Here in todayís text he says:
What gives, Jesus? We scratch our heads.
Jesus begins todayís passage with a direct a statement as we could imagine:
Who, me? Yes, you!
Last weekís Hebrew text, the servant song from Isaiah 42, voiced Godís call to be a light to the nations. In the follow-up text for the lectionary this week, Isaiah 49, God says to Israel:
Paul and the early church saw itself exactly as that: The servant of Israelís God called to be a light to the nations. It is a bold text, on the edge of heresy to the ears of organized religion. We might translate it today:
Hereís a way to handle the beginning paradox: Jesusí way isnít about parading our religiosity in order to impress others. It is about being light to the world, making a difference in the world around you -- and sometimes that makes enemies as well as friends. Such was the trajectory of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ministry reached beyond the black church to the ramparts of racism and economic injustice in American society.
You, yes you, are the salt of the earth. Let it savor and preserve the earth. You are the light of the world. Donít hide it under a bushel. You are a city on a hill, donít shrink back.
This church called Myers Park Baptist Church lives with some convictions about the light of God, and it needs some new ones.
First, we believe that the light of God is given to all earthís children. Neither Baptist nor Christian has sole possession of the light. God has breathed the divine breath into all creation. The divine light is within every person.
I love the words Nelson Mandela spoke at his 1994 Inauguration as leader of South Africa. The African prince who spent twenty-seven years in prison for his opposition to apartheid left prison to become the leader of his nation. Here is what he said:
So, let your light shine! It not only frees you; it helps free others to claim divine light within.
We also believe that the divine light is given to all in a community, not to some spiritual elite. This belief is captured in the colonial architecture of our sanctuary and in the politics of the New England meeting house of our countryís beginnings. The Enlightenment gave rise to the belief that Godís light shines on all people and that people therefore could govern themselves and could discern their own spiritual truth. We need no pope or bishop, king or magistrate, presbytery or church hierarchy to hand us the truth. So in our colonial architecture the light shines through clear windows upon all. And this place serves as a meeting house where we govern ourselves in democratic dispersal of the light.
There is more we believe. We believe that Godís light is revealing yet more truth. Early Baptists were bold to say against those bound by tradition: There is yet more light to break forth from scripture.
We are even bolder. Not only from scripture is God breaking forth new light, but God reveals truth and light from other places too. So we say we are "open to all new light," wherever, whenever it comes.
To some this sounds like heresy. It takes that risk. But it is on the border between orthodoxy and heresy where living truth springs.
But all the above is our settled truth, our orthodoxy, as it were. What new convictions about the light might we need to gain for our time?
One might be this, to use the words of Walter Harrelson last week: We can have zeal without becoming fanatics. We tend to draw back from religious zeal because we see the danger of fanaticism. But we can have conviction without spiritual arrogance, fervor without fanaticism. We know too much to be arrogant about the truth weíve received. Weíve seen Godís light break forth from other spiritual traditions.
But there is no true spirituality without being grasped by God, grasped in such a way that we know that truth has found us. As followers of Jesus, we are not to use Annie Dillardís image, "tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute;" visiting one religion then another, having our picture taken here and there at mosque and temple, cathedral and monastery. With Mother Teresa we say, "I love all religions, but I am in love with my own."
We are, to use Walter Harrelsonís phrase, those who have been grasped by utter truth, without claiming that we have the exclusive truth. The truth of God revealed to us in Jesus the Christ is utter truth, but we do not claim sole ownership of that truth. Godís light shines where it shines. We are responsible for the light given us.
So let us not draw back from zeal. Let us be willing to get close enough to Godís light and truth that we burst into flame.
Annie Dillard was writing in a cabin in the Northwest. As she wrote she watched a moth fly around her candle. It moved too close and suddenly its wings burst into flame. Then the wingless body attached itself upright in the hot wax, and the hollow body became a new wick drawing the wax, becoming a flame.
It became for Dillard a metaphor of the vocation of the artist and of the saint:
We bear the light as we grow close enough to the light of God that we become flame. We are not the only bearers of the light, but it is the light we bear.
So donít shrink back, play small, hide the light. Let it shine.
I must say I am thrilled with evidences that we are beginning more and more to let our light shine.
This yearís pledging campaign ended with a 10% increase over last yearís pledges -- and that in difficult economic times. And our younger people really came through. Our number of families under forty pledging rose from 19 to 62, over 300%! The budget we vote upon today will help us be a better witness to our city -- and this because of your commitment and sacrifice.
Have you noticed we have lit our steeple and the front of the church? Our churchís beauty shines for all to see at night. Neighbors have called to thank us for letting the beauty of this place shine. Imagine that! Happy call from neighbors. Itís a little thing, but an important symbol.
And we are designing a beautiful sign for the front lawn letting people know who we are. As soon as we get city approval we are ready to go. Now people who drive by can tell who we are. Weíre the only church I know whose sign is smaller than its door mat.
A month or so ago I was about to process down the aisle to officiate a wedding. I was in the narthex. A group of six or eight came and were ushered to their seats. Several minutes later they all got up to leave. As they passed me they sheepishly said: "Wrong place, weíre supposed to be at Belk Chapel at Queens!" I pointed them across the street.
Soon we will no longer be the unmarked church. A little thing, but a sign we aim to be a light to the world, Myers Park Baptist Church, an ecumenical church in the Baptist tradition.
The scripture says that God has given us to be a light to the nations. Itís an image to ponder. God gives us to people; God gives people to us that we might be light and love to them. Whom has God placed in your life? To whom have you been given? Your spouse, your children, your parents, your closest friends? There is a "givenness" about your calling. So bloom where youíre planted, shine where you are, love the one youíre with.
Then look beyond to your neighbor at work, at church, at home, not the neighbor youíd choose but the one you have. Then look outward to our city called Charlotte, to Lakewood, to Camden, New Jersey, to Ecuador.
Where is God calling you to be salt and light? Where is Jesus calling you to follow?
From the fourth-century desert tradition comes the story of the monk who came to the desert father, Abba Joseph, not entirely satisfied with his spiritual life. "Iíve done my prayers, kept the commandments. I try to live in peace and purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" he asked.
Abba Joseph answered, "You could become flame."3
1. Jesus Tales (San Francisco: Northpoint Press,
2. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977), pp. 71-72.
3. Cited in Roberta Bondi, To Pray and to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 7.