Sermon for Sunday, February 6, 2011|| Epiphany 5 Year A|| Matthew 5: 13-20
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
This is how today’s gospel reading sounds in The Message, an interpretation of scripture by biblical scholar Eugene Peterson, written in our contemporary idiom:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…You’re here to be light, bringingout the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, our generous Father in heaven.”
St Stephen’s isn’t really a city on a hill, but we are certainly a church on a hill and we’re filled with light-bearers–light-bearers who reveal what The Message refers to as “the God-colors in the world.” You are all remarkable light-bearers, each and every one of you.Your care for each other, for this church, for our community, and for those in need — both right here on the South Shore and in far away places– is nothing short of extraordinary.
Just ask the folks at the Quincy Crisis Center, the Cohasset Food Pantry, the Long Island Shelter, or Cradles to Crayons. Ask Bishop Wilme of Myanmar, the Sisters of St. Margaret in Haiti, or the kids at the Hagar School in Beersheba. The light from this little hilltop in Cohasset shines on all of them.
Or start closer to home if you’d like. Start right here at St Stephen’s…and talk to Ken Verville: “I took pictures of people who asked about my mother at fellowship,” Ken wrote to me in a recent email, “I printed them out and showed them to her later that day. She burst out in tears and said how nice it was that all these people care about her. It was the good kind of cry.” Just by showing how much you cared, you shined your light on both Ken and on Audrey. You were bearers of God’s light, revealing the God-colors of His love.
Talk to John Seel. In the new issue of The Carillon John reflects on his horrible accident last summer:
“Never have Kathryn and I felt more loved and cared for by a church community,” John writes, “it was an overwhelming experience that deepened our love for this church family… St. Stephen’s is more than an Episcopal church. It is an outpost of the kingdom of God.”
You dear people shined God’s love all over John and Kathryn, illuminating an otherwise dark time in their lives.
Later in this service we’re going to give a special blessing to all the scouts in our congregation. As scouts, these kids are learning to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. They’re learning to be light-bearers.
In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize Peyton Harper Eddington, who will continue in the tradition of her great-grandfather, the late-Bill Broe, as a light-bearer in God’s church. And then we’re going to baptize Bill Viscomi—whose light shines so bright you practically need sun-glasses to be near him! If you’ve known Billy for five minutes you know about his passion for feeding the hungry. And look who’s sponsoring Bill: Gordie Stevenson and John Seavey—two of the light-bearing rock stars of this parish!
Or how about Wallace St. John, Rich Coakley, Roger Hill, and all the superheroes who’ve been shoveling snow around here for days on end, for no other reason than because they care? Light-bearers, everyone of them!
Our choir shines with the light of their voices; our teachers with the light of their hearts; our volunteers with the light of their gifts; our pastoral care with the light of our love; our fellowship with the light of our joy; and our worship, with the light of our prayers. God put us here on this hilltop, and we do indeed shine!
But I wonder if the folks down below know why we shine? I wonder if when they look up the hill at the beauty of this magnificent 19th century neo-gothic church, they know enough about us to look beyond the cold stonewalls of our exterior structure to see the radiance of God’s light that shines from within?I wonder if they know that the kind neighbor who offers to help them whenever it’s needed, goes to church here. I wonder if they know that the parent or grandparent who does so much to help out at the local school or hospital gets spiritually fed here. I wonder if they know that the colleague who brings so much to the table and with such generosity of spirit does it because he is a light-bearer in God’s church. I wonder if they’ve ever connected the dots between who you are, and whose you are? I wonder if they realize that the primary reason you are the wonderful person you are, is because you believe in God, belong to a fantastic faith community, and try your best to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ?
My guess is that we’re all missing opportunities to make that connection explicit for people—to make the connection out there between who we are as light-bearers and what goes on in here.
You see, I know that outside of this church, you all give of yourselves in more ways than I could ever begin to imagine. I know you step up whenever you can to be a good friend, a good neighbor, a good citizen. You sit on boards, and belong to civic organizations, associations and clubs. You volunteer with non-profits, hospitals and schools. You practice random acts of kindness and senseless act of beauty. You even “pay it forward” as the saying goes. But I wonder if the recipients of your good works know that being a person of faith has anything to do with it.
At an ordination service it’s customary to end the sermon with what’s called “The Charge.” “The Charge” is when the preacher lays a challenge before the newly ordained person to live out his or her ministry in a particular way. And since in the Episcopal Church we affirm the priesthood of all believers, and because we are all ordained by virtue of our baptism into the ministry of God’s church, I’d like to invite all of you to please stand as you are able, because I’m going to give you your charge for this next year:
Brothers and sisters in Christ: To paraphrase our gospel, you are the light of the world; a church built on a hill cannot (and should not) be hid. So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works—but don’t stop there. Take it one step further so that in the words of this morning’s gospel, “they may give glory to your Father in heaven.” Make the connection for people between your good works and the faith that makes them possible. Or as The Message bible says so much more plainly, “God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this!”
So my charge to you is twofold: First, I charge you with learning to give credit where credit is due—which of course, is with God. You can do this very innocuously by doing seemingly little things like eliminating the word “lucky” from your vocabulary. After all, you’re not lucky, you’re blessed. Practice saying so!
Dare to use the word “church” in a sentence. When someone asks you what you did this weekend, try casually saying something like: “Wow, we had this awesome brunch at my church’s annual meeting on Sunday!”
And when someone marvels at how you manage to do this or that, or pays you an enormous compliment, rather than hemming and hawing and humbly brushing it off, see if there’s not some way to acknowledge –in your own words—that were it not for God, or church, or your faith, it wouldn’t be possible, whatever “it” is. Play around with it. Have fun with it! But find ways not only to let your light shine, but to point to the One who is its Source. That’s your first charge.
Second, I charge you with preparing your “elevator speech” so that when you dare to take on your first charge, you know what to say when people look at you like you have three eyes and say, “Really? You go to church?” Or, “Really, you believe in God?” You want to be prepared for that. You want to be able to look people in the eye and answer their questions with as much ease and comfort as you would answer a question about your favorite ice cream or TV show.
Why do you go to church? Why do you believe in God? Keep your answer simple. An elevator speech isn’t proselytizing—your answer should be short and inviting, not defensive or threatening. “I go to church because I love the music.” Or, “because my kids love the church school.” Or, “because if I didn’t I’d never make it through the rest of the week!”
“I believe in God because it’s impossible for me not to,” or “because it makes more sense to me than not believing,” or “because life just works better this way.” My husband likes to quote Mammy Yokum from the old L’il Abner comic strip: “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.” Try, “Believing is better for me than not believing because it makes me nicer.” That’s the kind of simplicity we’re looking for here. Again, use your own language and play around with it. But think about it. Write it down.
Like a good scout, a good light-bearer is always prepared. So that’s your second charge: Be prepared– prepared to say something inviting about why you believe in God and why you go to church.
Because “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand.” This way, when you let your light shine before others, they will not only see your good works they will give glory to your Father in heaven. And who knows, maybe next year a few of them will be sitting here with us– light-bearers in Christ’s church, bringing out the God-colors in God’s world, and giving credit where credit is due. Amen.