“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” Is Jesus asking us to do the impossible? Love your neighbor as yourself is hard enough. Now these humble fishermen and tax collectors’ righteousness have to be greater than those of the holiest people – Pharisees and scribes – people who are at the top of the holy-religious hierarchy.
Do you remember a few weeks ago, I told a story about one of the pastors visiting Israel? He’d had car trouble, and after the Israeli car mechanic had fixed the engine, he slapped the engine, and called it se-DEK-it. Righteous. Righteous meant that the car engine was now doing what it was supposed to be doing. It was se DEK it – righteous. Now, Jesus is saying WE, in our righteousness are supposed to be doing what WE are supposed to be doing – exceeding the goodness of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were acknowledged as the champions of righteousness. It seems like Jesus is giving us an impossible task!
How are we supposed to do this, Jesus?
Remember Joseph at the beginning of Epiphany season, – he was described as righteous – yet this was a LIMITED kind of righteousness, which would have allowed him to put Mary aside, where she would have been harmed. An angel had to appear to him in a dream, to have him keep Mary as his wife. By obeying this messenger of God, JOSEPH redefined righteousness and HIS righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, who would have followed the law and gotten rid of Mary.
What does Jesus WANT from us? He tells us in today’s gospel, he wants us to be LIGHTS and SALT. Jesus wants us to be ILLUMINATORS in a dark world and to be salty people. And notice that this text is about US. It is not about Jesus being the LIGHT of the world. No, Jesus pokes us and says YOU – YOU – YOU are the light of the world.
Well, if you notice anything, we lights like to stick together. Church people tend to CLING together rather than get out there and go into some dark places and be a light just by our presence. And don’t go and say, pastor – that’s YOUR job. Just like Jesus pokes us and says, YOU, You, YOU are the light of the world – I’m going to poke you and say YOU are the light of the world. Yes, you. The most humble among you is a light. Right now, everyone, turn to your neighbor, and tell them, “You are the light of the world.”
Do you want to feel like a light, just by being a PRESENCE? Go into your local dive bar, and I guarantee you will feel like a light. I’ve been to BC’s Bar which is across from the Bellmore Bean on Grand Ave. First, I had made the acquaintance of a bartender at McBride’s and perhaps she was daring me to go to BC’s Bar because where McBride’s is more like a Cheer’s bar, BC’s is lower on the social scale. So, I took the challenge, and I’ve been there many times, and I’ve prayed with people, who think it’s pretty cool to pray in a bar. I’ve even asked the drug dealer if he’d like prayer. He declined, but I’ll keep asking. Everyone needs prayer.
The most humble among you, just by walking in, would be a light, these poor souls who start drinking early in the day. The most humble among you as a LIGHT and SALT, would walk in, and maybe start asking common sense questions: what are you doing? Why are you here? What do you get out of being here? How much time do you spend here? (I don’t ask those questions, but I’ll bet some of you could get away with asking them.)
A member of the clergy, wearing a collar, just standing there and chatting – I’m bringing light. You can do that, too – wear a BIG cross. OR you may find different challenges to be LIGHT and SALT. Those are light-filled questions.
A lot of people don’t like questions like this, so they hide in dark corners. Some want to be found. Some don’t. Some people don’t even know they’ve been hiding until a LIGHT such as yourselves shows up. We don’t know until we leave our cozy, light-filled church, and take a chance. Being a light IS taking a risk. The job of lights is to go and illuminate dark corners.
We know that we read our bibles to get a handle on how to deal with a sinful world. Jesus knows this – he knows being light and salt might put people in harm’s way. He knows it means stepping out of line. HE did it over and over again.
We live in a beautiful world that can also get ugly, but he sees us little people as a FORCE to be reckoned with, once we get going, once we take our light seriously and out into the darkness.
Back when I was a young adult, the Cardinal of Detroit, John Dearden, spoke words at a prayer convention that set my heart free. They were words that acknowledged the kind of world we live in. They were words that affirmed rather than denied the challenges we Christians face. He said, “Don’t be afraid when you go out to face the evil of the world.” Those words broke my heart. His words brought light by acknowledging we live in an evil world; his words addressed my fear, and yet they were also encouraging. His words said to me, to all of us there, that we could do it. We could face the task of confronting evil. There was such a ROAR of affirmation from the crowd after he spoke. Cardinal Dearden brought light and salt to the gathering and I was forever changed by his words. I am forever grateful to him for his words that broke my heart. JESUS was there in his words.
Light we know can reveal ugliness. It can reveal sin. During the days of the Civil Rights movement, we saw astonishing things. In 2005 there was a small newspaper published to honor the march on Selma, Alabama, and about twenty or so autobiographies were published of the people who were in the BACK of the march, not at the FRONT with the leaders. I read them, and I had to say after reading them, these were ordinary people. Yet, they were ordinary people who had done EXTRAordinary things. Risking their lives. Their lights may have seemed small, like the flames on a birthday candle, compared to other lights that were more like torches, but they were out there.
What did we see with these new lights? Their lights showed their own fortitude and perseverance and patience, qualities that had been overlooked. Their lights also showed up the ugly and sinful behavior of other people’s actions. Being a light, matters. SHOWING our lights matters. We’re not to keep our light to ourselves.
Our lights are to be SHARED, even if they are only as small as birthday candle lights.
We may feel that our lights are small, or our saltiness is not so big, but it matters.
Christian witness can take many forms. We don’t have to be activists. When we choose to praise God rather than complain, that is being a light in the darkness.
The poet, Christian Waiman, writes how when Christ began to draw him closer, he suddenly began to notice how his elderly aunt was always humming a hymn of some kind. Christ was gradually opening his eyes to see the light that was inside his elderly aunt that had always been near him which he now saw and heard in a new way.
I’ve seen light here at St. John. So many of you cook for Soup to Nuts, or sew the quilts for people or children you will never see. I have visited the homebound of this church, and I am impressed by the many adult children who take care of or who have taken care of elderly parents.
We show our light when we remember how GOD has been gracious and merciful to US. We show our light when we remember the GRACE God has given us, which allows us to have the lives that we have. We DO NOT dwell in darkness, like some, so I say thank you JESUS! We show our light when WE are merciful. We show our lights when WE welcome the stranger. And even if our lights are small, no bigger than a flame on a birthday candle, it matters. Our little flames MATTER to light a world that looks away from the poor and hungry. Our little flames, no bigger than a birthday candle MATTER when we hold out our hands to the stranger among us, and join them to the kingdom of God here on earth.
Gracious Lord. You came to live among us to show us our lights MATTER. Help us to have hearts that wish to share our lights with those who are unfortunate. Give us new hearts to help us see who is sitting in the darkness and could use OUR light, OUR salt, and OUR helping hand.
We pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus our Lord.