On Sunday, February 9, 2020 I preached my inaugural sermon as the Settled Pastor of the Annisquam Village Church. Here is the Welcome, Gospel passage, and sermon. May these words inspire your light!
Good morning and welcome to the Annisquam Village Church. My name is Rev. Sue Koehler-Arsenault and I am delighted to be leading worship this morning for the first time as your Settled Pastor. We gather at a time of mixed emotions for this community – joy as I begin this new chapter as your pastor, but also deep sadness as we say goodbye to Vicki Dangelmayer, who died earlier in the week, with her funeral today at 2 p.m, as well as the heartfelt sorrow we feel as our much beloved, Christi Powell, was admitted to Hospice at home a few days ago.
During this liturgical season, the season of Epiphany, we are invited to consider who we are and how we are called to live as the beloved people of God; to know that God’s presence is with us as much in times of happiness, as in times of sadness, and in those times when happiness and sadness, light and dark, are all swirling together at once. Our God is in it all.
So, know that wherever you are on your faith journey and whatever feelings you have in this moment, all of who you are, all of how you are feeling, is warmly welcomed and deeply accepted here.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 5.14-205:13
“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.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
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.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments,
and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven;
but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
SERMON: You Are the Light of the World
One morning, about ten years ago, while sitting in my office at the Community Hospice in upstate New York, a nurse colleague, Amanda, walked in with a distressed look on her face. “Sue, I’m really struggling. I have this horrible case. My patient is in so much pain. I’m really having a tough time getting her symptoms managed. To make matters worse, her family situation is awful. Her adult children are always arguing, the patient is not well cared for, and their home is so dark and depressing. I just can’t see where God is in this situation.”
Before I tell you how I responded to Amanda, ask yourself this:
Are there situations in your life or in the world that you find dark and depressing?
Perhaps without hope? Can you think of a place where you struggle to see God’s presence?
After listening to Amanda’s distress, I let her know that I understood how challenging it is to walk into truly trying situations. As a home care hospice chaplain, I had seen plenty of suffering – sometimes because of the patient’s condition, sometimes because of family strife, sometimes because of crushing poverty and sometimes because of all of those things.
Then, I said to Amanda, “Every time you walk through your patient’s door, YOU bring the light. You are God’s presence in your patients’ homes through your love, your care, your compassion. You, Amanda, are the light.”
She looked down at the floor and paused for a moment. “I never really thought of that,” she said. “I know,” I replied. “You don’t realize how you touch others. Your heartfelt care means the world to your patients – many of whom have gone through the gauntlet of the medical system often feeling more like a number than a person. When they meet you, Amanda, many of them feel truly cared about in a way that makes a difference. Your kindness is healing. You are an angel. You bring God’s light.”
Today Jesus proclaims to us as individuals and as a church community,
“You ARE the light of the world.”
“He does not say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say, ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ No. He says straight out, ‘You are light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it.” – (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart)
Do you believe it? Do you live it? (2x)
As beloved children of God, we are as Genesis proclaims, created “in the image and likeness of God.” In other words, it is within our very nature as humans that we can be expressions of God’s light and love. It is who we are created to be. To know the truth of this, we just need to look at a baby. As infants we begin our earthly journeys as radiant expressions of the Divine light: full of irrepressible joy, curiosity, and affection. It’s pretty easy for us to see the light – to see the wide awakeness – in a baby
Sadly, it does not take much for this beautiful light to be dimmed. From that inevitable moment when we begin comparing ourselves to others, our light can be dimmed. During those tender early years, when we begin noticing that someone else is smarter or more athletic or has nicer clothes or a bigger house…we can start diminishing our own self-worth, dimming our own lights. Or maybe a parent or a sibling or a neighbor speaks to us disrespectfully and we believe that we are dumb or fat or a bother… and our light dims in response. Ask most high school students today how they see themselves and few would likely identify with their inner light. This is why one of the greatest gifts we can give young people (or really anyone) in our social media-obsessed world today is to continue to affirm their light.
To all those voices within us or around us that suggest that we are less than, Jesus says, no, “YOU ARE the light of the world.” Do you believe it? Do you live it?
In his 1994 inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela quoted Marianne Williamson: “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. “
How are you shining your light for the good of others? How are you using the unique gifts God has given you to make a difference for someone else? It seems that Jesus recognized our human tendency to obscure our own lights. He gives us a Divine Imperative – “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
For many people today, these are dark times. Some of us may name the darkness as a personal challenge or challenges – like mental health issues, addiction, serious illness, relationship challenges, or family problems. Others of us may name darkness as a social or political challenge or challenges – increased tribalism, political polarization, climate destruction, gun violence – to name a few. And when we feel both personal and social/political challenges at the same time, it can be truly overwhelming. (Many young people today name the climate crisis and gun violence as two social issues that are contributing to their personal anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.) In response to these personal and larger problems, we may become numb, apathetic, or angry and forget the light that is within, the light of Christ.
When Jesus spoke the words we heard from the Sermon on the Mount today he and the Jewish people were living in their own dark times, under Roman domination. They did not have the kind of freedom that you and I often take for granted. Jesus was not living within a social or political system that respected the rights of the people. Biblical scholars commenting on this passage recognize that Jesus also had a very specific idea about what being salt and light means: it is to live the vision from the prophet Isaiah, using our gifts to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to care for the homeless, the vulnerable, and especially our own family members. Then, we are told, our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly..” It is God’s own light that radiates through us when we strive to heal the darkness of the world – whether we are reaching out in love to one other person or we are working to change the systems that threaten and hurt groups of people.
Jesus is telling us that as his light bearers, we have a responsibility to be light for others. Do we believe it? Do we live it?
Jesus reminds us that it’s not enough to claim our identity as individual Christians, we are called to live that identity as part of a larger community, the church, for the sake of a larger community, the world. One way biblical theologian Douglas Hare suggests we understand today’s Gospel passage is “You are salt, yes, but for the earth, not for yourselves. You are light, but for the whole world, not for a closed fellowship.” In other words, as Christians we are not called merely to be good individuals, we are called as a church body to be a light in the world.
Consider this: In his new book about community engagement, Tufts University Political Science professor Eitan Hersh writes: “The subset of the population that consumes political news every day (gesturing at myself as I say this) and cares a lot about politics isn’t particularly active in community life… 65% report that they have done no work with other people to solve a community problem.”
Hersh also notes that “Many college-educated people … follow the news and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw an online donation at a presidential candidate.”
“(However) They do not feel a sense of obligation, of “linked fate,” to people who have concrete needs such that they are willing to be their allies. They might front as allies on social media, but very few …are actively engaging in face-to-face … organizations, committing their time to fighting for racial equality or any other issue they say they care about.”
Jesus’ proclamation that we are salt and light is at the heart of our Christian identity and mission; they are inextricably linked. Each and every member of this beloved community is called to participate in the stated mission of this church: to reach out in service to the community and to the world, extend the hand of Christ to support the needs of the larger community and beyond. Outreach is not an “optional extra” when it comes to who we are called to be as church.
A few days ago, about 20 or so church members gathered in this sanctuary on a gloomy afternoon to pray for Christie. Again and again she was described as generous; as someone who shares her unique gifts with others, a truly bright light. One of the most amazing moments of the service came when suddenly the sunlight peeked through the clouds and warmed everyone in the sanctuary. It felt like a sign affirming Christie’s light.
At this threshold moment for our church community, the question is how might we grow our light, our missional activity as church? Remember at the beginning of the sermon, I asked you if there are any situations in your life or in the world that you find dark or depressing, perhaps without hope. Those, my new friends, are the very places that we are called to bring the light.
Jesus tells us that when two or three gather in his name, that he is with us. So, the best thing we can do when we are feeling hopeless or concerned about the state of our lives or the state of the world, is to join with others right here in this church community to bring our collective light together that it might shine even more brightly in dark places. So, if there is a challenge here on Cape Ann or in the world that you really care about, that troubles your heart, let’s as a church community learn more about it, reflect and pray about it, and make a plan to do something about it. We have nothing short of the light of Christ to propel us forward.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters understand the light of God this way: “Doing a mitzvah (a good work) is like lighting a candle before God — it is preparing a place where God’s glorious presence can dwell. By means of this you enliven your soul. The more light a person brings about in the physical darkness, through doing the good work, the more that one will enlighten one’s soul from the light above” (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter). The mitzvot become spiritual tools for opening our souls to God’s light and spreading that light into the world around us.
When we begin working with others in the direction of creating the world as God dreams it to be – a world of peace, security, and well-being for all – then we can feel the light within kindled. Hope is born.
And for those of you who are already actively engaged in caring for others, or working to make our community or the world a better place, remember you have the light of Christ within.
Many religious traditions recognize that the Divine Light emanates from our hearts. Even when we are busy or can’t get out to be with others, we can extend the light of God through prayer. So, let’s try this… Please close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. Breathing slowly and easily, see the light of Christ within your own heart, within your own being. Now imagine that light radiating from your heart to the person or persons sitting next to you – imagine your light touching the hurting or broken or struggling places within the people who are sitting beside you. Now imagine that you are in the choir loft, looking down while each person is extending their light. See how the whole church is filled with light. Next imagine your friends or neighbors who are in need of loving support and extend the light of God from your heart to theirs. As everyone in this church is extending their light at the same time, see how more and more of Cape Ann and the North Shore is filled with light. Now send the light from your heart to neighboring states and across the country. Share the light with the people, the animals, and all the natural world. Remember, that everyone in this church is doing the same thing. Watch as the whole country is filled with light. Now send your light beyond the borders, across the seas, and watch as the whole earth is filled with light. Allow yourself to enjoy and rest in the light of God that fills heaven and earth, bringing warmth, contentment and joy to everyone everywhere. When you are ready, please open your eyes.
This is a community blessed with innumerable gifts, with so many brightly shining lights, like Christie. In a world that can often feel dark, depressing, and hopeless, may we remember who we are and who we are called to be, light for the world. Amen.
BENEDICTION (adapted & amended from a poem by Jan Phillips)
Now is the time to be mindful of light
to keep the flame going, to brighten the night.
So rejoice, beloveds, in the gifts that you have
the light of the world
is the torch in your hands. Amen.