Little Lights in the World

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd­, Westworth United Church, February 9, 2014

Matt 5:13-14; I Cor 2:1-12

What are the marks of a Christian? I’d like your help with this question this morning and, if the acoustics allow, invite you to call out in a word what the gospels tells us the followers of Jesus should be like? In other words, what are the distinguishing characteristics of a Christian? (have joy and peace, are ethical & morally upright, kind and compassionate, just & in solidarity with marginalized, love).

Last week, I warned us about the prosperity gospel, an increasingly popular theology amongst some evangelicals. Today, I’m suggesting that we have much to learn from evangelicals, particularly with their ability to live passionately a public faith.

I was actually an evangelical for 10 years—a Southern Baptist no less—in my late teens and early 20s. At this time, I frequently noticed people coming up to us and asking what made us so happy, so peaceful, so…different? (I took this a compliment). Of course, for us Baptists, this was a natural opening to witnessing or testifying to our faith in Jesus which, if you could imagine, I did with great zeal.

We don’t do that very often in the United Church, for which, quite frankly, I am greatly relieved. But people also do not usually come up to us and ask us what makes us different. We don’t want to be different. We want to blend in, not draw attention to ourselves. We don’t like wearing our faith on our sleeves. We would rather, in Matthew’s words, hide our light under a bushel. But Matthew urges us to let our lights shine, to not be afraid about being a bit different from the societal norm, that others may see our good works and praise God.

Light has traditionally been associated with hope. We have heard the story of Amnesty International’s symbol of a candle circled in barbed wire. Peter Benenson’s inspiration for this symbol came from a Chinese proverb attributed to Confucius: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

I described a few weeks ago the Mennonite tradition that encourages anyone who is willing to offer their home as a place of refuge to light a candle in their window. A Mennonite neighbour of ours did just that—keeping an electric candle lit every night in their window.

Our multitude of candles on our communion table bespeak Epiphany. We welcome the soft, winter light, gradually lengthening in its gathering warmth as we welcome God’s revelation through the light of Christ.

But Matthew suggests something even bolder than receiving the light of Christ. Matthew tells us that we, the followers of Jesus, are the light of the world. Hope for this world is dependent upon us being the light of Christ. Some Christians have taken this so seriously, that they have risked their own lives to be this light.

Pastor Martin Niemoller preached on this very passage from Matthew in Berlin-Dahlem, Germany in 1936. He began his sermon with a list of 73 names of pastors and church members who had been forbidden to speak or were evicted or imprisoned by the Nazis. His own congregation was rightfully afraid, and he acknowledged that they might want to put their light under the bushel. The Nazis were warning them not to speak and sympathizers were warning them not to speak out for fear of their arrest, but Niemoller insisted that they must resist the Nazi takeover of the churches—they must keep the saltiness of the Church from being diluted into something else. “We must not,” he preached, “- for Heaven’s sake – make a German Gospel out of the Gospel; we must not – for Heaven’s sake – make a German Church out of Christ’s Church… I must speak thus once again to-day, for perhaps I shall no longer be able to do so next Sunday.” Shortly after preaching this sermon with these words, Niemoller was arrested and sent to the concentration camp in Dachau. He is most known for this quote:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Niemoller risked his life to be the light of the world; to be the salt of the earth. Here at home, we don’t risk death to be the light of Christ, the salt of the earth. But this passage still has a challenge for us. However, in order to contextualize this in Canada, we need first to move back in time and place to Jesus’ culture and learn what the salt of the earth might have meant to his listeners.

The common fuel for their clay ovens was camel or donkey dung. A delightful task of young girls was to collect the dung, mix it with salt and mould it into patties that would dry in the sun. “A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven and upon it the salted dung patty. [Apparently,] salt has catalytic properties, which cause the dung to burn. Eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability and is good for nothing but to be thrown outside where it can still provide a sure footing in a muddy road.” The word for earth in Aramaic and Hebrew is the same word for clay-oven. John Pilch concludes that, “To be salt for the earth-oven is to start fires and make things burn. Therefore, if Jesus’ disciples are the salt of the earth, they will also be ‘light of the earth.’[1]

How can we be catalysts of energy and light in our world? One commentator suggests that we are called to “a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth”[2] That takes us back to the beginning of the sermon. Do we exhibit the marks of a Christian? When others see or hear us, do they see patience or frustration? peace or worry? love or fear? We all have our bad days, when we find casualties of our frustration or impatience or critical spirit in our wake. But on those good days, when we’re able to relax into God’s generosity of grace, we can leave a trail of beauty and goodwill in our wake.

A few weeks ago, I asked us to consider entering into a 3 month challenge to leave our critical spirits behind. I’ve been surprised, frankly, at how many of you have taken up this challenge. In fact, some of you have increased the challenge to making a list of things for which you are grateful every day. You’ve upped the ante. So let the rest of us rise to your challenge and find one thing to be grateful for every day. Gratitude is, after all, one of the marks of a Christian.

To be consistently the salt of the earth; the light of the world, is no easy task—it is a spiritual discipline that takes daily mindfulness and courage to confess over & over our shortcomings. But—if we can aim for better consistency, people should notice a difference in us. Perhaps the mental & physical discipline of the Olympic athletes can inspire us to go for gold in our spiritual discipline. Instead of flipping out because of something that upsets us, we might exhibit a little more patience and compassion. If we set out one day at a time to live consciously into the marks of the Christian, we will be a little odd, a little different as we try each day to be little lights of Christ in the world.

 


[1] John Pilch, http://liturgy.slu.edu/5OrdA020611/theword_cultural.html