Jesus saying, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I think of two things.  First, I think of the priest of my childhood, The Reverend David Powers Thomas, who used this passage in its KJV form to invite the congregation to the Offertory.  “Let your light so shine before men [others] that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Second, in a problematic bit of juxtaposition that I’m certain makes Dave smile while he is seated at the heavenly banquet, I think of the closing scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Of course, one is the actual verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about letting the light of Christ shine through you, and the other is a song about new age hippie crap like letting the sun shine into you, but as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not in the least bit normal.

Having suitably digressed this morning, I’ll come back to my point: being a Christian means being a role model.  To be clear, aren’t required to live moral lives in order to gain our salvation.  Instead, our response to God’s amazing gift of grace should be to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.  That means doing things like seeking peace in the midst of conflict or finding hope in the midst of despair or putting the needs of others above ourselves or, as Jesus puts it here, doing “good works.”  Living life as a follower of Jesus should look different from the life lived by everybody else.

This is a difficult concept for most 21st century American Christians (myself included) because over the years discipleship and citizenship have become so co-mingled as to be unrecognizable from the other.  That is to say, discipleship has been co-opted by the empire so that being a Christian now means fitting in to the society at large: getting an education, going to work, getting married, having 2.5 children, paying your taxes, and, as The 7 Experiment is showing me, buying the daylights out of everything to keep the giant economic machine churning.

Yet, the things Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount seem to call us to something different.  Something more simple.  Something impossibly more difficult.  I’m not sure how we extricate ourselves from this co-mingling.  There are some – like Shane Claiborne who felt called to follow the example of the divine Word and “move into the neighborhood” or Jen Hatmaker and her husband, Brandon, who gave up their mega-church for a humble community seeking to serve Jesus – for whom this change is life shattering, but I’m not sure that everyone is called to give it all up.  We can’t all live in the poor neighborhood, they wouldn’t stay that way for long.

So, how do the rest of us live lives that allow the light of Christ to shine through us in the midst of the messiness of this world?  How do we let others see the glory of God through our normal, everyday actions?

Inside the Brackets

Every once in a while, a Lectionary text will have some optional portions.  These are usually noted by parenthesis in the chapter and verse reference.  Often, the optional portions, while in line with the theme of the rest of lesson, contain some material that preachers and listeners might find troublesome.  Like I said, it happens every once in a while.  This week, however, three of our four readings have optional sections.  And if you take my advice from yesterday and read chapter 5 from the beginning, you could end up with a seriously long set of scripture readings come Sunday morning.

Which is not a bad thing.

As this week’s preacher, the Parish Administrator asked me which options I would like to use for Sunday so that she could get started on the Sunday bulletins (She doesn’t know of my plan to expand the Gospel lesson (I should really tell her about that)).  I decided that I thought we should hear the optional text in Isaiah, but decided to skip it in the Psalm and 1 Corinthians lesson.  Some of that decision was based on length and some on the content, but as I read the optional verses from Isaiah 58, I knew we had to hear them.  They begin with these words from the prophet to a people who have become hollow religionists rather than followers of the LORD their God, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Those words that I have set in bold above are the verses we use in advertising our donations to the food pantry here in town.  Sure, they are taken out of context, but I don’t think the intention is harmed in it.  As the LORD seeks to draw his people back, he reminds them that the goal of their religion shouldn’t be help for themselves, but it should be for the good of their community, especially the weak, hungry, and powerless among them.  (For more on this, listen to this week’s Sermon Brainwave) The people of Israel were called to be a light to the Gentiles.  We are called, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, to let our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.  In neither place is the call to a life of faith about punching a ticket to heaven or felling good about yourself.  Rather, the life of faith should be outward focused, as in “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The world is full of people who will sell you the false theologies of self-help and prosperity, but if we take time occasionally to read the stuff that is inside the brackets, we find that God has bigger and much better plans for this world.

Doing Your Homework

“All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In addition to the dated days listed above, only the following feasts, appointed on fixed days, take precedence of a Sunday:

  • The Holy Name [Jan 1]
  • The Presentation [Feb 2]
  • The Transfiguration [Aug 6]”
    (BCP, pg. 16)

It is with those words that Episcopal Priests around the globe (we are an international church, you’ll recall, just look at the location of the House of Bishop’s meetings), went on a two week scramble.  More than one of my clerical Facebook friends commented last week that after nearing the end of an Epiphany 4A sermon on the Beatitudes, they realized that the Major Feast of The Presentation was actually their assigned lectionary texts for Sunday.  While they ended up with the difficult task of writing two sermons in a week, the rest of us will have our trouble this week as we jump back into the season of Epiphany and find ourselves already in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

We get to deal with “You are the salt of the earth…” without having first heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or “Blessed are those who mourn” or even “Blessed are the meek.”  It isn’t a huge deal to miss out on the beatitudes, but to me, there is already a problem in having to deal with the Sermon on the Mount in sound bytes.  The whole reinterpretation of the Law of Moses is important, and to cut it up into bite sized morsels takes a big chunk of its shock value away.  Add to that missing the first 12 verses, and, at least in my opinion, we have a problem.

So, my advice this week, at least for preachers in The Episcopal Church, is to do your homework.  See the bigger picture.  Maybe read Matthew 5:1-20 this Sunday.  In someway, help your congregation become a member of the crowd sitting on the mountainside.  Help them enter the scene because the quirkyness of the church calendar has plopped them down midstream.