Get Up, Don’t Be Afraid

(sermon 2/26/17 – Transfiguration Sunday)

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Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  – Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)

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They started out early in the morning, when the fog was still hanging heavy over the top of the mountain, because it was a long, steep way to the top. Before long, though, the sun had burnt off the fog, and they were enjoying a beautiful, bright, sunny day that they were enjoying as they made their way higher, higher up the winding path. Of course, Jesus was leading the way, and right alongside him were Peter, and James, and John, maybe excited about the trip, maybe feeling just a little bit superior over the thought that Jesus had picked the three of them over the others to join him on this trip. Surely that must have made them Jesus’ inner circle, didn’t it?

The day wore on, and at some point Jesus decided they’d gone far enough. And then, Matthew tells us, Jesus was changed. He was transfigured, he was transformed. His face blazed like the sun; his clothes were dazzling white, brighter than Tide white, brighter than my pasty white body enjoying a day at the beach white. In that moment, these good Jewish disciples of Jesus had to remember the scripture, our first Lectionary reading today, that told about Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and that his face turned a dazzling, bright white like this too. And then, as they’re thinking about that, Moses himself actually appears, and Elijah, and they’re talking with Jesus – and it’s clear to them what this must symbolize; here’s Moses, representing the Torah, the Law; and Elijah, representing the prophets; and that this is a sign that Jesus is the culmination, the fulfilment, of the Law and the Prophets; that Jesus is indeed God’s chosen; God’s anointed one.

It was an amazing, incredible thing. The three of them stood there completely overwhelmed by it all, this great, incomprehensible mystery that they were standing in the middle of. And of course it was Peter, because he was, well, it just always seemed to be Peter – impulsive, fly-off-at-the-mouth, shoot-from-the-hip Peter, who stands up and does what human beings often end up trying to do when they’re in the middle of an incomprehensible mystery – they try to put some structure to it. They try to put some order to it, to make it understandable. “Lord, let’s build three dwellings. We can put together a building program. Well, first, I suppose we should draw up some paperwork, and maybe incorporate, and probably set up some bylaws. Then, we should probably elect a few committees, and then we could start a capital campaign – after all, we really should do this decently and in order…”

It’s a normal human response to want to try to make sense out of something we don’t really understand. To take apart the mystery and get it to fit into some system, some structure, that we can understand, that we can get our arms around. That normal human response is an important part of how God designed us, and in all honesty, it’s led us to great advances in human knowledge and understanding. There have been other times, though, where that structure, that system, that we use to try to understand the mystery, actually sucks all the life, all the power, out of the mystery that made it so special and wonderful to begin with. Just as one example, you surely don’t need me to tell you that there are times when our institutional church structure serves us well, but there are other times when it gets in the way, when it clogs up the work of God’s Spirit.

Well in any case, there’s Peter, going on and on, talking about what they should do, until apparently God has heard enough about Peter’s plans to put some structure to this great mystery – to quantify it, organize it, maybe put it all on a spreadsheet somehow to make it more understandable, so they could keep it all going just as it was in that moment – and a dense cloud rolls over the mountain, even thicker than the fog of that morning, and the voice of God booms out of the cloud, “Enough! This is my Son – listen to *him*!!!”

And in an instant, everything is changed. The great, fantastic moment is shattered; it’s vaporized. Peter, James, and John fall to the ground in white-knuckled, heart-pounding, can-barely-catch-their-breath terror. All the plans, the hopes they were starting to put together to keep this mountaintop experience going on, have come crashing down in an instant. Now what do they do? Now what’s going to happen?

Well, the first thing that happens is that they feel Jesus’ hand on their shoulders, touching them, reassuring them, “It’s OK – Get up, don’t be afraid!” Even though things didn’t work out the way they’d started to plan, God was still there, Jesus was still there, helping to lift them up, dust them off, and to guide them forward.

How many times have we found ourselves in the same kind of situation? Things were going well for us, and we were making plans and doing what we could to keep things going the same way going into the future, when all of a sudden, something brought it all crashing down. Suddenly, everything was different. The old assumptions didn’t apply, and we found ourselves trying to figure out how to move forward when now, everything is uncharted territory.

We definitely find ourselves in that kind of a situation in the church today. It used to be that the church pews were full every Sunday, and nothing ever had to change, and nothing really ever did change, but still, people kept on coming back. Until one day, they didn’t. Fewer and fewer people started coming to church, and we worried if we’ll survive, and we didn’t know what to do, and honestly, maybe we still don’t. And that terrified us maybe as much as Peter and James and John were terrified on that mountainside. But the good news for us is that just like them, we don’t need to be terrified, either. Because Jesus is reaching out to us, telling us the same thing – Get up, don’t be afraid; I’m here with you.

And it isn’t just the church; it’s our own personal lives, too. Times when our lives are turned upside down, when we’re knocked to the ground, and we don’t know how to move forward or even *if* we can move forward. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love, someone who’s everything to us, they’re like the air we breathe, and we don’t know how we’d get along without them – and one day, they’re just gone. It’s like we’ve been punched in the stomach, we’re knocked off our feet. But Jesus reaches down and touches us, and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’m right here with you.” Maybe we lost a job; we’ve never been rich but we always made do, and we paid our bills and maybe socked a little bit away for a rainy day, but now that’s over, we don’t know what we’re going to do, we don’t know how we’re going to get by, and the bills just keep coming in the mail every day – but Jesus reaches down and touches us and says “Get up, don’t be afraid – I’ll help you find a way forward.” Maybe we get bad news, terrifying news, a life-changing diagnosis from the doctor, and we’re terrified at what it means for us – but there’s Jesus’ hand on us again, “Get up, don’t be afraid – we’ll walk this path together.” Society changing, government changing, laws changing, and always it seems for the worse, going backward and not forward – and Jesus says “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

There are all sorts of things preachers can preach about when we read about the Transfiguration – but for me, it’s always been about this moment when Jesus reaches down, even after the disciples were missing the point and going off in a wrong direction, and he lovingly helps them up, telling them to not be afraid. I always thought that in that moment, when they let their fears go, and trusted Jesus, and got back up out of the dirt and on their feet, that they were transfigured – they were transformed, too – maybe not as big and bold as Jesus was, but in a real way, their lives were changed, and they were made a bit more the people God had created them them to be.

And I believe that’s true for us, too. When Jesus reaches out to us in our times of terror, our times of worry, our times of doubt and uncertainty; and when Jesus reaches out to touch us, and to lift us back up, and to lead us forward, we’re transfigured, too. We’re new creations, loved by God, empowered by God, led by God. We know that’s true. And if we know that’s all true, and we know that Jesus is indeed right here with us, telling us not to be afraid of any of those things, then really, there is nothing – nothing! – nothing outside these walls, or within our own hearts, that we should ever be afraid of.

Thanks be to God.

Perfectish

(sermon 2/19/17)

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Scene from the 2001 film “To End All Wars”

 

[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)

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There’s a movie that came out a number of years ago called “To End All Wars.” It was based on a book written by a man named Ernest Gordon, which told about his experience as a prisoner of war for three years during World War II. Gordon was a young Scottish schoolteacher who enlisted in the army. He was captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942, when more than 80,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese army. He was interred in a prisoner of war camp, where he was part of the slave labor that carved a railway out of the jungles of what at the time was called Burma. The movie is a gripping, discomforting look at the brutality that human beings can subject others to;­­­ and more importantly, our response to being subjected to it. It tells the story of some of the prisoners opting for violence and revenge against their captors at any opportunity they could find, while others, including Gordon, drew on the teachings of their faith and opted for a course of non-violence and forgiveness – even when it seemed all but impossible, and even when it earned them the scorn of the other prisoners, who considered them weaklings, cowards, even traitors. “To End All Wars” is a very realistic film. It doesn’t pull any punches about the gut-wrenching depth of the brutality that the prisoners endured. And it doesn’t sugar coat the real human struggle, the moral dilemma, endured by the prisoners who tried against all their human instincts to live according to their Christian faith and not return evil for evil, while living in the midst of great evil. It doesn’t make the prisoners’ choices simplistic to make for an easier resolution to the story, even while it does ultimately offer the message of the correctness and the redemptive nature of the path of nonviolence and forgiveness.

I’d actually love to have a screening of the movie here some evening; I think it would lead to great, thoughtful conversation. And we Presbyterians can take a little bit of ownership in the story too, because Ernest Gordon, like most Scots, was a good Presbyterian. In fact, after the war he went to seminary and became an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, and spent a large part of his postwar life serving as the dean of the chapel at Princeton University.

“To End All Wars” is one of the best movies that you’ve probably never heard of, and not just because it didn’t feature an all-star cast. It’s more likely that you never heard of it because it had the misfortune of being initially released on September 2, 2001 – just days before 9/11, which ushered in a time when even more than usual, not many people were interested in the film’s message of forgiveness of one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and not returning violence for violence.

I think of that movie a lot whenever I read this part of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we heard today. There are some times when we might not be exactly sure what Jesus means when he says something. This isn’t one of those times. This is one of those times where his meaning is crystal clear. Don’t return violence for violence. Don’t just forgive, but love, your enemies.

And that’s the hard part for us, because it just goes against every fiber in our bodies. This just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem *just.* I mean sure, God wants us to be peaceful, but we aren’t supposed to just become a bunch of doormats, are we? On Sunday after Sunday, we come together, and we pray that we would hear God’s Word, and that God’s Spirit would work within us to make us more Christlike. But if we’re totally honest with ourselves – and I certainly include myself in this – we don’t necessarily even *want* to become more like what we hear in Jesus’ teaching today.

Thanks be to God, though, for the great truth for all of us that God’s love, and God’s grace extended to us, is so great, so abundant, that it covers over us even when we don’t want to be obedient to the ways of the Kingdom of God. To be honest, it’s this reality of God’s grace – this completely unearned, undeserved love and acceptance of us even in our imperfection – that we give thanks to God for every week. We don’t give thanks to God for loving us because we deserve it, but precisely because we don’t.

Well, while Jesus’ words were perfectly clear, the question of how we’re supposed to apply them can sometimes be up for grabs. Christians have been debating how to do that from the very beginning; probably within five minutes of the words having left Jesus’ mouth. Are these words absolute? Do they apply in every situation, or are there thresholds beyond which they’re more of a general principle, but don’t literally apply? Does the perceived greater good of preventing some injustice by resisting violence with violence sometimes justify it? The whole Christian doctrine of “Just War,” as opposed to pacifism, hinges on that very question. We also know that at the same time that Ernest Gordon was wrestling with this question in the jungles of Asia, on the other side of the globe the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, who planning to assassinate Hitler as a matter of faith, wrestled with this same question and reached a very different answer.

I can’t tell you categorically what the one, true Christian answer to this question is. I can’t even tell you if there is just one categorical Christian answer to begin with. But I can tell you that we all have to seriously consider this question as we try to come to terms with what it truly means to mold our lives in Christ’s example. How do we live out Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek; go the extra mile, to forgive when we’re treated unjustly?

I think I can safely say that no matter how you hear Jesus’ words, and no matter how, or where, or even if, you set any boundaries or thresholds with regard to how to apply them, probably all of us would admit that we could do better at living up to even our own standards with regard to these teachings. We could do better. We all probably know that even by our own standards, let alone Jesus’, we aren’t perfect.

But we also probably know that out of gratitude for God’s loving acceptance of us in our imperfection, we should work to become at least closer to that perfection. If we can’t be perfect, we can all at least work to become more perfectish.

I thought that today, as we think about Jesus’ words here, and how we might move even in some small ways to living them out more fully, we could take a few moments to think about those things, thoughts, and attitudes within us that hold us back from doing that. No doubt, it’s something different for each of us. Maybe it’s a sense of pride, or ego. Maybe it’s an attitude that we don’t want to be seen by others, or ourselves, as a weak, or a doormat, or a loser. Or maybe it’s some unresolved anger or resentment from a past wrong that we’ve suffered, and we’re still looking for some kind of revenge or redress. Whatever it might be, let’s engage in a little exercise now. It might sound a little corny, and maybe it is, but I think its symbolism is important. Take that little slip of paper that we handed out to all of you, and just write a word or simple phrase that identifies what you think is holding you back from living out Jesus’ words here more fully. Then take the paper, fold it in half, and fold it in half again And then, [when you come forward to receive Communion (early service)/after the sermon (late service)], bring it up front, and [just before you get to the Communion servers (early service)], put your paper in the water in the baptismal font. And don’t just flip it in; push it in, hold it down deep below the surface of the water, until it’s good and wet, a soggy, waterlogged, unreadable mess. As you do that, remember your baptism and the promise that’s part of it: that in it, these kinds of obstacles and shortcomings were made dead to you, and to God. They were submerged under that water and left behind. And that you can indeed let those things go because you really are now a new creature, a new child of God, living a new kind of life on this side of the water. And letting go of those things, letting go of your feeling that they can control you, really will make it easier for you to at least become more perfectish.

In an era that’s still very much an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a tweet for a tweet, letting go of those things and moving toward a life more perfectish might not make a good plot for a blockbuster movie here – but I’m pretty sure it would be a big hit at the multiplex in the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

Relationship Status

(sermon 2/12/17)

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[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

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Well. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like I’ve been taken to the woodshed after hearing this gospel text today. This is the third week that we’ve heard part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve moved past the feel-good “Blessed are you”s of the Beatitudes. Now, we’re starting to feel some sting in Jesus’ words. I mean, of course we aren’t supposed to murder, but now you’re telling me that even if we’ve ever just gotten angry at a person we’re facing God’s judgment? Even if we’ve ever just insulted someone, or if we’ve ever called someone foolish, we’re bound for the fires of hell? If that’s the case, then there’s no hope for any of us. It’s simply impossible for anyone to interact with other people and not get angry, or to think or speak about someone in an unflattering way. It just can’t be done.

And then Jesus continues by discussing marriage and divorce. If you get divorced, and especially if someone gets remarried, then in one way or another you’re engaging in adultery. I don’t want to get into a detailed consideration of Jesus’ views on marriage here today; that’s another day’s sermon, but still, this is a very sobering teaching for a lot of us – since, statistically speaking, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and something like half of those divorces end up resulting in a remarriage; and this statistic is at least as true for us in the church as it is for the general public.

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text can cause us to feel fear and guilt, maybe even tremendous fear and guilt. Every time I read this particular passage, it reminds me of a parishioner I once knew. She was a very deeply devoted Christian, and very active in the life of the church. She’d been raised in another church tradition before becoming a Presbyterian as an adult. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage that, thanks be to God, she got out of. A few years after that, she met a wonderful man. They eventually got married, and at the time I knew them, they’d been happily married for decades. But over time I noticed that whenever we served the Lord’s Supper, she never participated. Finally, I asked her why, and she told me that it was because of her childhood teaching in that other tradition – that it was sinful for her to have ended her first marriage, even as abusive a it was, and when she got remarried, she put herself in the position of living constantly, irretrievably, in a state of adultery – and that no matter how much of a Presbyterian she was now, deep down in her heart she still held onto what she’d been told as a child. She couldn’t’ shake the feeling that she was living in a dirty, sinful, adulterous lifestyle, and that made her unworthy to participate in Communion. Can you imagine living with that burden of guilt on your shoulders your entire life?

Well as I said, this isn’t a marriage and divorce sermon. But before moving on, I’ve got to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ primary point here – or anywhere else, for that matter – is to make anyone live with that lifelong kind of guilt and shame. To be even more blunt, I think that to interpret Jesus’ words here, or anywhere else in the gospels for that matter, in a way that harms someone in the way it did that parishioner, in a way that causes someone a lifetime of unshakeable pain, is a form of ecclesiastical malpractice, negligence.

Now having said that, I don’t mean to take all the teeth away from what Jesus is saying here, either. These issues are obviously very important to him; it’s only when he’s talking about something very important that he veers into this strong kind of language – pluck out an eye, cut off a hand. What I think is important about all of these things is that they all deal with the issue of human relationships, and potential harm to those relationships.

The issue of being in right, healthy relationships is of the absolute highest  importance to God, and anything that would harm or break those healthy relationships is a very, very serious matter in God’s eyes. Simply put, we were created in order to be in relationship. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being in healthy relationships with one another is a necessity for us to be fully, truly human.

And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the most important reasons that Christ established the Church. One of the most important things that we’re called to do is to offer an alternative way of being, a way different than what’s typically seen in the world. We’re supposed to model just how people can live in healthy relationships, relationships that honor God and complete our own humanity. It’s easy to find too many examples of the harmful behaviors that Jesus mentioned in this passage – allowing anger and insult to rule the day, harming and even breaking, destroying relationships, whether they’re marital relationships or other kinds. We seem intent on setting up different categories of people in order to justify not engaging in positive, constructive relationships with them. We see it done all the time; divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation – all these sorts of classifications and categories really boil down to being attempts to set up different tribes among us, and then to justify getting angry at them, or insulting them, or considering them foolish, or completely breaking relationship with them – in short, they’re attempts to justify not loving them.

The fact that being in healthy, right relationships with one another is so important to God is why harming those relationships earns some of Jesus’ strongest language. And we, the church, are called to model these kinds of relationships – not artificially, by ignoring the legitimate differences that we have within our midst, or pretending they don’t exist; but by loving one another even while acknowledging them. By seeking God’s help to allow us to find positive, authentic ways of living, and serving, and worshipping, together, forbearing one another – loving one another – without falling victim to any kind of actions or ways of being the church would separate us, divide us, tribalize us, and lead us into ways that break our relationships. We’re called to love one another when it’s easy. We’re called to love one another when it’s hard. But even when it’s hard, we can have hope, and confidence, because God has promised to walk this journey along with us. And if God has called us to that way of living, and has promised to lead us and strengthen us as we try to live that out, is there anything that we could possibly be worried or afraid of?

Thanks be to God.

Salt and Light

(Sermon 2/5/17 – Youth Sunday)

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“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.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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Last week, we heard the Beatitudes as our gospel text, that very familiar part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What we heard today was the part that immediately follows that one, and it’s probably pretty familiar, too. Jesus tells his followers that they’re supposed to be like light and salt to the world.

Whenever this passage comes around in the Lectionary, preachers pretty much know, and listeners pretty much know, where the sermon is likely to go: since we’re followers of Jesus, and we know God’s good news for all people, we’re supposed to be a very visible, positive model for others to see. We’re supposed to let our light shine, for others to be attracted to like a moth to a porchlight, and to draw others to become followers of Jesus, too. We’re the knowers and keepers of what’s good and right and true, that others are supposed to look toward and be inspired by.

That’s where most of these sermons go. That’s what most people are expecting to hear. That’s where many of my sermons on this passage have gone. And generally speaking, depending on how it’s presented, that’s a good message to get out of this. Jesus’ own words certainly bear out that message. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I think that Jesus’ own words indicate that there’s another way to think about this too.

When I was a kid, I remember helping my Dad as he was doing various things. Dad worked long hours, six days a week, and when he’d get home he’d have a to-do list that would often take him late into the evening to get done. And for a lot of those things, whether it was repairing a leaky pipe in the crawl space, or spending time under the hood trying to keep the aging family car running just a little bit longer, I’d be there beside him, passing him tools back and forth, and most importantly, often holding the big sealed-beam flashlight steady on his hands – so he could see what he was doing, but also, so I could see, because as he worked, he kept up a dialogue with me, explaining just what it was that was wrong, and how it had to be fixed, and what he was doing at each step of the way and why. During those sessions I learned all about the mysteries of the lead-to-tin ratio of solder, or how a distributor or carburetor worked, all periodically seasoned with a mild profanity or two when some all-important screw fell into an inaccessible crack, or he’d skin his knuckles when his wrench slipped. It’s funny how back then, half the time I hated getting dragged away from what I was doing to help him. But now, as I think back on it all, I’m surprised at just how much I learned almost in spite of myself, and how much I value those times with him now.

My point here is that in those times, I was in a literal sense, his light. But it wasn’t light to draw attention to me; rather, it was to focus on, and highlight, and learn from, something else. It wasn’t me, the light, who was teaching anything. I was the one learning something from him, because I was shining a light on what he was doing.

That, I think, is the other part of Jesus’ message in what we heard today. When Jesus calls us the light of the world, it isn’t so much to always call attention to ourselves, or how good or smart or wonderful we might be, or at least think we might be. Often, our job as the light is to focus it, to hold it steady on someone or something else – calling attention to it, not us.

I think this is the point Jesus is making when he calls us the salt of the earth – or, I suppose if you’re on a salt-restricted diet, you could say that we’re the Mrs. Dash of the earth. Think about it: what does salt – or Mrs. Dash – do? It enhances, it draws out, the flavor that’s already in whatever it’s added to. Its whole purpose is to call attention to the other thing, not itself. It isn’t about the salt; it’s about the other thing.

So whether it’s salt or light, an important part of Jesus’ calling us these things is our being those things in order to lift up someone or something else; to make it more visible or noticed.  We’re supposed to use our light to shine it on the good that we see, and to enhance it and learn from it. We use our light so we can see and learn from positive things that people are doing that are making this world a bit more like the Kingdom of God. People who are working to increase educational opportunities where it’s needed, or working to build character or reduce bullying. Or we can shine the light on our youth, so we can see them as the important part of us that they are, and so they can teach us something about faith and worship, instead of always assuming it’s the other way around. We’re also called to shine our light on things that are bad, things that are wrong, too, for people to be aware of it. Shining it on those in our society who endure injustice and discrimination, so we can see what’s really going on, as we listen to them teaching us about its reality and learning from them how to fix it.

There are certainly times when it’s right to think of ourselves as the bright thing, the thing that others are supposed to look to and be drawn to. But there are those other times – personally, I think it’s the majority of times – when the light that Jesus says we’re supposed to be is meant to be focused outward, on someone or something other than ourselves. Using the light to lift up and learn from the good, and to spotlight and help fix the bad, wherever we find it. And really, if we’re that kind of light – humbly turning it outward instead of just using to light ourselves – won’t that actually make others more intrigued and inspired by who and what we are? In the end, won’t that actually make us more the kind of light that Jesus says people will see and be drawn to?

Thanks be to God.