The Light that Makes a Difference

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a

Although it seems that construction here is going to drag on forever, we are actually about two months from completion. One of the major things that has happened in the past two weeks—which is one of the things that has to be gotten right before the project can continue—has been the addition of our new skylights. Because the new administrative suite has expanded the building in such a way that we’ve lost the access we once had to sunlight, the skylights have been carefully thought out and designed so as to provide maximum natural light to the interior.

The new skylight just on the other side of this sanctuary wall, for example, will allow almost twice as much light into that hallway and through those stained-glass windows as the ones before. Three small skylights in the ceiling of the new conference room will help bring light to the office spaces. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the skylight in the new gathering area. It will run the length of the exterior wall that faces the parking lot and is placed the way it is not just so that light will come in, but so that when you look up through it you can see our cross. I think we’re all going to like that the architect was that thoughtful with his concept.

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In each of these cases what I’ve learned with the Building Team over the past year or so of designing and planning is that light matters. I think I always understood that fact on some level, but this whole Brighten Our Light process made it much more real. How light is channeled, reflected, muted, diffused, focused is simple, yet complicated—there’s actually a whole field of study you can major in at a handful of universities called architectural lighting. It helps you learn the physics and art of how light defines a space, opens it up, lifts a mood. Right now there’s a new song on the radio by Eric Church called “Monsters.” It’s not exactly architectural-lighting-level-stuff, but Church talks about killing the monsters in his bedroom as a child just by turning on the 60-watt bathroom lightbulb. Light matters. It makes a difference.

That’s all the disciples of Jesus really needed to know to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about how their faith, their righteousness, would have an impact on the world. Their actions of love and mercy would be the way the light of God would get in to the dark corners of the world, bounce off the walls, lift the mood, kill monsters. They will matter, make a difference.

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For some time I’ve noticed we talk this way about the desire about our lives. People speak in terms of making a difference in the world, and it seems to resonate with a lot of us. Implicitly or explicitly people mention this longing that their lives will have impact on others and make it a better place. The theme song for the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, in fact, was “Make a Difference.” We were all taught this song down in the Superdome. “I want my life to make a difference,” went the song’s chorus, “I want my life to make a change.”

That may be, in fact, how you feel. You want your life to make a difference. This place in Scripture right here, right near the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is probably the closest Jesus ever comes to saying “Go make a difference in the world.” He puts a little different spin on it, though, for the difference his disciples are to make in the world isn’t mainly for their own sake of fulfillment. It’s for God’s sake.“Let your light so shine before others,” he says, “so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That is, the light I shine isn’t primarily for my own well-being, so that I feel I have a purpose. Jesus doesn’t say anything about my feelings at all, in fact. Isn’t that funny? This is about others getting the light and then mainly about God. The light we reflect, focus, diffuse, channel, the 60-watt bulb we flick on to kill the monsters of evil and hatred, is for the purpose of bringing God glory.

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This is also the part of Jesus’ teachings where he gets more scientific than anywhere else. It’s not just light that Jesus uses as an example for his disciples’ lives, but salt. I doubt the disciples would have known this, but because salt is a polar compound, it is able to dissolve into just about any greater substance and make the whole thing taste totally different. The positive and negative ions can dissociate and move all over the place. Have you ever baked bread without adding salt to the dough? I’ve learned the hard way. It tastes awful. It’s like eating plain wheat. And the dough also rises too fast without salt, so it can often go flat. Salt slows the growth of yeast. Just a little is all you need because it can spread out and fill the whole loaf. Therefore salt not only gives a loaf flavor—makes it worth eating—but it also gives the bread better form and texture.

For Jesus, the difference his followers are to make in the world has to do with spreading out, not necessarily taking over. The difference is about expanding, influencing, impacting through small but potent measures. It is about taking the light of Jesus Christ and bouncing it into whatever space we’re in. But the kicker is that this difference is not something we make alone. It is our difference, our impact, our influence as a group, as a church, as a body. It is not “I” but “We.” The song from the 2012 Youth Gathering, although it was catchy, might better have gone, “We want our life together to make a difference. We want our life together to make a change.”

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Jesus needs his followers to know they are a community, that the light they will give, the light the world so desperately needs, is fundamental to the way they live with each other. It’s about their collective values of sharing bread with the hungry, of bringing the poor into their houses, of clothing the naked. They nurture this kind of life together. In fact, these are the guidelines for Israel’s life together that Isaiah announces five or six centuries before Jesus is even born. These things are great when a single person undertakes them, of course, but when even a small community makes them their flavor, an entire world can feel the difference. The light of God will break forth like the dawn.

Things haven’t changed. The goal for God’s people hasn’t changed. We are still called to be salt and light and nurture our common life. Maybe, just maybe, one way the church can be light and salt these days is to be the community that can somehow model unity and respect in the midst of a very divided world. In case you haven’t noticed, the rest of the loaf is tension and anger, it’s Republicans and Democrats ripping up speeches and gloating and yelling at each other, politics as usual. The rest of the world’s loaf right now is malaise, rising levels of cynicism and sarcasm, anxiety and rates of suicide.

And while all that kind of stuff is going on, local Christian congregations will be the salt that keeps the good flavor going. They’ll create a meal chain for a family going through a devastating loss. They’ll have birthday parties for 6-year-olds and instead of asking for gifts they’ll ask guests to bring book donations for a local elementary school library. They’ll see the news reports of tensions rising in the Persian Gulf region, and they’ll take up a collection for Navy personnel who may be stationed on a ship near it all. They’ll maintain a sense of humor somehow, eat pancakes and watch youth be silly at a Talent Show. I know syrup is sweet and Jesus is talking salt, but it works. These people will be peaceful and forgiving in spite of their ornery, clueless pastor. Maybe they’ll do things like that. I think they already do.

One thing I know for sure is—because it’s precisely what Jesus says to them—is that, washed by the mercy of Jesus Christ, they become people who say, “I am part of the problem with the world. I have some work to do” in the midst of a culture who is always saying, “Those people are the problem. They have some work to do.” Christ’s followers will be the ones, the salty little ones, who will point out their own faults and God’s mercy to overcome them rather than pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s what the Pharisees and scribes were all about, don’t you know? They were always pointing out where the other people fell short, the sins that other people needed to confess. The Pharisees were experts at diagnosing the problems of the world. The righteousness that exceeds them says, “Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself.”

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Because people with that excessive righteousness will know it’s really not about them. They’ll know it’s not about how bright their light is, as if the glow originates within themselves, as if they’ve got their crap together and they’re so goody-two-shoes that all the Pharisees and scribes would die to be just like them. In fact, Jesus’ followers will know their crap isn’t together and God loves them anyway.

No, if they shine at all they’ll know it’s because they’ve been opened up somehow to a certain degree—maybe through repentance, maybe through suffering—opened up, like a hole in the roof, a gash in the ceiling, so that when people look at them they see the cross shining through.  It’s because people will look at them—at us—whether we’re in the building with our cool new skylights or we’re outside of it somewhere, like dissociated ions, filling the world, and they’ll see a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, from a love that is above, shining down. They’ll see us in our light and know nothing among us but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. They’ll not see a people who are making a difference, but a loving God of light who makes a difference.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Waiting for consolation

A sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord

Luke 2:22-40 and Psalm 84

It was just a few weeks ago. I needed to pick up a few things at Target and I had my 3-year-old son with me. He’s only recently been allowed to walk by himself in the store instead of being strapped into the cart, but I thought I’d give it a go. In we walk, the two of us together, and make our way across the store by way of the wide aisle. We get about halfway to the food section and I realize he’s not right beside me anymore. I turn around and find that he is face to face with a woman I’ve never seen before. She’s got a red top on and khaki pants, so I figure she must be a store employee. She has crouched down to talk to him right next to her re-stocking cart, and as I approach them she looks up and says, “You must be Jasper’s father!”

“Yes,” I explained, as I got ready to pull him away so she could get back to work.

“Oh, let me talk to Jasper,” she said, “I heard his voice since he came in the store and I’ve been hoping I’d get to see him.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, “you know my son’s voice?”

“Oh, yes! I love him. I met him back in the fall and have seen him a few times, but it’s been several months since we’ve run into each other!”

Jasper stood there and gave me a look like, “Dad, leave us alone.”

So I watched them talk for a few minutes, utterly engaged with one another.

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It was one of those moments where I realized that my own son, although he was still young, although he still has so much to learn about people and strangers and conversations, was already forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from me. Although I am very much in control of his world, he was already able to venture out from my care and know people I don’t know. It’s kind of a proud but scary feeling. The Target employee was excellent, though.

It wasn’t Target, but the Jerusalem Temple for Jesus. And he wasn’t three-years-old and able to talk. He was just forty days old, right at that point in his development where he might have been able to start smiling at people, where his eyes could focus only about 8 to 12 inches away. Mary and Joseph walk in and immediately encounter someone who has been waiting for him. This stranger—not a temple employee, but a faithful, devout elder of the city—scoops Jesus from Mary’s arms (can you believe it?!) and begins a conversation.

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Aert de Gelder

The man hasn’t ever actually met Jesus before, but in some way he knows him. He knows him because he’s been waiting for him—waiting for the consolation of God’s people—and the Holy Spirit has led him to the Temple that day. And then here comes Anna, another elder who happened to never leave the temple, so faithful was she in her devotion to God. She begins to praise God and again makes a remark about waiting for him like everyone has been waiting for redemption.

The holy couple are probably both proud and a bit scared. They have that moment—that moment when they realize their child, still so young, will be forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from them. In fact, that is the sole purpose of Jesus’ existence, his reason for living, moreso than any other human: to form a relationship of love and mercy with all the people of the earth, to have an impact on everyone. As Simeon says, he is destined for the rising and falling of many. He is to be consolation. He is to be redemption.

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In the modern-day classic comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, the main character, TV weatherman Phil Connors, finds himself mysteriously stuck in a time loop where he always wakes up at 6:00am on February 2. He relives the day over and over again. He never ages, the town never changes, and he goes through the course of each February 2 meeting the same people and having the same opportunities. The whole time, of course, he is waiting and waiting to figure out how he can be redeemed from the whole situation. Quite literally, he seeks consolation, deliverance, from what quickly becomes a hell for him. We watch him respond to his situation any number of ways. He is transformed through his waiting but in the end his deliverance comes from within. He figures out, at long last, how to reach his own consolation.

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It is a charming movie and on some levels it teaches good lessons about things like attitude and charity and suffering, but Simeon and Anna are both looking for and find consolation and redemption from outside themselves. Their deliverance into a new world comes from a Savior. Their hopes are fulfilled not because some thought or attitude suddenly clicks from within, like trial-and-error self-help situation, checking out the books one-by-one from the library, but because they see God has reached down into the world and given his Son who is going to have conversations and relationships with people despite their brokenness. He is ours. The wait is over.

A better comparison to Simeon and Anna and to ourselves on this February 2 is the Greensboro Four, the young black men who, 60 years ago today, were sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC, and waiting for a meal. They were waiting for consolation, too, for a redemption from a corrupt system of racial discrimination that would only come about when white people in power would let it happen. They, too, found themselves in a hellish time loop, day after day at the same counter, waiting for equality and facing hostility. They would end up waiting 146 days to get served lunch, but that’s only counting from the beginning of the sit-in. Technically-speaking you could say they waited over 200 years.

Simeon and Anna, both at the end of their lives, reveal that waiting and seeking is part of faith. And they both reveal that the only true deliverance from world that repeats its darkness and sorrow and injustice over and over again involves seeing the light of Jesus, of letting him love us and claiming that love. The only real fulfillment to the long wait for salvation is to behold the Son of God whose arrival reveals our inner thoughts, who brings the fall and rise of many. And the ones who fall are the ones we tend to think of as great and powerful, the ones who abuse authority, who lord over their people, who use things like religion and the economy to oppress others. And the ones who rise are the ones we cast aside, who are poor, or who are mourning, elderly, feeble, fragile.

Psalm 84, appointed for today, the Presentation of Our Lord, makes note of how both the sparrow and the swallow are able to make their nests by the altars of the Lord. Two of the most insignificant, most delicate, most non-descript creatures find place in God’s presence, right at its heart. Who are the sparrow-like in our time? Who are the people whose existence is so vulnerable, dependent on others for safety? They are the ones able to draw nearest to God.

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baby swallows in a nest

You may be interested to know there is only one other person in the gospel of Luke who is described as waiting and looking for God in the same way and that person, too, ends up holding Jesus. It comes at the very end of the gospel as Jesus’ limp and lifeless body is taken down from the cross and his followers wonder what to do with it. Another man, like Simeon, appears from nowhere and asks Pilate for the body so he may place it in a tomb. His name is Joseph of Arimathea, and he holds the broken body of Christ the same way Simeon held the child. He too is described as a good and righteous man who is looking for the kingdom of God.

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Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, but in Jesus’ death we see just how much God’s love is presented to us. The family comes to be purified according to the law, but through the cross we see how we all are purified by love. Simeon and Anna see a light beginning to shine on the child’s fortieth day but Easter morning will prove just how bright that light will get. These devout and righteous men may hold Jesus in their arms, but in reality it is the other way around: Jesus holds us—in birth, in death, in the life to come.

And today we behold him again, or, rather, he holds us, in bread and wine, in his words,  in the promise of deliverance and salvation from all that holds you captive. He is your Savior. Let him crouch down, scoop you up, love you forever. “Master, now you dismiss your servants in peace, according to your word. Our own eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared—like a table, like a feast, like a lunch counter—in the presence of all your peoples.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.