The Church that Feeds People

Pentecost service


Be the Light OF the World and FOR the World

140209_coverIsaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

Year A, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

You are the light of the world.

You are the salt of the earth.

These are beautiful sentiments. Most of us remember singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”

As a child I always assumed that this meant I should be a good boy and let people see how good I was. I think that’s an understandable interpretation for a child, but Jesus was pointing towards something more.

To get the value of what Jesus is saying here, we have to get past working on “this little light of mine.” You see, the human tendency is to turn the spiritual project into a project about the self. We turn spiritual growth into personal growth or self-improvement.

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We so easily hear this as a song about letting our individual lights shine. Jesus doesn’t say you have a little light. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world! Don’t hide that light. Let the light shine for others. Be God’s light for others!”

To show you what I mean I’d like to look at our reading from Isaiah. We see the same dynamic there. The human tendency is to turn spirituality into a personal endeavor. The people Isaiah spoke to were fasting and praying and asking for God’s help, but they were doing so for personal, self-focused reasons.

The people say to God:

“Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?”

Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?”

Even in Isaiah’s day, people turned spirituality into something like self help. We do that, don’t we? We treat spirituality as something to make us feel better. We go to worship to be entertained. We insist on doing things just the way we have always done them and fight among ourselves when someone suggests something different. This isn’t new.

I went to the Amazon book store and selected the “Self Help” section and got a very interesting list.

  • The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
  • Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Find Your Self-Esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame
  • When Am I Going to Be Happy?
  • Achieve Anything in Just One Year

Spirituality has been personalized. Just like the early Israelites, we focus on “self help.”

We want to be happy. We want to be comfortable and safe. We want to be loved. The self takes all these desires and says, “I deserve all that. I should do whatever it takes to be happy, comfortable, safe and loved.” Sadly, the program of the self is not a program of spiritual growth but of self indulgence, and leads only to frustration.

Jesus explicitly forbids this program of turning spirituality in to self-help. The point of the spiritual life is to turn ourselves outward, towards the neighbor. God has given us wonderful gifts, and we are meant to use those gifts as a blessing to others. You are the light of the world! The light of the world is not for itself, it is for the rest of the world!

So what are we to do? Isaiah has a pretty clear suggestion:

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

“What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.”

These are the spiritual practices God commends to us. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “You are the light of the world,” and, “you are the salt of the earth.” To be light and salt is to be a blessing to others. To grow spiritually is to grow in your capacity for compassion, generosity, and love.

All day Friday, as I worked on this sermon I watched cars pull into our parking lot. People got out of those cars with armloads of blankets, coats, and blankets. Some would come to the church door and I directed them to the TC3 entrance where they could make their donation. I also thanked them for thinking of the needs of our guests. What I was seeing was a beautiful illustration of exactly what I believe Jesus and Isaiah are saying.

“What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.”


The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
February 9, 2014

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