by Ellen Sims
texts: Matthew 5:13-17; I Corinthians 2: 1-16
We are to be salt and light. Jesus did not call his followers to dominate the world but instead to flavor it, to brighten it. Although we should be unstinting when adding our saltiness and light to a world in need of tasting and seeing God’s kin*dom, we realize the salt is not the meal God provides and the lamp is not the sun.
“Be salt in this world,” Jesus preached in what is now called “The Sermon on the Mount,” and by that he may have meant that even your little contribution adds a noticeable flavor, but which also makes me think, contrary to what the missionaries and evangelists told me when I was a child, that God doesn’t need everyone in this world to be a Christian, and maybe God doesn’t even want everyone in this world to be a Christian. A little Jesus salt is enough to season the pot. You don’t want a whole cup of salt in your vegetable soup. If the world is a bowl of soup, nobody wants that soup to be salt soup. But some flavor of salt is needed in that soup, and some evidence of Jesus’s disciples is needed in this world.
“Be light in this world,” he also said. But light is useful when it reveals something else, and the darkness of night is sometimes a welcome relief at day’s end. Like salt, even a little light goes a long ways. It’s just a “little light” that the children’s song extols: “This LITTLE light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
I’m not championing half-hearted discipleship. Jesus also speaks of great sacrifice, as his life and death illustrate all too poignantly. He gave himself totally. Let us be fully committed to the Christ we follow and live in such a way that others needing spiritual sustenance and enlightenment and a faith community may find what they need—because of how delicious your life tastes and how brightly your life shines. But there’s no need to count heads to see who’s on the Jesus team. It’s not a competition.
We come from light. On this point scientific cosmology aligns with Christian mythology: Genesis 1:3 imagines that “Let there be light” was the decree that sparked creation. Science posits that life was created from a blazing 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. We are made to BE light.” Again, that is our very nature and origin.
Within today’s Gospel reading we find two understandings of spiritual light. Light is both the action and the thing, both verb and noun. You can “light” a fire, light being the verb in that case, or you can see the light of the fire, light being a noun. Light is at once the spectacle people should be seeing—and the means by which they are to see something else. If we are beings of light—is our purpose to be the thing on which all eyes are cast—or the means by which others see 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 themselves shine, collectively, like a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, a beacon of hope. 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 an invitation to grandstand. But disciples do not let fear or indifference isolate them from the world’s cares. And their compassion should be witnessed in the world.
Open Table continues to seek respectful, gracious ways to “shine” so that others can find their way into our faith community or at least see some evidence of God at work in this world. We want to invite others to join us by demonstrating our distinctive definition of church in our city. But we are allergic to smug and coercive evangelism and are 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 a long list of political speechmakers who cite this verse in Matthew to bolster their various versions of American Exceptionalism: John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romeny, Barack Obama, and James Comey, to name a few. We do not wish to impose our light on others through political or religious imperialism or through narcissistic overexposure. But let’s not hide our light. Just because some folks grandstand doesn’t mean we should not be the lampstand. And let us as progressive Christians not be diffident about shining a light on Jesus.
This theological balancing act–of being unapologetic Jesus followers while honoring other paths, of offering a distinctively flavored Christian congregation without seeming exclusive or arrogant–is also a very practical concern to us. We believe there are others in our larger community who have perhaps foresworn church years ago but will “get” us if they can ever get to us. We hope to light up a path to our doorstep for those who may not even be looking for a church but might discover in us spiritually adventurous traveling companions and long to explore the big questions without all having to reach the same answers, to honor the life and teachings of Jesus central to us without assuming Jesus is the only way, to join a diverse and inclusive community, to engage in work for social justice and ecojustice, and to be intrigued that Christian theology is evolving in response to science and world religions.
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—the word “light” being used here as a noun. The ad Rhoda recently wrote for this month’s issue of Natural Awakenings illuminates well who we are. I hope you’ll read it and share it with others. 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 our current book study of Short Stories by Jesus, a wry smile and a comment that we “take the Bible too seriously to read it literally,” a gentle word of assurance that your church not only welcomes but AFFIRMS LGBTQ persons just as they are.
We try to bring some light to our community. After humble discernment, we try to take public stands with courage and conviction without demonizing folks who disagree with us. I hope we are edgy without being offensive. Whenever we take a stand on something, as the UCC in general is wont to do, we risk moving from lampstand to grandstand. But let us never avoid the lampstand.
But contrast the “shining city on the hill” image from 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—according to the laws of physic. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see . . . What? 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 gaze upon a light source as we, for example, stargaze on a clear night, 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 about everyone having to agree with us, about the need to satisfy grasping ambitions, about our assumptions that we control our little universes, then we can 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 writer 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, to their “style,” or even to their words but to the world their writing illuminates.
By letting go of the labels for who we are and what we have to acquire and do in order to be valued, we followers of Jesus can simply 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 his claim to being a signpost—a well-lit signpost—to God.
In English the word light can be used not only as noun and verb but also as adjective to mean the opposite of heavy. I suggest that people of Light 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 this morning. 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 with 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.
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.
Illuminating God, help us shine your light, share your 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).