Light in the Darkness


One of the benefits of being a country parson is living far away from the glowing lights that disrupt seeing the beauty of the night sky.  I mean, my neighborhood is full of street lights, but it isn’t too far a drive to be in the middle of no where with only the Milky Way and the Moon shining brightly overhead.  It is a similar scene that the shepherds find themselves in.  Night after night they watch over their flocks in the darkness with only the moon and the stars to offer light in the darkness.

It is no wonder then, that they are terrified, literally fearing a mega fear, when one evening the darkness of the night turned into the brightness of the day.  Luke tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” or as the New Living Translation puts it, “the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them.”

Scriptures tells us, on more than one occasion, that one of the promises of God’s future reign is that the sun and moon will no longer be necessary.  Instead of outside sources of light, it is the glory of the Lord that will help us to see. It is through the radiance of God that we will one day be able to see the world as God intended it to be. The shepherds got a glimpse of that world, and understandably, were filled with fear. Forty days later, Simeon will hold the baby Jesus and announce, with great joy, that the light to enlighten the nations had come.

The world is, of course, still filled with darkness, but the gift of Christmas, at least one them, is that the light of the world is shining in the darkness.  Even when it seems totally dark, and lately it has sort of felt that way what with ISIS, mass shootings, and the sinking level of political discourse, there is a light shining in the darkness: a savior who is Christ the Lord.

An Interesting Qualifying Statement

Another Sunday in Lent, another loooooong Gospel lesson from John that will tempt the preacher to ramble all over the place in an attempt to catch the myriad themes inherent in the story.  While I’m dealing with my visceral reaction to the way the disciples treat the man born blind (MBB) as if he’s just a theological prop to be debated and dissected, I’m choosing to write instead about an interesting qualifying statement made by Jesus.

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (Jn 9.5)

You’ll recall from the Prologue to John’s Gospel, a text Episcopalians hear read every First Sunday after Christmas, that one of the key components of Jesus’ identity in John is that of light.  In that great cosmic poem, Jesus is described as “life and light” (1.4-5) and “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1.9).  Later, as Jesus continues to be challenged by the Pharisees, he claims for himself the role of light bearer, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8.12).  Yet here we are, merely a chapter later, it seems like Jesus is claiming that his light can be extinguished.

As we round the halfway point in Lent, having now passed through the awful right of passage known as “Daylight Saving Time” and now on the other side of the vernal equinox, the season seems to be all about growing light, while our feelings will be all about growing darkness as we head toward the noon hour on Good Friday when darkness fell over the whole earth.  So, which is it?  Light or dark?

Truth be told, by now I’ve done what the disciples did to the MBB.  I’ve created a theological straw man to prove a preconceived point.  See, Jesus will die on Good Friday.  It will get dark.  Very dark, but darkness and death will not have the final word.  The light of the world will shine through the resurrected Jesus, and continues to shine through his Body, the Church, even to this day.  Jesus may be ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he hasn’t left the world, he is still very much with us and in us, and his light continues to provide hope in the midst of darkness that threatens us from all sides.  The qualifying statement of Jesus is only a qualifying statement if we don’t believe in the continuity of his message and the holiness of his Church.  If we do believe these things, then the ramifications are clear, as members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we are the light of the world.

Now, to figure out how to be light.  Thankfully, Jesus told us about that just a few weeks ago.

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.