Monday, February 24, 2014

The Personal is Political: Jesus’s Creative Nonviolence and the WE DO Campaign

Text:   Matthew 5: 38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.     
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount by blessing the peacemakers and offering a vision of what this world will be like if we ever grasp God’s concept of peace.  And then he got down to brass tacks. HOW can we make peace in a volatile world?  For the original audience who heard Jesus speak, peacemaking was not only about living in peaceful personal relationships with our neighbors but also and more ambitiously about transforming a whole domination system within a warring culture. The peace of the Roman Empire—Pax Romana—was maintained by subjugating people through force and fear.  In contrast, the peace of God’s empire is achieved through love, which includes loving one’s enemy. 

But remember that Jesus was mainly talking to the disempowered, dispossessed, and oppressed.  It’s clear how the guys holding the swords become peacemakers.  They put down their swords, right?  How do the ones being held at sword point—the folks Jesus addressed—how do THEY become peacemakers? 

We might assume that being passive is the path to pure pacifism. Yet avoiding violence is not the same as making peace. Becoming a doormat actually enables oppression. When Jesus tells the people to love their enemy, let’s remember that their enemy is occupying their land and terrorizing their communities. Jesus is not talking to people about little squabbles with friends. Turning the other cheek did not mean then, as it means now, that if you say something mean to me, I’ll bite my tongue.  Giving someone the coat off your back was not then, as it is now, a description of a generous person.  Going the extra mile was not then, as it is now, a cliché about being extra helpful.  Having taken Matt. 5: 39-41 out of its original context, we’ve missed the world-altering point of Jesus’s sermon.  

Theologian Walter Wink[i] believes Jesus’s first hearers would have understood the words of verses 39-41 to be a risky tactic of creative nonviolence against a violent and oppressive political regime. 

In today’s 4:00 Bible study and in a sermon I preached three years ago, we examined these three stunningly creative examples of a subversive strategy that might startle oppressors into realizing and repenting their complicity in a system of injustice. Wink calls this a “third” way of responding to the domination system—a response that’s neither passive nor aggressive. Turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39) in the original context, is a way of shaming a violent superior.  Giving a creditor the only garment you have left (Mt. 5:40) and then striding out of a courtroom in naked protest is what Wink labels  as "guerilla theater" that shames the oppressor and exposes an injustice. Going the second mile might confuse Roman soldiers into breaking a rule and questioning an unjust system. When confronted with injustice, a powerless person has no hope of winning by fighting and no desire to continue being mistreated.  So Jesus suggests creative nonviolence that resists any cooperation with injustice. And this approach might—just might—jolt the oppressor into repentance.

I have time to explain, via Walter Wink, just one example of creative nonviolence, which is found in verse 41.[ii] Then I’ll offer a contemporary example.

Mt. 5: 41 reads:  “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Going the second mile, as I mentioned earlier, is often understood to be a maxim about being especially helpful.  But even if we know nothing about the historical context, the fact that someone FORCES you to go one mile should prevent us from thinking Jesus is recommending an extra measure of helpfulness.  Someone FORCING you to go a mile is not a neighbor asking you to run to the grocery store for her, and going the second miles is not you offering to stop by the dry cleaners for her while you’re out. 

Here’s the political context:  In Jesus’s day, Roman soldiers often compelled conquered villages on the streets to carry their 60-85 lb. packs.  In Jesus’ day, a slightly enlightened military code prevented soldiers from forcing subjects to carry their baggage past the mile marker. This, many believe, is the situation Jesus had in mind in recommending that a civilian, when FORCED to go with the soldier for one mile, should carry the pack one extra mile, which was forbidden by law.  If soldiers violated military rules, the centurion in charge could punish them. Do you see the dilemma this seemingly cooperative offer sets up for the soldier? What would happen if, at the next mile marker, the soldier reaches for his pack and the civilian says, “Oh, no. P-L-E-A-S-E let me carry it another mile. I insist!” What’s this Jew up to? the soldier must wonder.  Usually we have to force compliance. Is he tricking me so that later he can file a complaint?  Is he insulting my strength? Picture the Roman soldier now pleading with the peasant for his pack.  Surely Jesus’s audience laughed at the thought (Wink 106-108).  Humor and satire have always been resources of the oppressed to expose injustice, to shock the oppressor into seeing the powerless in a new light. Jesus was perhaps reminding his people of their tradition’s meager means.
How should an oppressed people respond to this regular requirement to cooperate with the military occupying their country?  Jesus doesn’t recommend revolt.  And besides, the soldier is but a cog in the empire’s machine. Nor does Jesus recommend aiding the oppressor—even if it sounds that he’s recommending that his listeners genially help enemy soldiers by going an extra mile.  Instead, he’s illustrating an ingenious third option that helps the powerless assert their dignity in a situation that can’t be immediately changed.  And even though Jesus taught this way in public using suggestive language that didn’t sound overtly subversive, his listeners surely were learning creative ways of pushing oppressive practices “to the point of absurdity” (Wink 110) in hopes of recovering their dignity and exposing injustice. Admittedly, these stunts probably would have worked only once.  Jesus is not recommending his followers use these same tactics over and over because the element of surprise is key to destabilizing the more powerful opponent.  But methods LIKE these could be used.
Of course, Jesus is aiming not simply to outwit an enemy but transform the enemy into a friend and to bring God’s kingdom a little closer.  His method holds open the possibility of the enemy becoming just.  Love your enemy, he says in verse 43.  Pray for your enemy, he adds in 44. Why?  Because (vs. 45) God loves your enemy as much as God loves you.  God loves the one who slapped you, who took your land, who conscripted your labor—as much as God loves you.  Jesus’s nonviolence is not merely tactical but theological.  His teachings are rooted in love—of God, neighbor, self, even love of the neighbor who is the enemy but who can be liberated from being the oppressor. And Jesus’s tactics that aim at peace are peaceful.  Don’t return evil with evil.  Don’t let violence turn you into the next oppressor.  The cycle of violence will be perpetuated—in the Middle East and on streets in the U.S. of A.--if we enter it. Jesus refuses to go there.  He refuses to be passive or violent.  

Does Jesus’s first century equivalent of a TED Talk hold relevance for us today?  It’s well-known that Gandhi’s and King’s creative nonviolent strategies were inspired by the Sermon on the Mount.  And many other oppressed peoples have succeeded in ending injustice without responding violently but instead creatively—not with guns but with marches and boycotts and art and music and sit ins and . . . well, let me describe one creative nonviolent action in which I participated in a very minor role not long ago.

Last January, two lesbian couples in Mobile—including our own Jan and Sondra—bravely participated in the WE DO Campaign, a creative nonviolent action for marriage equality.  In the fall of 2012, I was contacted by a fellow UCC minister, the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. Could I help her locate local same-sex couples who might march to our court house to seek a marriage license in front of television cameras and newspaper reporters to support marriage equality? I was intrigued. George and I soon agreed to host the main planning meeting in our home.

Jasmine shared her organization’s ingenious tactics--dramatic but peaceful and respectful tactics--to demand justice for LGBT people.  Thirteen Southern cities would be part of this campaign in the early part of 2013.  Local and national media would be alerted and in the process the general public might recognize the obvious injustice of denying loving couples equality before the law.  Jasmine assured me that good training would be given all participating, legal council would be with us every step of the way, and pastoral care (which I would help provide) would be available to those participating. I was impressed that Jasmine, a daughter of the South, understood the cultural context here, and that she, a fellow pastor, had a pastor’s heart for those who would be taking on personal risk to participate. The entire WE DO team demonstrated care both for the Mobilians who would risk public disapproval if they participated and for the staff of our city’s records office, who were notified well in advance of the demonstration and told exactly what to expect. We participants in the demonstration were reminded that the staff would be simply carrying out the laws that are on the books and to treat them kindly. Jasmine was gentle with each person with whom she interacted.

I loved that the action was creative and compassionate for all concerned. Yet our statements and stances were unequivocal.  Jan and Sondra and the other couple were eloquent and loving. The event was joyous! Of course their applications for marriage licenses were denied—but Jan and Sondra, who were actually asking that their marriage license from the state of Massachusetts be filed in Mobile, actually were able to do just that, which may become a chink in the legal armor blocking same sex marriages here.

The WE DO Campaign is just one of many courageous and creative strategies that are radically altering public opinion and changing laws in support of gay and lesbian citizens.  The rapidity with which this social issue is being rethought just may have something to do with the creative nonviolence that is characterizing this movement. 

There’s something appealingly pragmatic about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.  Peacemaking is HARD and RISKY, and the road is LONG.  But it’s something we can learn to do. Which makes the kingdom of God seem to me less like pie in the sky in the sweet by and by—and more like a difficult dream that we are moving toward.

God of Peace,
In your Kingdom Upside Down
You’ll undo Stand Your Ground.
We’d heard before an eye for eye—
But soon there’d be no eyes to cry.
If the Zimmermans and Michael Dunns
Give up their anger and their guns . . .
If folks like me relinquish greed
And learn to live with what we need . . .
If folks like me creatively
Do justice work nonviolently
And live that Sermon on the Mount
So everybody’s life will count . . .
we’ll prize your peace all the dearer.
we’ll bring your realm a little nearer.   AMEN

[i][i] Wink, Walter.  The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
[ii] See chapter 5 in The Powers That Be for Wink’s interpretation of what it means to “turn the other cheek” and “give your cloak as well.” 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

GUIDED MEDITATION: "An Evolving Ethic: Lessons on Relationship"

The following is an excerpt from a contemplative prayer service and includes a Guided Meditation

EPISTLE READING                          I Corinthians 3: 1-9                             
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?  5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION   “Ready for Solid Food?”
·         Would Paul’s rhetorical strategy have affected you positively?
·         As you think about your own spiritual journey, do you feel yourself becoming hungrier for “solid food”?  What does “solid food” look like in your own spiritual life and in your relationships with others? 
·         Does jealousy, quarreling, or some other unhealthy way of relating invade our faith community at times?  If you were Paul writing to Open Table, how would you fill in this blank:  “Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is _______ among you, are you not of the flesh?”

SONG                              “Where Charity and Love Prevail”                     


*GOSPEL READING                       Matthew 5: 21-37            
One:   21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
Many: 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
One:   23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Many: 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
One:   27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
Many: 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
One:   31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
Many  32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
One:   33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’
Many: 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

SONG                          “First Born of Mary”               p. 25 in songbook

GUIDED MEDITATION “An Evolving Ethic: Lessons on Relationship

As a preacher, I have a lot to learn from Jesus’s preaching.  His Sermon on the Mount, probably a paraphrased compilation of Jesus’s best loved teachings, spoke to people right where they lived.  He was not developing doctrine. He was not pontificating about theology. He was simply teaching us how to get along with one another. 

His first sermon (according to Matthew) started gently enough with “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and maybe that’s the starting point for ushering in God’s way of living together. The theme of right relatedness continues through this long “sermon” about God’s realm, but hyperboles in the beatitudes (Rejoice when you’re persecuted? Be the light of the world?) turn more shocking. To emphasize harmonious relationships, Jesus exaggerates his point by claiming that getting angry is tantamount to murder; saying that just looking at a woman with lust is equal to adultery; recommending that you rip out your own eye rather than look at a woman in the wrong way.

Upon hearing the beatitudes, we may yearn for the blessedness of the idyllic kingdom of heaven. But by the time we encounter the verses that follow, we may recoil from the horror of what it is to live outside the kingdom’s ethic of love. Relationships characterized by murderous anger, destructive lust, faithlessness, and deception are the anti-beatitudes.  And it sounds like hell, doesn’t it—to live in angry, selfish, unfaithful, and deceitful relationships? Some of you may have, unfortunately, glimpsed what that kind of relationship is like.

In contrast to the way God’s kingdom works, this hellacious way of relating to one another is the antithesis of peacemaking and mercy and meekness and selflessness. 

Today’s Gospel lection may or may not have anything to do with Jesus’s notion of an afterlife.  It most certainly offers wisdom about relationships right here and now that are blessed or cursed.

But Jesus is not merely contrasting the blessed and the doomed way of living.  He’s also contrasting an earlier ethic with a new way of living.  He’s raising the ethical bar here.  It’s not enough, he says, just to refrain from murder.  It’s not enough, he says, just to avoid adultery.  It’s not enough to avoid swearing falsely.  This more evolved ethic says that attitudes and intentions matter.  What’s in my HEART (anger or lust or cold indifference) can keep us estranged—not just my behavior.

We can say the right words and avoid egregious offenses—yet still not love, still not be in right relationship. 

PAUSE now to call to mind some current relationships that, though polite, are superficial and distant, maybe even strained.  Of course, we can’t have deep relationships with everyone.  But maybe there are people in your life you wish to know in more than a Facebook sort of way.  What’s preventing that?

We cannot know what Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven” until we have known the beauty and blessedness of rich and real relationships.

And here, my friends, is the best and worst thing about being church together.  WE are both the students learning right relatedness and we are the textbook on right relatedness.  WE as a church are the school in which reconciliation is learned and practiced.  WE as a faith community become—through our messy lives and complicated relationships and godly aspirations and embarrassing failures—I say, we become the best curriculum for teaching what it means to live as imperfect creatures trying to love one another—and failing—but continuing to try. 

God did not set us down here with a step-by-step manual on how to love one another. The Bible is not a simplistic “how to” book on anything.  It’s a storybook about how people have tried and failed at forming the beloved community. The Bible may illustrate how some have related to one another.  But our real curriculum is found right here—within a faith community that USES the very challenges of human relatedness to learn how to love. 

The trouble is that when the messiness begins, some folks run off.  “I hate the hypocrisy of the church” or “This is too much effort,” they say as they close the church door behind them, glad they can now claim not to be part of that failed experiment in human relatedness. Just when relationships get complicated or frustrating or disillusioning or downright heartbreaking, some folks leave.  Like the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote, some hit the first big challenge and bail from a marriage, from a friendship, from a faith community and thus miss the opportunity to learn the love lessons that can only be learned in tough circumstances.

PAUSE now to think about an important and enduring relationship in your life. Has it been devoid of conflict and disappointment?  How have some challenging moments strengthened the relationship?

Give thanks to God for the difficulties that brought you new insight and brought your relationship new depth.

Let me add here that I don’t think all relationships are salvageable. Nor do I believe God sends us painful events in order to teach us lessons.  If God designs tragedy to teach us, then that’s sick. But I do think that we can learn from failure and challenge, by God’s grace.

When the church council meets—as we did at Ann’s house yesterday—we may seem to be doing the “business” of the church: deciding on how to spend our budget, planning events for the church.  But in the process we are—often without being conscious of it—learning how to love . . . learning how to listen . . . learning how to consider the good of the whole . . . learning how to pray together with a unified spirit . . . learning how to fail and not feel we ourselves are failures . . . learning how to speak with direct honesty yet kindly . . . learning how to take responsibility for our actions without being responsible for another’s feelings. . . . learning how to live in community. 

Too often churches plug people into leadership slots in order to accomplish necessary tasks—and forget that every time we work together we are accomplishing tasks AND we are being formed spiritually AND we are creating the beloved community.

You can stick around and show up for worship occasionally and probably avoid ever having to develop a relationship that gets complicated. 

Or you can roll up your sleeves and get to know us better and even get involved in a project or attend a council meeting or show up for a Family Promise night.  If you choose to be more involved, you’re sure to have a frustrating or disappointing experience with someone at some time.  And when you do, I hope you’ll remember to thank God for the chance to learn a love lesson in the process.

SUNG PRAYER              “In Love You Summon”                 p. 37 in songbook

1.    Storytelling about reconciliation
Let the painting by George Tooker titled “Embrace of Peace” speak to you about moments of human connection.  Does this picture tell a story about forgiveness and reconciliation after a painful event? About reunion after separation?  About welcoming of new members into a group? Something else?  It might remind you of a story of human relatedness from you own life or it might help you get inside this painting to imagine what has brought these characters into this communal embrace. Use the notebooks beside the painting to write a brief story, true or imagined, that this painting brings to your heart and mind. 

2.    Giving offerings after we have given up a grievance or anger
Imagine what our lives would be like if we followed Jesus’s advice to “first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift [at the altar] (Matthew 5:23). Before bringing your offerings to God, spend some moments considering if you may be shortchanging some relationships in your life. Then as you place your monetary gifts in the offering plate, resolve to give more of yourself to someone in your life who needs more from you—more forgiveness, more time, more patience, more listening, more gentleness, more honesty . . . .

3.    Receiving communion in communion with our church family
Let the milk on the table remind you that we are choosing solid food, the Bread of Life, out of a maturing commitment to follow the demanding ways of Jesus.

4.    Praying with your pastor
Te pastor will come forward to kneel in prayer at the altar railing.  You may take turns coming alongside her to ask for prayer for yourself or others.





Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lighting up the World

Matthew 5: 13-16

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Parent in heaven.

We come from light. On this point scientific cosmology is not at odds with Christian scripture: Genesis 1:3 imagines that “Let there be light” was the decree that sparked creation. Science posits that life was created from an explosion that formed stars that eventually produced a terrestrial Petri dish for all living organisms. We were made from light.  And Jesus would add, “We are made for light.”

Within today’s Gospel there may seem to be two contrary properties of spiritual light.  Light is both the activity and the thing, both the signifier and the referent, both the verb and the noun. Light, as depicted in this brief passage, is at once the spectacle people should be seeing—and the means by which they are to see something else.  So if we are beings of light—is our purpose to be the thing on which all eyes are cast—or the means by which the world sees something more ultimate? 

It might seem that the weight of the passage falls on the side of lifting up the Church as the focal point of illumination.  Disciples should be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Written for a persecuted sect a couple of generations after Jesus lived, Matthew’s Gospel urges the Matthean community not to turn inward, not to live fearfully sequestered from the world, but instead to be a very visible “city on a hill” and a “lamp on a lampstand.”  You can’t disengage from the world if you follow Jesus, they were told.  Of course, being a lamp on a lampstand is not a call to grandstand. But disciples do have a distinctive way of being in the world.  Disciples do not let fear or callous disregard isolate them from the world’s cares.  And their compassion is witnessed in the world.

Our faith community is seeking appropriate ways to invite others to join us and we hope to demonstrate our distinctive definition of church in our city. We are allergic to smug and coercive evangelism. And we’re rightly wary of ways the shining “city on a hill” analogy has been appropriated by various American ideologies: from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon for the Puritans (to whom we trace one branch of the United Church of Christ)--to John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who cited the verse to bolster their different versions of American Exceptionalism.  So we will remember that refusing to hide our light does not mean we impose that light on others through political or religious imperialism or through narcissistic overexposure.  (The trend in reality television and social media, by the way, suggests that a lot of Americans are not hiding ANYTHING under a bushel these days.  Likewise, religious broadcasting seems lit more often by a spotlight than biblical lamplight.) Nevertheless, just because some folks grandstand doesn’t mean we should not be the lampstand. 
This theological balancing act--of offering a distinctively flavored Christian congregation without seeming exclusive or arrogant--is also a very practical concern to us as a congregation.  We believe there are others in our larger community who have perhaps foresworn church years ago but will “get” us if they ever get to us.  We are reaching out to those who are not looking for a church but might appreciate companions who are spiritually adventurous, long to explore the big questions without having to reach the same answers, admire the life and teachings of Jesus but do not assume that Jesus’s way is the only way, hunger for a diverse and inclusive community, are committed to social justice and radical hospitality, will be intrigued to see that Christian theology is evolving in response to science and world religions.  

Our print ad series last year focused on slogans like these: 
“We believe in the separation of church and hate.”
“Bible belt too tight? Try us on for size.”
“Our religion is 2000 years old; our thinking isn’t.”
We’ve shined a light not only in print ads but by doing service and advocacy.

We’ve advocated for immigration reform and published our Open and Affirming statement and hosted community discussion sessions in coffee houses and cafes on topics ranging from evolution to homosexuality and attended coastal clean ups and community forums on clean water.

I hope we’ve taken these stands with humble clarity, courage, and conviction without demonizing folks who disagree with us. I hope we have been edgy without being offensive. Whenever we take a STAND on something, as the UCC is wont to do, we risk moving from lampstand to grandstand.  But let us never avoid the lampstand.

As individuals, we share most authentically in the course of natural conversation—a story around the water cooler about something meaningful our church has done recently, an invitation to a friend to join in a different kind of Bible study that takes the Bible too seriously to read it literally. You’ll notice on the last page of your worship bulletin a request for information from you. You're invited to write 2 numbers in the 2 blanks provided: number of people you invited to Open Table this week, and an estimate of hours you personally spent serving our community in some way through Open Table or just out of your own commitments to be Light in this world. This report is anonymous. We think we’ll understand more about how we are inviting and serving by watching these numbers over the coming weeks. 

We at Open Table are aiming to shine like that “city on the hill” that offers the light of radical invitation and inclusion, of compassion and justice.  We are light—light as a noun.

But contrast the “city on the hill” image of verse 14 with the light imagery in verse 16.  Light in this section is the means of illumination not the object of illumination.  Light is not a thing but a process or energy or movement—which is good physics, by the way.  “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see . . . you? your church? No. So they may see . . .  your good works (light in action!) and give glory to God (that is, to point to the ultimate source of that goodness).  We might sometimes stargaze or focus in meditation on a flickering candle, but usually the purpose of a light is to reveal something else.  We can’t see light itself—just “what light lights up” (Buechner 62).*

Much of ancient mysticism, Christian and otherwise, understands spiritual growth in terms of enlightenment.  Jesus teaches disciples a radical new way of thinking as we humbly empty ourselves of ego to become a vessel of light.  When we give up dark delusions that everyone has to agree with us, that grasping ambitions satisfy, that we are can control our little universes, then we take on the mind of Christ (Paul’s phrase) and are united in Christ, the light of the world.

I see an analogy to this enlightened way of following Jesus, of taking on the mind of Christ, in the way Annie Dillard describes good writing. A beautiful prose style, she says, “is humble.  It does not call attention to itself but to the world. . . . It praises the world by seeing it. It seems even to believe in the world it honors with so much careful attention. . . .  [It] is not a pyrotechnic display, but a lamp” (Dillard 120-122).** The best writers do not call attention to themselves or even to their words but to the world their writing illuminates.

By letting go of the world’s labels of who we are and what we have to acquire and do in order to be valued, followers of Jesus  hold and convey light—which the first chapter of John tells us is the essence of the Christ.  Jesus’s own path of enlightenment allowed him to relinquish all claims except the claim to being a signpost—a well-lit signpost—to God.

In English the word light can mean both illumination and the opposite of heavy.  I suggest that people of Light will also travel lightly, hold this world lightly—which is not to say we hold the world carelessly or un-appreciatively—but it is to say we hold the world un-possessively). Light, sheer energy, the fastest force in the universe, cannot be contained.  Being light is being free. To follow Jesus is to feel light—light as an adjective here.  And though the original Greek does not carry this added meaning, Jesus said elsewhere that “my burden is light.”
Perhaps you don’t feel you’re shining all that brightly.  Perhaps you’re not sure you are the best beacon toward hope and help.  Perhaps your spiritual journey feels heavy with thoughts so deep they pull you down or burdens that deaden your spirit.  But Jesus might say this to you: You are light. You are lit up by the Godlight.  Recognizing the light within can be your liberation, but not yours only.  Carrying in you the light of God is a responsibility you hold for the world.  Most religions teach that enlightenment is to be shared.
Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory, not to you, which would just weigh you down again with heavy expectations, but will instead give glory to the Love that shines out through you.                                                
Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Help us shine that light, share that light, and do so with a lightness of spirit.  Amen

* Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).
**Dillard, Annie.  Living By Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).