Isaiah 58: 1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Megan C. Holding
February 5, 2017
St. Paul’s, Brookline
“You are the light of the world . . . No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” -- MT 5:14 - 16
About a year and a half ago,
I spent a few days on retreat at the Abbey of Hildegard of Bingen,
high up in the hills overlooking the Rhein River in Germany.
Those days held a wonderful rhythm of
praying, hiking, and gathering for meals and conversation with the other retreatants.
On my last evening there, mealtime conversation shifted
from the pleasant, quiet, reflective conversations we had been sharing
to a conversation with a much more urgent tone.
Recognizing, perhaps, that our time together was nearing an end,
my fellow retreatants became much more direct in asking me, the only American, about world events and what was going on in this land.
Germany was a bit ahead of us, you see,
in living in to the uncertainty we here in the States are now experiencing.
There was no question about whether to welcome refugees;
The refugees were already there.
In every single train station I passed through, refugees were already there.
Syrian families, sitting on luggage, struggling with automated ticket machines and schedules in a foreign language.
Political divisions were already clearly and starkly articulated,
Opposing stances clearly staked out.
Side by side in the local newspaper where I was staying
The future of the country was uncertain;
the future of Europe was uncertain;
the future of the world order as we’ve known it was uncertain.
And my fellow retreatants already recognized this.
As we pondered all this, high up in our abbey,
a somber awareness landed upon us.
I left the meal unsettled.
Headed to the church to pray.
Alone, in the cavernous, silent church,
I could literally feel the weight of the moment,
The air felt heavy
I could sense rumbling, almost like drumbeats, rising, gathering,
portending conflict, division, perhaps even war.
Church bells? Not welcome, but warning
I thought about the conflicts and hard times
the sisters had endured in that very location for centuries.
I thought about the two world wars the building itself had witnessed.
I wondered what the community was like in those times,
how those women of faith responded
how any person of faith could or might respond
when the air was that thick and somber and ominous.
I began to look around for something to help focus an answer to my questions,
when I realized night had fallen, and the church was completely dark.
I could no longer see the statues, the murals, the stacks of prayers books.
They all had disappeared in the darkness.
And I suddenly realized I was afraid.
I was alone, and I was really afraid.
After a while, I heard a noise
and realized one of the sisters had entered the dark church through a side door.
She glided almost imperceptibly across the front of the church,
bowed as the crossed the altar, and glided off into the sacristy on the other side.
A few minutes later,
she re-entered the church with the largest candle I have ever seen.
It was several -- three or four -- feet tall and so big around she could hardly encircle it.
She carried the candle to the front of the altar,
Hoisted it up,
and set it upon a wrought-iron stand,
where it stood:
a single candle,
that illuminated the ceiling above the altar,
and revealed the image of Christ painted there.
The light of that candle revealed Christ
with his gentle, loving, eyes and compassionate face;
the light of the candle drew my eye and heart back to Christ.
Christ who had been there all along,
even when I couldn’t see Him,
couldn’t feel Him
Christ ever present, even in the darkness,
even in the face of fear.
It’s easy to understand why this story has reappeared on my mind and in my heart recently,
as our own society is infused with similar tumult and turmoil and tensions,
as I’ve noticed again the frequent clenching of my heart,
the sense of being afraid,
the complete bewilderment of how to respond.
What should I do?
What should does a person of faith do in times like these?
How does a person of faith respond?
At the same time,
when I hold this experience at the abbey up
within today’s uncertainty and questioning,
and against the backdrop of today Scripture readings,
this morning’s Gospel reading suggests that -- perhaps -- the whirring question of
What to do? What to do? What to do?
-- while profoundly important --
is not the only questions to ask,
and it is not even the primary or first question to ask.
This morning’s Gospel reading reminds us,
That the first question to ask is not “What am I to do?”
the first question to ask is “Who am I to be?”
“You are the light,” Jesus tells us first,
before He tells us to go shine in the world.
He doesn’t tell us to shine and then say “because you are the light”
He tells us who we are before he tells us what to do.
This emphasis on knowing who we are before we discern what to do
is part of the broader message from the part of the Gospel
from which this particular passage is taken.
This morning’s Gospel reading is an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus’s first major teaching within the Gospel of Matthew
When read in it’s entirety,
it sets out guidance for what it means to live as followers of Christ.
If one wanted to outline the Sermon on the Mount, the major headings might be something like:
Roman numeral I: The Beatitudes, (which we heard last week)
Jesus sets out a vision of the kingdom of God
Roman numeral II: The salt and light passage (which we heard this morning)
Jesus tells His followers who they are
Roman numeral III: The directions
(another 2 ½ chapters from which we’ll hear over the several weeks)
Jesus tells His followers how to behave in a whole variety of situations
(pray in these words, pray for your enemy, turn the other cheek . . . )
The sermon’s structure is:
Here’s the goal/the vision/the priorities
Here’s who you are
Here’s some of what you might encounter and how you might respond.
The structure itself reminds us that what we are to do
and how we are to respond
and how we are to live our lives
flows out of who we are in the eyes of Christ.
When we know who we are,
when we know in whom we are grounded,
from whom we get our strength and guidance
when we remember whom, ultimately, we serve,
then our service will be rooted in that knowledge
can flow from that knowledge,
and can be the adapted for whatever situation we encounter,
whatever fear we are called to address,
whatever darkness we are called to enter.
The fact that Jesus first answers who we are
and then turns to what we should do
isn’t meant to diminish that second question in any way.
And I certainly don’t mean to set it aside today.
In fact, given what I am hearing and feeling and experiencing,
I’m not sure any of us even could really set it aside or quiet it down
for any significant time.
The question of what to do and how to respond has been amplified lately,
seemingly asked and re-asked before any iteration of it can be answered.
There is heightened persistence and urgency,
as the calls to respond are flying at us from every direction.
There are rapid-fire changes in our country, and our world.
There are the reactions on both sides to each of those changes.
There are widespread effects of those changes,
some of which we can anticipate,
most of which are not even known yet.
There is the uncertainty of what will come
What is the future of our country?
What is the future of the world order as we know it?
There is fear -- deep-seeded and pervasive fear.
And that’s just in the public sphere.
All the uncertainty and tension and contention is heightened even further
when we consider the personal challenges and transitions and uncertainties
in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.
These are times unlike any I have known or studied,
and the path forward is murky in this surreal reality in which we live.
While planning and strategy and preparation
are important in shaping our Christian response to all we might encounter,
there are and always will be situations
so unexpected, so unimagined, so untimely
that we could never be able set out the specifics of what to do in advance.
In fact, much of what we are encountering today
Much of what is calling us to ask “What to do?” “What to do?” “What to do?”
Seems to fall into this category of “things I never imagined.”
The unexpected nature of these demands,
the unpredictability and improbability of them,
they, in turn, heighten the confusion and fear and uncertainty of response
that seem so prevalent in our lives today.
To know how to respond to the unexpected, the unanticipated,
we need to know deep in our core who we are
so the response can flow from that grounding
We need to remember who we are called to be
-- who we already are --
so that our decisions, our responses, our lives of faith can flow out of knowing.
When we start in that grounding,
when we start with remembering who we are
-- the light meant to shine, the light meant to reveal Christ --
then we are better able to stop the whirring
What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?
and re-word the question to ask, instead,
How can I reveal Christ in this moment?
This shift allows us first to remember that Chris is there, in that moment.
Even in our uncertainty of what to do and how to respond, Christ is already there
already there, working, healing, loving.
It also changes the question from a broad, open-ended, frameless question
that reflects not knowing how we and our efforts belong
to a question that, even in its asking,
helps us remember that, whatever we do,
we are continuing work that we are already a part of,
we are simply continuing, in a context and a new moment
the work to which we have already been called,
the work of revealing Christ to the world.
When we remember who we are, and let that be the source of what we do,
we let Christ guide our work and our lives again.
I’d like to take you back for a moment to the abbey’s church,
to share with you a bit more about the image revealed by the light of the candle.
The light revealed Christ, Christ with His arms outstretched
reaching into the church --
reaching into the darkness, reaching toward my fear.
And the way the image and the light played against each other,
Christ was reaching, also, toward the light of that single candle.
His hands framed the glow of the light,
almost bracketing, embracing, holding that light.
It’s like He and His hands
were drawing my eye back the light
drawing my attention toward the light
that had drawn my heart back to Him
saying in that gesture what He says to us this morning in the Gospel.
look, look here.
See the light?
You are the light.
You are the light that is not to be hidden.
You are the light that must not be hidden in a basket,
in a sacristy,
within your own fear and uncertainty.
You are the light that is to go into those dark places.
You are the light that is to go to all those people who sit in fear with clenched hearts.
You are the light that is to go
You are the light.
Even when you don’t know where you are going
or whom you are meeting
or what you are supposed to say or think or do,
even when you can’t imagine an adequate response,
you are the light,
the light meant to reveal me,
to the world.
“You are the light,” Christ tells us.