Let Your Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-20

Early in the first semester of his junior year at Columbia, Sandy Greenberg unexpectedly lost his sight from glaucoma.  Depressed by his sudden blindness and unable to imagine any kind of meaningful future for himself, he dropped out of Columbia.  But his girlfriend, Sue and his roommate, Arthur, who was also his best friend, wouldn’t let him just sink into self-pity.  Sue and Arthur talked Sandy into returning to Columbia and stuck by him, taking turns reading his textbooks to him and helping him study. 

Blindness required Sandy to make some serious adjustments in his life and to learn a whole new set of skills.  Sue and Arthur had to make adjustments, too, to keep their promise to Sandy, but they navigated it all with wry humor.  Arthur started calling himself Darkness because Sandy told him one day that he had become a disembodied voice in the darkness.  

All that work paid off.  Sandy went on to earn two Master’s degrees, was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard.  He started two companies and invented and patented several new audio technologies.  He was the Johnson Administration’s Staff Coordinator for tech development, working with the Defense Department and the State Department.  He served on the Council on Foreign Relations, became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has served as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute.  But we’re getting ahead of the story here.

One day while he was in Grad School at Columbia, Sandy got a phone call from his old friend Darkness.  Arthur had been singing in clubs and coffee houses with an old pal from high school, and the two of them wanted to record an album, so Arthur called his best friend to see if he could borrow $400 to pay for studio time.  Sandy and Sue—they were married now—only had $404 in the bank, but they gave all the money to Arthur without hesitation.  The album was a flop and didn’t really go anywhere, but one of the songs was released as a single and became a huge hit.  That song was The Sound of Silence.  You know, the one that begins, “Hello darkness my old friend…”

Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy when Sandy lost his sight.  Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction.

“You”—that’s you plural, all y’all—”You are salt of the earth,” said Jesus.  He was giving us a high standard to live up to.  Salt was and is one of the most useful and valuable things in the world.  

Salt has always been used to bring out the flavors in food.  So all y’all enhance the flavor of the earth.

People have known since prehistoric times that salt is a biological necessity.  Our bodies and the bodies of almost all animals use salt to absorb and transport nutrients, to maintain blood pressure, to maintain proper fluid balances, to transmit nerve signals and to contract and relax muscles.  So you all are the transmitter and balancer of life for the earth.  All y’all are necessary for the survival of the earth.

Salt has been used since ancient times to cleanse and disinfect wounds.  So you all are the disinfectant of the earth.  You cleanse the wounds of abuse and oppression.  You sanitize hearts and minds infected with lies and old hatreds.

Salt was used to preserve meat and fish and other perishables.  So all y’all are the preservative of the earth.  You preserve the things that nourish, sustain and energize the world.

Salt, in Jewish understanding, was a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant and grains of salt were placed on the lips of 8-day old babies during the rites of purification.  So you all are the living reminder of God’s permanent promise to the earth.  

Salt was believed to offer protection against evil spirits.  So you all are the guardians of the goodness of the earth who stand against evil.

Salt was sometimes as valuable ounce for ounce as gold so it was frequently used as money.  Roman soldiers received part of their wages in salt.  That part of their compensation was called salarium argentum or “salt silver,” and it’s where we get our word salary.  So all y’all are money, baby.  You all are the currency of the earth.

You all are the salt of the earth.  That’s how essential and valuable Jesus wants us to be in the world.  And just to make sure we get the point, he shifts metaphors.

“You”—and again, it’s plural, all y’all—“You are the light of the world.”    

You all are bringing the light of truth to a world that all too often likes to obscure its real motives in the shadows of untruth, half-truth, treachery and duplicity.

You all are the light of goodness and generosity that can keep the world from stumbling off a cliff in the moonless night of narcissism, greed, selfishness, self-indulgence and self-absorption.

You all are the light of faith and hope that keeps the world from crashing onto the rocks of despair.

You all are the light of love that guides the world toward a brighter day.

Let your light shine, said Jesus—not with spiritual arrogance or ostentatious piety, but with the simple brightness of caring for each other.  Let your light shine by speaking up for each other, especially those who have no voice.  Let your light shine by standing up for each other, especially when you are standing up for justice and fairness.  You, together, are the light of the world.

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish,” said Jesus, “but to fulfill.” Jesus was mobilizing us to live a visible life of righteousness in this world—to be a visible sign of God’s righteousness alive and at work in this world. 

Righteousness is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew, but righteousness is also understood in a particular way in this gospel.  

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds pretty daunting.  After all, the scribes and the Pharisees were famous for being fastidious in keeping the law;  they were the public face of legalistic righteousness.  But Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, had a different definition of righteousness.

The Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosyne.  It’s a compound word formed from dike which means “just” or “fair,” and syne which means together.  In Matthew’s gospel, righteousness doesn’t describe intransigent legalism, it describes instead a sense of justice and fairness rooted in compassion.  The word has a communal character.  It describes an ethic rooted in community.  In chapter 1, Joseph is called righteous because in his compassion for Mary he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.  When John the Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus immersed himself in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance not because he needed to repent, but in order to show that he was united with and in solidarity with all those who do repent.  It was a righteous act.  In chapter 25, in Matthew’s description of the final judgment, the righteous are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless stranger, and care for the sick and visit those in prison.  These are the people who hear Jesus say, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (25:34)  

When Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is calling us to be living examples of God’s kind-hearted, compassionate, and frankly practical righteousness.  He is, in short, telling us to take care of each other.  He is telling us to treat each other like friends.

Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy Greenberg when Sandy lost his sight.  By that same light of righteousness, Sandy went on to bring understanding, peace and health to countless others.  Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction, and from that $404 worth of salt, Simon and Garfunkel’s music has since brought untold joy and beauty to the world.  The ripples of their friendship and kindness to each other have spread out into the world in ways beyond counting or telling.  That’s what happens when we are salt and light.  That’s what real righteousness looks like.

While There Is Still Time

1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 9:36-42; Luke 7:11-17

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid?  It’s going to break your heart.”  That arresting thought is from Anne Lamott who has an uncanny way of getting right to the heart of things.

In our traditional Confession of Sin we confess that we have sinned by things we’ve done and by things left undone.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about things left undone.  I’ve got a list as long as my arm.  I’ve been thinking about things undone because it was brought home to me this week in the starkest way possible that we have no guarantees about being able to get to it later—that thing we really want or need to do or say.

When I opened A Women’s Lectionary on Monday morning to take my first look at the texts assigned for today, the 7th Sunday after Epiphany,  my heart sank a little.  I suppose that’s a strange reaction to three stories about resurrection, three stories about someone being raised from the dead, but honestly, it just felt like the Holy Spirit was getting all up in my face.  Mocking me a little, even.  

Here’s the thing—I had just learned on Saturday that Joe, one of my oldest and closest friends, was on hospice care.  His Significant Other, Allison, had contacted me with this news, and asked me if I could come see him and pray with him while there was still time. 

While there was still time.

On Monday morning Allison suggested that 3 o’clock would be a good time to come see Joe.   That left me with several hours to fill so I turned my attention back to the texts for Sunday.  But I couldn’t concentrate.  It felt so incongruous to be thinking about biblical accounts of resurrection while at the same time trying to prepare myself mentally and spiritually to anoint my friend and pray for him as he passed from life into life.  

Over the years, I have stood in the room with Death more times than I can remember.  It’s part of what we do as pastors.  We accompany people to the door between this life and life eternal.  We give them a last anointing to remind them that they are in God’s protective care and if they’re able to receive it, one last taste of the eucharist to remind them that they are part of the communion of saints on both sides of that door.  More often than you might think, we give them permission to let go, to fall upward and outward into the grace of God and the beauty of what comes next.  

I deeply trust the promises of our faith.  I deeply trust that, as St. Paul said, if we have been united with Jesus Christ in a death like his then we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:2).  I trust what Paul says in Romans 8—that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I believe that life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon at the limit of our sight.  I believe that death is not the end of the story, but rather the opening of a new chapter in a far more amazing story.  I deeply believe these things, so I’ve always been able to stand in the presence of death with my pastoral tools and a certain degree of confidence.

This time, though, was different.  This time it was Joe, my long-time friend who was dying, my friend with whom I had worked in the recording studio as we produced commercials and jingles and even a recorded version of the Bible in those years before I became a pastor.  This time it was Joe who, because he was my friend, drove long miles from Huntington Beach to Riverside every Sunday for four years to play keyboards for our little start-up congregation.  This time it was Joe, who had performed with me and others in our impromptu band and with whom I had had deeply personal conversations over the course of decades.  

As I stood there beside his bed and anointed him for the journey we will all eventually take, I felt the poverty of my words and a profound sense of loss.  I began to realize that, while Joe was about to enter another dimension of life altogether, I was about to enter a world without him in it.  He wouldn’t be there for long lunches of fish tacos and conversation.  He wouldn’t be only a phone call away anymore.  I began to feel the space of him, the shape of the place he held in my life, and I know it was like that for everyone else who was in the room as he died.

Richard Rohr has said that “to hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt.  To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable.”  I could tell you that after forty plus years as friends I knew Joe well, but honestly, there is always more to know.  There is always more to know about each and every one of us.  We participate in the life and love of God, so there is no bottom to that well that is Joe.  Or you.  Or me.

We place so much emphasis on trying to understand things…and people.  It’s one way we try to protect ourselves from pain and disruption.  The truth is, though, that some of the most important things in life are mysterious and unknowable.  They can only be experienced.  The great mysteries—life, death, love, God, our own souls, friendship—these are things that go beyond understanding.  They are mysteries that must be entered into, embraced, endured, journeyed through, carried, danced with, and wrestled with, all the while knowing that our understanding of these things will always be partial at best.  Now we see dimly. 

These mysteries are our teachers.  Death, in particular, can teach us more about the value of life and love and our need for each other than anything else. 

And in an odd way, that brings us back to the three resurrection stories in this week’s readings.  The thing each of these resurrection stories have in common is that the dead person was raised back to life for the benefit of someone else.  That applies to every resurrection story in the Bible, by the way, including the resurrection of Jesus.  The dead person is raised for the benefit of others.  That means that these stories are all about God’s compassion for those who are left behind. 

For the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings who had been allowing the prophet Elijah to stay in her home, her son was her social security.  It would be his duty to provide for her in her old age, and without him she might become destitute.  That’s just how the world worked in those days.  The same thing holds true for the widow in Nain in the gospel of Luke.  When Jesus raised her dead son to life, he was actually saving two lives.   

The raising of Tabitha in the Book of Acts is a little different, but it’s still a story of someone being raised for the benefit of others.  The text tells us that Tabitha “was abundant in good works and benevolent giving.”  She was a woman of means and her little Christian community in Joppa depended on her generosity.  When Peter restored her to life, he was also restoring the community that depended on her.

We don’t always realize how dependent we are on each other.  “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken,” said Anne Lamott, “and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.  But this is also the good news.  They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.  And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never completely heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”  

We all will go through that kind of loss at one time or another if we haven’t already.  We all, if we’ve loved at all well, learn to dance with a limp.  But more importantly, we learn to lean on each other and support each other as we walk each other home.  

Death is never very far away.  But God’s compassion is always right there embracing us.  If we’re even half awake, Death teaches us to really appreciate life—our own lives and everyone else’s.  That’s grace.  Death tells us to use the time while we have it,  to go ahead and go swimming in warm pools and oceans, to dive in and have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space.  Death reminds us that Christ has given us life in all its fullness and the promise of resurrection.  And each other.  Christ has given us each other.  Death is telling us to do the loving things not yet done and say the loving things not yet said.  While there is still time.