Saturday, February 8, 2014

Letting the Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-16
February 9, 2014
William G. Carter

“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. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

A few years ago, a marketing man paid a visit on us. Remember the packets of advertising postcards that once appeared in our mailboxes? He was the man behind some of those postcards. He dropped in to say, “Your church ought to be advertising on my postcards.”

When I pushed him a little bit, he made his case. He had just spent an hour walking up and down State Street, asking everybody he met, “Do you know where First Presbyterian Church is?” Other than the funeral home, nobody knew. None of the shoppers, none of the store owners. At one point, he stood down the hill next to the sign that points up to say, “First Presbyterian Church,” and like one of Jay Leno’s old comedy bits, nobody had a clue where we are.

In one memorable conversation, he stood down on the corner and pointed up the hill. “Is that First Presbyterian Church?” he asked two passersby. A woman said, “You mean the church on the hill?” Her husband said, “Is that a church?”

Needless to say, we bought a two year subscription to the postcards. They didn’t make much of a difference, but they did create a fertile conversation. Who are we? Where are we? Is this a church? One of our church comedians suggested we install a huge pink neon cross on the side of the building. Another one said, “Why don’t we make it a blinking light?” We talked about better signs, more press releases, and a deeper engagement with the community. As sometimes happens, there were more ideas than people to actually do something about them. We do a lot of things to get out the word. We could always do more.

From that conversation, one tangible thing surfaced that has stuck – a logo: the church on the hill, with light streaming out of it. The image was a direct reflection on the words of Jesus: 

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see you good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We live in a time when people want less and less to do with churches. An increasing number of weddings are planned with secular officiants. In good consumer style, brides and their planners can do whatever they want without some uptight priest telling them they can’t staple their ribbons to the pews. Or scan the obituaries while you still can, and notice what my friends in the funeral business tell me: there are more and more secular funerals every month. Some have grown indifferent to God or the afterlife, so they have celebrations of life and the dearly departed is never actually handed back to God. The cultural message is “We can do this without the church.”

Among many of our neighbors, there is indifference about all things religious. Our society has developed ways to celebrate Christmas without mentioning the birth of Jesus. Easter is a great time to go to Disneyworld, because some schools still schedule vacations around that time. I told my kids about my faint memory of businesses being shut down on Sundays and they looked horrified. They have grown up in a world where people spend the Lord’s Day any way that they want.

So here is the question, O church of God: where is the light? If it doesn’t shine through us, this dark world is not going to see it. If there isn’t something distinctive about us, something distinctively about Jesus, something as distinctive as the taste of salt, then we have lost our flavor, of no use to God or anybody else.

That’s the challenge within these words of Jesus. He looks to those who follow him. You are the salt of the soil. You are the light of the created order. He affirms us in the simplest of analogies.

You are salt. Not the main course, but the spice. You pull out the richer flavor of the meat. You come in tiny granules to call attention to the larger meal. You cause the deer of the woodlands to discover their greater thirst. If you are dissolved in water, you are still present. If there were a way to actually lose your flavor, you would lose who you are. All of you are salt.

You are the light, emanating from Jesus who says, “I am the light.” We can be what he is. We reflect who he is. We bear him to the world. I often wake near dawn, as light breaks into a dark room. Light announces it’s a new day, a fresh beginning. Light reveals the truth. There are no sideways shadows, light shows what we really are. Light brings clarity. It enables vision. It saturates darkness, just as a bit of salt flavors the food. All of you are light.

You and I make our way through a world that has resisted its Creator for thousands of years. There is nothing new about that. But here comes Jesus. He announces a heavenly dominion on earth where the meek are blessed, where the hungry of heart are fed, where those grief-stricken by losing someone or something so familiar are given the astonishing comfort that all things in Christ are made new. This is a distinctive dominion in a world that is addicted to its own destruction and increasingly bored with its illusions of progress. To say that God comes to a world like this is going to be a disputed word unless there are people who believe it and live it out together.

You are the salt. All of you, it’s plural. All of you are the light. The extent to which this is true depends on our commitment to make it real, to show in our skin and bones and breath that the Risen Christ is among us, continuing to teach and heal and govern us by God’s grace.

What’s this look like? I have a story that might make you squirm. In recent weeks, the people of First Presbyterian Church of Easton, Pennsylvania, have discovered that their long-time church treasurer has been stealing the church’s money. Over seven years, she took over $317,000 and used it to pay some of her personal bills. The church leaders discovered it. She confessed to the crime. She promises to pay it back. It was a breach of trust and deeply disturbing.

Here’s the thing: when the judge called her in, the new church treasurer went to the bail hearing, and requested she be released on minimal bail. He said, “What she has done is wrong, but she has owned up to it, openly shared information about her crime, and offered to restore what she stole. Furthermore, she is one of our own. She is a member of our church.” The judge wasn’t sure what to do with that and said, “She shouldn’t be involved in church finances anymore.”

Well, there was no question about that. The new church treasurer explained, the church members struggled to balance their anxiety about the financial betrayal with the Lord’s teachings about forgiveness. He said, “The church has to rally around the values it preaches… It’s around family life. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”[1]

How interesting. You should read the anonymous comments that people put online after reading this story in their local newspaper in Easton. On second thought, don’t read them. They are scathing and mean, along the lines of “If you steal from church, you’re going to hell.”

But what is the distinctively Christ-like thing to do? A Christian woman steals from Christian brothers and sisters, and then repents and says, “I want to make it right.” What would Jesus say to that? What would he say? He would say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)  Or as he says in the very next chapter, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Matthew 6:15)

It is difficult being a Christian. It is hard to follow Jesus closely enough that we will act like him. It can run counter to how we think the world ought to run. It is to carry a cross that demands everything, beginning with our own sense of righteousness. It will require a life-long conversion. It means we must set aside our own stuff – our assumptions, our opinions, our fears, and our naturally brewed poison – set those things aside and live like Jesus. That is our distinctive salt. That is the light we carry to a world that prefers its own darkness. It is our testimony to the kind of God we have, and what God is doing by coming to the world in Jesus Christ.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly, particularly in a time when he was teaching preachers to stand up to Adolf Hitler and his empire. Reflecting on this Bible passage, Bonhoeffer wrote,

If the good works were a galaxy of human virtues, we should then have to glorify the disciples, not God. But there is nothing for us to glorify in the disciple who bears the cross, or in the community whose light so shines because it stands visibly on the hill – only the Father which is in heaven can be praised for the “good works.” It is by seeing the cross and community beneath it that [people] come to believe in God. That is the light of the resurrection.[2]

And that, friends, is really why we are here: that people come to believe in God. That they would look at us and determine God has to be forgiving and good-humored. That they would see people who love one another in ever-expanding circles. That they would taste the salt for themselves, see the light, and then believe. If we are doing our work well, we can never hide God on this hill. God’s light must shine, and with all our deepest hope, the light can shine through us. Let the Christians be Christians.

Next weekend, I imagine somebody on State Street, walking along the street for the Clarks Summit Festival of Ice. They stand on the corner, point in this direction, and say, “Is that a church up there on the hill?” They want to know. Some have never been in a building like this. Others were in a church many years ago and never thought they would go back. If they come in these doors, where are they going to see any light? Maybe you’re at the door handing out a program, or downstairs spooning up a bowl of chili. Will they see the light in you?

Or say you are talking to somebody you’ve met. There’s an opening in the conversation. She mentions she’s afraid, or there’s something troubling her. She feels an empty space in her life. Do you think you could invite her to come here with you? Could you invite her to come back a second or third time? Seventy percent of the people who come to a church the first time come because a friend invited them. You could offer them light.

Or you sit at a conference table, sealing a business deal. You know all the characters in the room. The pressure is off, and they start joking around. One of them cracks a joke. Another pipes in, tells a joke that puts down another person. A third joker jumps in, but notices you’re not laughing. What’s up? Maybe you say, “Sorry, but I think everybody is important to God. I learn that every week in my church.” Church? You go to church? And you can say with all humility, “Everybody is welcome in my church. Why don’t you come?” Ah, you’ve got a salty tang. You haven’t lost your flavor.

Is that a church up there on the hill? What would you say?  

Ever hear what the Native Americans said to the first Christians who crossed the prairie? “Is your church built upon sacred ground? Then we will come.”[3]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995) 115
[3] Thanks for Fred Craddock for this story.

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