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February 9, 2014
Last Sunday morning Katharine Barnhill led our Parenting and Faith Sunday School class in a lively conversation. The class began with a video that featured a TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown. Dr. Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Houston, and she has spent the past decade studying vulnerability and shame. Her conclusion is that shame is epidemic in our culture, and she believes shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and suicide. She defines shame as the gremlin that keeps whispering to us: You’re a lousy parent, a poor excuse for a mother. You’re not good enough, pretty enough, talented enough, smart enough—on and on the self-recrimination goes. In her TED talk, Dr. Brown distinguishes shame from guilt. Guilt, she contends, says “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” Shame, on the other hand, says, “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” She calls shame the “swampland of the soul,” that unhappy place where people languish in a quagmire of self-disparagement.
Well, last Sunday’s class conversation about shame immediately leapt to mind when I read this morning’s Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Given the human tendency toward self-deprecation, Jesus’ affirmation of us is shocking. It’s especially unexpected, because Jesus’ commendation is emphatic and unconditional. Notice that Jesus doesn’t issue a command saying, “Before I’ll call you salt and light, you must do x, y and z.” Neither does he say, “You ought to be, or should try to be, or someday might be…” No, he says both simply and directly, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
And recall that the first disciples, whom Jesus named as salt and light, were not exactly exemplars of intelligence, status, or moral perfection. To the contrary, they were quite ordinary and often found to be uncomprehending, indecisive, and even faithless. Yes, later Jesus will teach his disciples about the challenges and cost of discipleship, but their relationship with Jesus began not with conditions or commandments, but with blessing and unqualified affirmation: “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” That, Jesus declares, is your God-given identity.
Actually, those images of salt and light apply, first of all, to Jesus. Salt has a preservative as well as a restorative quality. Just so, Jesus came into the world to preserve our humanity and restore our identity as God’s beloved children who are created in God’s image. Further, he came into the world shining the light of God’s goodness, peace, and justice upon everyone he encountered. Jesus came among us as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Thus in calling the disciples salt and light, Jesus conferred on his disciples the same identity God had conferred on him, and he invited his disciples to join with him in reflecting the light of God’s love for the world. Obviously, neither salt nor light exists for itself. The two elements only fulfill their purpose when used for the benefit of others. Similarly, in calling his disciples salt and light, Jesus was sending us out to make a difference in the world. You and I will never receive a more empowering affirmation or higher calling than the one Jesus confers upon his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Period.
But while our identity in Christ is a gift, a once-and-for-all blessing, Jesus acknowledges that salt can lose its taste and light can be hidden. Just as a bushel basket can be thrown over a lamp, so the light of God’s love can be covered to the point of being invisible. Metaphorically speaking, what do you suppose are some of the bushel baskets that, if we’re not careful, will block out our God-given light?
Perhaps one bushel is the sense of shame that I mentioned earlier. When inner voices of self-incrimination constantly ring in our ears telling us we’re inferior, unworthy, incapable, or insignificant—God’s affirmation of us as beloved children becomes inaudible. This human tendency to belittle ourselves may be one of the ways we block God’s light. (Sanctuary lights begin to dim.)
Another bushel might be a pervasive disconnect between our faith and our daily lives. According to recent surveys, many church members don’t connect what we say we believe on Sunday morning with the lives we live the rest of the week. We can become so distracted, busy and entertained that we lose sight of our identity and calling in Christ. This uncoupling of faith from daily life keeps our light from shining. (Sanctuary lights dim further).
Or sometimes just a lack of confidence in God is what keeps our light from shining. Debilitating doubt can prevent us from accepting the good news that we are, in reality, people blessed, chosen, and empowered to live as Christ’s disciples. An inferiority complex, a disconnection of faith from daily life, and debilitating doubt are just a few of the bushel baskets that we Christians employ to block out God’s light. (Sanctuary lights go completely off).
So my friends, hear again the good news: You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let’ us not hide our light. (Sanctuary lights come back up). “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus encourages, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Truth is, you are already being salt and light in so many ways–ways you perhaps don’t always acknowledge and celebrate.
You should have seen how our Great Hall was all lit up a couple Tuesdays ago. Because of bad weather, we canceled our Tuesday morning UpLift program. Several volunteers came anyway, opened the doors and welcomed forty-some-odd guests out of the cold. The volunteers served hot coffee, prepared some hot cinnamon toast and other goodies. Tony, one of our guests who is a regular volunteer, stood up to welcome everyone. He explained that we wouldn’t be able to give financial assistance today. Then, with hands held aloft, he offered a prayer. He thanked God, he confessed his sins, he told about having been in prison for twenty-six years, and he praised Jesus for forgiving him. He concluded his prayer with these words: “I wake up each day, and I am grateful.” Cathy Morgan, one of our UPLift kitchen volunteers was so moved that she shared this story in an e-mail. She concluded, “I can’t begin to explain how moving that was and how the air of love and caring permeated the morning.” True, the weather outside was gray and dreary that morning, but light of God was shining brightly. Which it does every Tuesday morning as well as Thursday evening and Saturday morning and throughout the week, not just in the activities within our building, but in all the ways and places that you, the members of this discipleship community, live out your calling to be salt and light.
Since our tendency is to think less of ourselves than Christ thinks of us, I have an assignment for you this week. Call it homework if you want. For one week, keep a salt and light log. Every time you do something good for another person, no matter how small the gesture may be, make a mental note. Or better yet, write it down in your salt and light log. I believe you’ll be amazed at how God is using you to shine the light of goodness, mercy, kindness and justice in the world.
Friends, claim the identity that Jesus has given you. And, for heaven’s sake, stay “lit up.”