Two weeks ago, on Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday, we read from the prophet Isaiah, “The people walking in darkness are seeing a brilliant light.” And here we have light again, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” I guess it should not be surprising since liturgically we are still in the season of Epiphany (or the fifth Sunday after Epiphany). But for me, instead of lightbulbs going off and understanding things in new ways, even more questions are raised.
All over the wider church today people are hearing this text. At the National Cathedral: “You are the light of the world.” (echoing) And at San Mateo, Ustedes son la luz del mundo. While these are both Episcopal churches, acoustics and language aside, these words of Jesus probably sound – or land – differently because of the context.
The National Cathedral is a place that, I imagine, “the beautiful people,” or at least a lot of “official” people, go to worship. The location and the architecture speak. At San Mateo, much of the congregation is first and second generation in the United States. Many parishioners don’t speak much English. The location and the architecture also speak – differently than at the cathedral.
And here we are at lil’ ol’ Hyattsville Mennonite Church, also hearing “You – are – the light – of the world.”
We are the light of the world? What are we to do with this light? As Mennonites we have historically tended to keep our light bright, but off at a distance, so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves. We want a light that people can see from afar, a quaint twinkle in the distance. Ours is a humble light that shines bright but not too bright, too much brightness might invite people to bask in the light.
This shining your light, being a light in the world, being a light of the world is not as uncomplicated as singing the song – “Hide it under a bushel, no.”
Jesus says, You are the light of the world… your light must shine before others so that they may see your good acts and give praise to your Abba God in heaven.
That is Matthew 5. But in Matthew 6, in the same sermon on the mount, Jesus says: Beware of practicing your piety before others to attract their attention… when you do good deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; your good deeds must be done in secret…
So which is it, do we shine our light brightly or do we do things (which we imagine bring light to the world) in secret?
What happens between “Let your light shine” and the instructions about being discrete? Does the audience change – or does Jesus’ attention shift? Perhaps Jesus looks to one side of the crowd – at all the people that struggle to take off from work for even one day, to come out to the mountain for this all day sermon by the itinerant rabbi. To them, Jesus says, You are the light of the world.
And then I can imagine, Jesus turns his head and looks at that part of the crowd that has life figured out, that no concern if they miss a day of work for a walk in the country. They look a little uncomfortable sitting on the ground but they hold onto their pride. Jesus says to them, Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
Wow, that’s kind of rough Jesus, what about our light?
This whole business of letting your light shine raises for me the question of where the light is shining. Where is the light located? Is the light shining in the dark or is it shining in a space that is already well lit? It is hard to see a light, or it is less astounding, when light shines in light. But in the dark, you can see a light more distinctly. It has more impact.
So it makes me wonder – who is Jesus talking to, who is he telling to shine their lights? Is he talking to people that struggle in the dark, under the weight of injustice and oppression? Jesus sees something in them that they may not see in themselves. Is he trying to lighten them a bit? Trying to get them to find the light already within?
Because let’s be real, those of us who live in light, who are enlightened – ahem – we might miss the light that is already shining, or forget to appreciate the light all around us. We might not think that we are all that bright but when a bunch of us are altogether it can create – a bit of energy, shall we say. And then, how do new little lights get seen and noticed, how do smaller little lights get to practice shining? When our left hand and our right hand know what is going on, in the light and in the dark, we might be part of that crowd over there that Jesus is talking to.
What if Jesus with his left hand/right hand thing is suggesting a sort of slight of hand. When your right hand and left hand don’t know what is going on with each other, they are sort of in the dark. Is Jesus bringing some shade to where maybe there is a little bit too much light? Where the light is a bit blinding? Where a little less knowledge and a bit more humility is needed?
It can be hard for those of us who are enlightened and think we live in light to even know what it means to shine our light. If there is no darkness near by, are we shining or are we just walking in the sunlight that is already there? And, not all of us are walking on sunshine. Some of us live with the ever present clouds of depression and anxiety, addiction and trauma. Just because we hear Jesus say You are the light of the World, doesn’t mean that the heaviness of thick fog lifts, as if on command.
Let’s take what seems like a big pivot. Last year we received a big chunk of money as a congregation after the sale of the International Guest House. And last Sunday we received another check – after the sale of the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. The church council will prayerfully decide and discern how to spend the money from the MVS house. As a whole congregation we are invited to participate in the longer, more intensive process wondering together what to do with the even bigger check we received after the sale of the Guest House.
Dare we let our left hand know what our right hand is doing? Do we let our light shine?
We are trying to be open and transparent about our processes and our decision making. We need light on that. As a congregation, if we want to be working well together, we need the left and right hand to be aware of each other.
And Jesus doesn’t stop at salt and light metaphors: You are salt for the earth. You are the light of the world. He reminds the people that as different as he might seem from the traditional rabbis, he is actually all about the Law and the Prophets, helping them to be fulfilled. Jesus stands with the prophet Isaiah who wrote:
If you give yourself to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your shadows will become like noon.
Do you hear Isaiah’s invitation to be a light? It is not just that we stay in the light. But that we venture into those places where people are hungry, where needs seem impossible. When we risk giving ourselves, really experiencing and building relationships then light will shine so brightly, like at high noon, that the shadows are not even seen. And Isaiah is not done:
You will rebuild the ancient ruins
and build upon age-old foundations.
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods.
I wonder if, I wonder how, this vision of Isaiah brings together the people who struggle to find light, to be light, and those who believe themselves to live in light – who better keep their left hand and right hand in check.
What does this mean for us? We are part of the tradition intentionally following the way of Jesus. And Jesus is following, fulfilling, the Law and the Prophets. I wonder how we are part of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. Does this largess that has come to us from properties, in formerly ruined neighborhoods, have anything to do with living into the vision of the Prophets? Does it have anything to do with being repairers of broken walls and restorers of ruined neighborhoods?
Jesus invites us to be part of the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets – though I used to hear it as a threat: Unless your sense of justice surpasses that of the religious scholars and Pharisees, you will not know the first thing about the Reign of God.
What used to feel threatening now sounds more like a statement of reality: if we don’t work for justice, we won’t see the kindom of God. That’s just how it is. If we don’t live into what justice truly means (as defined by the Law and the Prophets) we will not experience the reign of God. We can choose not to. It is always a choice. And – if we choose not to live into justice, we miss out on the amazement that is the kindom.
It is a Jesus kind of irony: if we want to live in the light, we have to go where it is dark. We don’t turn away; we notice that what is supposed to provide protection – is crumbling. To live in the light means that we go toward the ruins. Somehow, when we go toward the dark, when we pay attention to what is falling apart, when we work to rebuild, we are walking in the Light. We will see the Reign of God. What a paradox. If we want to live in the light, we have to go where it is dark.
This season in our life as a congregation is a great opportunity to live into who we say we are: We are an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus and seeking equity, justice, and peace for ourselves, our communities, and our world.
I wonder how this money could be an invitation to live into our faith? I wonder what it might look like to get to know more of our neighbors who live within (as Isaiah says) broken walls and ruined neighborhoods? To paraphrase Isaiah and Jesus:
If we can give ourselves
to help satisfy the needs of our neighbors,
then our light will rise in the darkness,
and we will begin to catch
a glimpse of the Reign of God.
May the Spirit give us courage and wisdom to walk in the light, to be the light.