As many of you know, my husband Fred and I don’t live here in the City – to be honest, we wouldn’t be able to afford it – but in Walnut Creek, about 30 miles east from here. We love our neighborhood – it is not too fancy and has an interesting mix of people. We like our immediate neighbors, but of them stands out: Alex. I don’t even know his last name, but he is quite a character. He’s a veteran of the Vietnam war, and bought his place, which is diagonally across from where we live, on the G.I. bill, sometime in the early seventies. He pretty much lives off the grid, and he has two passions, at least that I know about: cacti and rocks, and his front yard is full of cacti and rock sculptures. In fact, pretty much each morning he rides out on his bike and collects rocks – but he’s picky about them, not any rock will do!
Alex also knows the entire neighborhood very well, he makes a point of getting to know everyone; whenever I see him around, he is usually shouting out a greeting to someone, or chatting with someone. Oh, and he loves dogs. And every dog in the neighborhood loves him – Alex has these special treats, ‘All natural,’ as he will tell every dog owner. And he tells the truth – once I was standing behind him in the neighborhood supermarket. Alex bought some simple and not so natural food items for himself – and a bag of quite expensive, natural dog treats.
Now Alex, at first, was a little reserved when he heard that both Fred and I are pastors. It was quite clear that Alex is not a friend of the church – and that the church wasn’t a friend of his in the past. But he warmed up to us, especially after he figured out that we are not necessarily of the conservative kind, and one day, he intercepted Fred and asked him if he could get him a copy of a song that he remembered from his childhood, a song that had somehow stuck with him all those years: This little light of mine.
Now I think we all know this song, right? ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!’
I don’t know what this song meant to Alex, that he asked for a copy decades after he had learned that song somewhere. But if you think about it, in all its supposed simplicity and innocence, “This little light of mine” is a hopeful song, a powerful song, and, yes, even a protest song. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
And it is a good song to remember, because how often, in our lifetime, do we have doubts about this little light of mine, this little light of ours? How often are we too discouraged to believe that we have this light in us and about us – individually and as a congregation? How often are we told we’re not good enough? I think we all know folks who rather focus on our weak points than the things we have to offer to the world.
It’s also good to remember that, as a congregation, as a community of faith, we have something to offer. We are a light, that’s been shining, flickering, beaming in this neighborhood for 125 years. How often are we discouraged, because our numbers are getting smaller, and we just can’t seem to figure out to remain vibrant and enthusiastic? As St. Matthew’s, we ought to sing this defiant song: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
The words of today’s gospel, and the gospel stories for the next few weeks are taken from what is called the Sermon on the Mount, the first big public speech Jesus gives at the beginning of his ministry. The Sermon on the Mount is like a state of the union, if you will, the state of the kingdom of God – and much more important and powerful than any speech any president or leader could ever give.
This ‘State of the Kingdom of God’ is spoken to a crowd of nobodies, people hungry for God, people hungry for hope. These are people who previously may have been told, you have nothing special to offer. There probably are women and children among the crowd, who had no status whatsoever in Jewish society. Jesus speaks to the unimportant, the seemingly powerless.
And now pay close attention to the words Jesus speaks to these people. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Jesus doesn’t say: it would be nice if you were the salt of the earth. Or: be the light of the world. Or: you should aspire to be salt and light. No: You ARE salt. You ARE light.
This is how you were created, this is your identity. This is who you are. God made you to be light, God made you to be salt. You were created to be the ones to bring about hope and further growth and life in this world. All of you.
All of us. Just as those listeners 2,000 years ago in the Galilean countryside were empowered by these words, so are we today. No matter what the world tells us; no matter how we may be belittled and bullied by others, telling us we are inadequate, not good enough, that, if only we did this, than everything would be better, it doesn’t matter – we are salt. We are light. Because God made us this way – in God’s own image. Because God gave us the power and the authority to spread God’s love and hope.
In that sense, the words, “Let your light so shine before others…” is not so much an order: you better let your light shine – but an affirmation, or even an encouragement: you are this light! Don’t be afraid to let it shine, don’t put it under a bushel basket: Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Now the light each of us carries may be rather little. I mean, I’d love to be like Bill or Melinda Gates, or Warren Buffet, and have loads of money to spread around in charity – I think I’d be a great philanthropist. I’d love to be like Mother Theresa, joyfully and humbly serving the poorest of the poor. I’d love to be like Rosa Parks, whose birthday was last week, not afraid to stand up, or should I say, sit down for justice and equality. But, alas, I am not. But we have all been given something, something special, something we can share. A little light that shines in the darkness for soemone. To go back to my neighbor Alex, he spreads cheer and goodwill wherever he goes, and gives people – and dogs – around him the feeling: I care about you. You are important to me. It is not an exaggeration to say that Alex is the light of our neighborhood.
Can we all agree that each and every one here carries that light of God in them and has something special to share? And now I would like to challenge you: turn to your neighbor in the pew and tell them what light you see in them. What is the special thing about them?
Sometimes it is good to be reminded of the light we are, and how this light affects those around us, isn’t it? Sometimes we might not even know ourselves how others see this light, right? Anyone here today who was surprised by what they heard?
Now we all are the light of the world. We just reminded ourselves that we all have something to share to show forth Christ to the world, and to spread God’s love, mercy, and justice. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. And it’s important to let it shine. One little flame can give hope in deep darkness and show the way.
But Jesus, on that mountaintop, had a whole big crowd in front of him, and he called out to them: You, y’all, are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. One flame is good and important, but when we put our lights together, the light is magnified, it is more powerful, and shines more brightly.
So today we are not only reminded that individually we are this light from God, but that God created us to be a community, people who pull their resources together, and who do so for the glory of God and the good of all. We are the light of the world. That’s who we are, no matter, what others say. Y’all, let your let so shine before others! This light, no matter, who little it seems to be, has the power to change the world, one person at a time. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
And let the people of God say
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