The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet, All Saints Episcopal Church, Chelmsford, MA February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As you know, the scripture we read on Sunday morning is on schedule that we call the lectionary and it is put together by a committee and revised every now and again. What we read on any given Sunday was picked years in advance with no knowledge of the events of the day. What continues to astonish me is how time and again, if we pay attention and listen, the word we need to hear is proclaimed when we need to hear it. That is not because of the brilliance of the committee that put the schedule of readings together, but because of the unique, spiritual capacity, of this book, of our sacred scripture.
This morning, during this time of transition at All Saints, and my first Sunday with you, we hear, “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.” That appears to be, as we just said it was, “The Gospel of the Lord.” It is direction from Jesus about what we should make our next priority to be … here. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others.” To do that, to really do that, requires at least to locate all the sources of light we have, to become aware of where they are, to appreciate them, and to be able to talk about them to other people less familiar with this light.
As a new arrival among you, of course, there are a great many things I do not know and I want to know it all. I hope to discover everything wonderful and beautiful about this place. I so look forward to becoming acquainted with each and every one of you. Know that I will be looking for that light that Jesus directs our attention to. I will also be looking to see how much of the good that is happening here every day is something you all see and know.
The opposite of letting your light shine is hiding it. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” No one intentionally does that, but it happens, it happens too much, despite our best intentions. How? Far easier than anyone would expect. If I walked through a beautiful scenic place, like we have all around us in New England, and was asked to name all the beautiful things I saw. Frankly, I’m certain that no matter how much I raved about this tree, or that bird, or this rock, or that cloud, it would be pretty sad about how much of it I just missed. Probably most of it is lost on me because the surplus of beauty in the world around me is more than I can take in. Likewise, all the good things Jesus is doing at All Saints is too much for any of us to know. The light in a way is too bright.
But the next task here for us, I suggest, is to do our best to see it all, to appreciate everything that is alive and vital here, and to celebrate as much of it as we can. 2 Perhaps the most common way to slip the lamp under the bushel basket, even if unintentionally, is to do the opposite, that is to focus all of our attention on looking for what is wrong and trying to fix it. That does not sound so bad, but notice how this is not what Jesus exhorts us to do. And, if you think about it, it is really hard to find a story about Jesus where he says, “I’ll tell you what is wrong with you.”
There are far more stories of Jesus admonishing this person or that person to see what is right about them. Recall how he marveled at the faith of the Roman Centurion who had interceded for the healing of his servant (Mt 8), or how Jesus praised the hospitality of the tax collector Matthew who despite his dishonest occupation welcomed him into his home (Mt. 9), or his praise of Mary of Bethany as she devoted herself wholeheartedly to listening to the guest in her home. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus didn’t indict the hungry crowds for not bringing lunch with them; he did not lecture them on better planning (what were they thinking after all?), but Jesus celebrated the five loaves of bread and the two fish that they did have and multiplied it until there was more than enough for everyone. In story after story, rather than chiding people about what is wrong with them, Jesus grows miraculously what is right about them. And when there is that much that is right, it eclipses whatever may have been wrong in the first place. “Let your light shine before others.”
A lot of the negativity, fear, and anxiety in our society arises from the relentless obsession with what is wrong, as if darkness deserves our exclusive attention. The same is true of churches. There are always things we can do better and we should be honest and transparent about those things, but to only see that is to hide our light under the bushel. It is a failure to praise the Good and a failure to shine the light on the light. To celebrate the Good does not mean giving up on change and progress. It is more likely how change for the better, in fact, happens. If, like most of us, you have taken yourself on as a kind of project, you may find it hard going if what you see about yourself is only what is wrong.
Most of us are fairly well defended against such accusations, especially when they come from ourselves. That may be why Jesus did not approach people with such accusations and reproach. To improve yourself, you may be better served by attending to what is good about you, understanding that, and growing that until it crowds out what was never your strong suit. It is the good that calms our fears, soothes our anxious hearts, and brings about all that is positive. “Let your light shine.”
These days there are plenty of other places than here where we are told over and over again that there is something special about each of us and that we have an obligation to express it, to let our light shine. It is a popular television and movie theme, it is often how things are sold to us, and something of a secular reproduction of what was originally the gospel of Jesus. 3 There is an important difference between what has made its way into popular culture and the original, between what is everywhere in our songs and advertising and the truth told here in church. What is left out is the most surprising and empowering part of the message. What we discover and know as Christians is that the light Jesus speaks of is not our own. It is not something any one of us generates.
Jesus explains elsewhere, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The light is Jesus himself. Our light is a reflected light from him. It is because of the infinite power and contagiousness of his own light that Jesus says to us, “you are the light of the world.” Since you are here this morning, I’m fairly sure you have already had this sort of experience in your life. It is when you find yourself doing something for someone or saying something to someone, and what you are doing or saying is kinder, more compassionate, more hopeful, and more loving than you know yourself to be. Oh yes it is temporary and fleeting, but it is so common among Christians that we hardly speak of it. It is the light of Christ shining through you. Anybody who has had that experience, knows it to be as delightful as it is undeniably real. Once you recognize that experience in yourself, you can begin to see it in other people, that is, the light of Christ in you enables you to see that same light in others.
The light is a shared light. It is truly wonderful to witness Christ’s light shining through oneself, but to see that in another is its own joy, and that shared experience brings people together, and creates the church where there would otherwise just be separate individuals. We don’t know one another yet, but what we will find–and I am most sure of this–is that I will be looking for light in you and you’ll will look for light in me, and we will discover it is not only there, but it also–astonishingly–the same light. It is the light of Jesus. And that mutual recognition will be the basis of trust and love, formed quickly, because we are far from strangers to each other. In fact, we have long known the same voice as members of the same family encompassing all the saints.
Jesus says to All Saints, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others.” Let’s do exactly that and let’s do it together all of us. In our precious time together, let’s discover everything there is to delight in here and then shine those very things up so much that they are, in Jesus’ words, the “city built on a hill that cannot be hidden.” Don’t look at this time as treading water; it is not lost time at all. There is much to be excited about as we enter the next era of All Saints together. 4 May the Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world, grant that we, illumined by his words and presence, may shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and adored here in Chelmsford and to the ends of the earth. Amen.