The Light on This Corner

Matthew 5:14-16 – February 5, 2017

matt-5-14-light-city-at-night

“The Light on This Corner”

Remember the holiday we celebrated here in this church, just a few weeks ago? The birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Foretold by prophets, welcomed by angels. I mean Christmas, the coming of God’s light into a dark world.

Just think about light, for a moment. When you walk into a dark house late at night, what is first thing you do? Turn on the lights. When the electricity shuts off during a power outage one dark and stormy night, what is the first thing you do? Find a flashlight or a candle and light it. Light is not only comforting, but useful. Light helps us in any number of ways. Helps us to see, allows us to work and read and go about our activities in what would otherwise be a dark and scary situation.

Jesus talked about light here in today’s Gospel reading, too. But before we get into His words about light, where does this reading coming from? These words are from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of His public ministry. Another way of looking at this long address is a long lecture on God’s view of a lot of things. Important things, with a lot of real-life illustrations.

Our bible study on Wednesday mornings has just started a study on the first verses of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, what comes just before these verses today. I won’t talk about the Beatitudes, since each sentence, each blessing of those deserves a whole sermon all by itself. We go on to these verses about salt and light, which the Rabbi Jesus places here, after the Beatitudes.       We could say more about salt (which is important, and tells us a lot about what Jesus thinks about the part we take in our world). However, I wanted to focus on Jesus’s words about Light. He says, You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

What did we sing right before the sermon started? “This Little Light of Mine.” When we held our lights up, do you know what that reminded me of? Remember back to Christmas Eve? For the closing hymn of that service, we sang “Silent Night.” We all held candles and sang. We held those candles as a symbol or sign of God’s light within each of us, God’s light that shines among us.

Jesus had a definite point to His words. We are light. Right now.

However, there is a definite temptation for many followers of Jesus. Some are tempted to make these words of Jesus a rigid requirement, as if Jesus were a stern, mean drill sergeant. Communicating with sarcasm, shaming. Shaking His finger at us and shouting, “You’d better be light!” Or a little less severe: “If you want to be light, do this!” Or even, “Before I call you light, I’ll need to see this from you.” [1]

Does that sound like Jesus? Truly? Would He ever use shame, guilt, and sarcasm?

That is most certainly not the way Jesus communicates here. As commentator David Lose says, “Rather, He says both simply and directly, “You are the light of the world.” It is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.” [2]

Dr. Lose reminds us of the statistics about a child’s self-esteem compared to what kind of messages they hear. When elementary-aged children hear one single negative message about themselves—like, “you’re mean!” “how stupid!” “you can’t do anything right!”—psychologists suggest that the children need to hear ten positive messages to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. [3] That is, to correct the internal emotional and psychological balance of the children, and cause them to have a positive, healthy self-image.

“Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or teen or adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she — all of us! — will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.” [4]

That is exactly what Jesus is doing here! He is calling us—naming us—light. We are—all of us—light of the world. The light of a city on a hill, shedding light to the whole community. Yes, Jesus wants us to be that light. He is calling us to grow into that identity and behavior! That same light of God we held up on Christmas Eve? The light of God that came into the world as a Baby born in Bethlehem? This is the same light that Jesus is talking about here. It’s the light of a city on a hill, and the light for the nations, that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

We aren’t required to do ten impossible things before breakfast to just break even with God, and try to get in line for a chance to reach for the light. It isn’t hoping that someday, maybe, we might finally become that light. We aren’t hiding our lights under a bushel, either.

We are that light! Now! And, we are holding it high! Why? Because, Jesus says so!

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor from DeKalb, about an hour west of here in Morton Grove, has this real-life illustration about letting the light of God shine.

About two weeks ago, she met with the director of Hope Haven, the homeless shelter in DeKalb. The director told Pastor Hunt that the homeless shelter is the second largest housing facility in the county for the mentally ill (after the county jail for DeKalb County). Pastor Hunt was cut to the heart when the director told her the homeless shelter had to ration toilet paper, because of severe funding cuts. (Imagine, rationing even toilet paper.)

This is what Pastor Janet Hunt’s Lutheran congregation is going to do for the month of February. She said, “we will be collecting toilet paper and giving it to some of the most vulnerable among us. And maybe this will give us a way to begin a conversation about why it is so that the jail and the homeless shelter appear to be the only options in our neighborhood for people who are so fragile. Maybe we can start to shine light on this and them even in a time when too much of the world seems to care so little for such as these. And maybe that shining light will serve as both beacon and promise to our neighbors — both those who are so vulnerable and those who have extra toilet paper to share.” [5]

This might just be a little thing her church can do. Little to them, but huge to the people at the homeless shelter. This is surely a way to let the residents and the employees at Hope Haven know that someone cares. Someone is listening, and caring, and doing something.

Dr. Hunt’s illustration is a tremendous tie-in with Micah 6:8 from last week’s sermon! Do justice and love mercy/kindness/chesed for these homeless people in DeKalb, and shine the light of God. In the same way, we can let our lights (or, the Light of God) shine here in Morton Grove so that others will see it and rejoice. A city build on a hill shines its light for all to see. This church on this corner shines its light for all to see in this community, as well.

Where have you seen the light of God, lately? How can you let your light shine, today? How can you make a difference in someone’s life, even if it is small? I have a list of some kind, loving things you and I can do, each and every day. We can BE what Jesus calls us: light to the world. Light to our community. We can all live into God’s affirmation, trust, and love and BE God’s light to everyone we meet. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011. (Italics mine.)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011

[5] http://dancingwiththeword.com/you-are-the-light-of-the-world/  “You Are the Light of the World,” Janet H Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Unity of Christ’s Church

“Unity of Christ’s Church”

Gal 3-28 all one in Christ

Galatians 3:26-29 – August 28, 2016

One of my sisters lives in the New York City area, on Long Island. She has lived there for more than twenty-five years. She is a wonderful, generous hostess, and often takes her family and friends to various places around New York, site-seeing. We love to visit my sister. When my children were younger, we went with my sister to the top of the Statue of Liberty—on two different occasions!

The Statue of Liberty. A beacon of light for generations. When my grandfather was a boy in the early 1900’s, he and his family emigrated to the United States from a shtetl in western Ukraine. He remembered standing on the deck of a steam ship from Europe, coming into New York harbor.  He gazed over the rail at the welcoming sight, along with everyone else on that ship. The Statue of Liberty was etched vividly into his memory. I know, because he told me so.

This country has been called a melting pot, containing different nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities. Some call this country a mosaic or a kaleidoscope of people. Whatever you call it, the United States is truly an amazing nation made up of a multitude of individuals (or, their ancestors) who came from all over the world.

Unity. Unity amidst diversity. That is what this country is all about.

Let’s take a second look at our Scripture passage for today from Galatians 3. The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in the region (or area) called Galatia in Asia Minor. He makes an all-important point at the end of chapter 3: our text for today. “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I think you all might suspect what the theme for today’s service is. Unity!

Just as our nation incorporates strong unity amidst wonderful diversity, so does the Church. Not only this congregation, this fellowship of believers, but I am talking about the Church Universal. The Church around the world.

Taking a closer look at verse 3:28, at first glance, we might focus on the differences. Wow! There are some pretty big differences here. Paul mentions some significant separations and divisions. Different categories. What does this diversity look like?

First, “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile.” That is a serious thing for the Apostle Paul to say. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul was a Hebrew of the Hebrews; a member of the Sanhedrin (that is, the ruling religious council of Jerusalem). A top-notch Pharisee who probably prided himself on his meticulous keeping of the Mosaic Law code, down to the smallest detail. Good, law-keeping, observant Jews of that time would not allow themselves to associate with, or even talk to a Gentile. So—after he became a Christian, we can see how serious Paul was about this unity of everyone, in Christ Jesus.

The second difference? “There is neither slave nor free.” Jesus Christ takes away all distinctions of social class and standing!

Wait a minute! That is not strictly true. In this troubled world, there are lots of differences, lots of separations in social hierarchy. In Morton Grove, we see many people who are solidly middle class. Different from wealthy people living on the Gold Coast, just off Michigan Avenue near the Water Tower. Go just a few miles further south, to the Englewood area of Chicago. I saw some of areas of extreme poverty when I visited there, earlier this month.

However, when people come to believe in Jesus Christ, social class and power can be dissolved, and go away. The unity of all believers is emphasized in this verse, again.

The third difference we notice? Paul mentions “nor is there male and female.”

Subtle difference! Yes, God created people male and female. Yet, when people come to faith in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation. All things are become new, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5. Even gender is given a back seat. Each person’s belief in Christ is emphasized in this new creation, differences are dissolved, and the unity of all believers is lifted up. We are all one big family.

Earlier in this letter, Paul mentions circumcision. That’s something that is very Jewish. And, very male. In the time before the common era, women and girls could not be considered full children of Abraham because they could not be circumcised. (For obvious reasons.) That was fully half of all religious people who could not fully participate in religious functions. Yet now, in this new creation in Christ Jesus, the old differences and distinctions no longer separate male and female. All things have become new.

Let me remind everyone of how earthshaking this all must have been for the Apostle Paul. Talk about having his entire worldview and frame of reference turned upside down! A good, observant Jew who studied with one of the leading rabbis of that day, now associating and eating with Gentiles. Staying in their homes. What a huge change of Paul’s way of thinking.

One big theme of the letter to the Galatians is that of identity. Who are we? What are our identity markers? How do we tell who others are, in our group? Paul says so, right here. Those who are baptized in Christ are children of God. Everyone who is baptized is our brother, our sister. That’s a whole lot of people, when we consider all the people who are believers, not only in the United States, but in the whole world!

I don’t know how many of you remember your own baptism, as infants and children. However, Paul is talking to people who were baptized as adults. The weeks beforehand must have been significant, too, in which these new believers were fully instructed and immersed in the understanding of Christ as their Messiah, their Lord and Savior. Then, often on Easter Sunday, the new believers were baptized. When possible, they were fully immersed, or at least had water poured over them in a large tub. Sometimes, naked, because they often would remove their clothing before the ceremony. After the baptism, they put on a new, white garment, signifying their new life in Christ. They were truly “clothed in Christ,” just as Paul says here.

As diverse and different as we are, considering world-wide Christianity, we all have become one humongous family of God. We are all God’s children.

How many of us, today, can say that? Yes, when babies and children are baptized today, we make a big fuss. We buy them special outfits for the occasion. But, do we truly take the new reality—this new identity—to heart? We have all been transformed, through Christ.

What a transformation! What an identity shift. We here at St. Luke’s Church are just as much God’s children as the Catholics worshipping at St. Martha’s Catholic Church south of Dempster. And, both groups of believers are just as much God’s children as those baptized at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church on Caldwell. And, what about our friends at Love Sharing Disciple Church here, who will be worshipping in this sanctuary later today? This is duplicated at churches and auditoriums all over the Chicago area, with diverse ethnic and cultural groups of believers. We can enlarge that to a wide variation of church practices, all over the world. Wow! Double wow!

What a mosaic of identity in Christ. What a kaleidoscope of difference, made one huge family of God. Remember our sentence for the week, from the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission? Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to embrace the unity of Christ’s church.”

The unity of Christ’s church, in such beautiful, rich, worldwide diversity. This is truly something to celebrate! Alleluia, amen.

[Thanks to Dr. Richard B. Hays for concepts and ideas from his commentary on Galatians 3, from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).]

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)