RCL Year A, 5 Epiphany
Some weeks back I finished a wonderful book called The Genessee Diary, a memoir by the writer Henri Nouwen about his time living in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, an academic and a writer, when he went for a kind of sabbatical of several months to the Trappists. The Trappists are a cloistered order, monks who keep to a very austere schedule of prayer beginning at about 2:00 in the morning, with hard manual labor, strict obedience to the abbot, and a vow of silence throughout the day. Now, Nouwen had already achieved fame as a writer by the time he stayed with the Trappists, and although he is there to live their life, he finds himself over and over again dealing with resentment about what he is asked to do by the abbot. He is a writer and academic – why is he spending hours washing raisins for the bread in the kitchen? He is a great thinker – why does he have to move boulders by hand to build the new church? And why doesn’t anyone there treat him as special? He realizes quickly that the monk who treated him kindly and lovingly the day before is today doing just the same with another guest. Nouwen isn’t accorded special status at all. He struggles with this over and over again, so much that it is almost laughable when he returns to this theme in his diary for the twentieth time. And yet as I read, I found myself thinking, don’t we all know something of what he feels. The desire to be special. To be admired. To be, at least, appreciated for what we do and contribute. Consciously or unconsciously, something like this is true for so many of us.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus tells us today. You are the light of the world. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. We’re really something pretty special in the eyes of God – aren’t we?
Now, most of us, I’m guessing, don’t really think we’re the light of the world. And maybe some of us struggle sometimes with believing that we’re any kind of light of the world at all. But most of us think, well, we’re a little bit of the light of the world, aren’t we? We do something for someone, we say a nice thing or do a good deed, and it makes the world a little better. We’re one of those thousand points of light we heard about some time ago, and we can feel good about that.
But Jesus goes on. If salt has lost its taste, it is good for nothing but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. And no one lights a lamp only to hide it under a bushel. It sounds like a warning. But a warning about what exactly?
To really understand this we need to look at what comes right before these words of Jesus – the Beatitudes, some of the most familiar and misheard scriptures of all. The long string of ‘blessed are’-s that sound lovely but really don’t make a whole lot of sense to us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed and happy are a whole lot of people who don’t look at all blessed and happy. Who don’t have anything of the good life or anything else that we might like to have to be happy and feel blessed. No one walks up to a hungry person and says, well, aren’t you blessed! But blessed, says Jesus, are those who lack, not those who have. They are the ones who are blessed and happy. God loves them. And it is them, those who do not have, who are the salt and light for the world.
But them is us. Jesus here is saying, now we are the light – we in whom God lives, we are the light of the world. We are the salt of seasoning and preservation and purification. Not because we did anything right; not because of our inherent skills and talents and extraordinariness. Simply because God is in us, shining. God is in us, giving flavor to the world. When we try to be the light of the world ourselves, we wonder why no one else is acting like we’re special. We wonder when they’re going to say ‘thank you.’ And before we’ve even realized it, the real light is hidden by our own shadow.
This last week I attended our diocesan clergy conference, led by a writer and teacher named Cynthia Bourgeault. She talked about the different ways we have of knowing – the way our brains can know things in one way, our hearts in another, and our bodies in still another. And our bodies, she pointed out, often know something most quickly of all. Put your hands like this (tight fists), she said, Now put them like this (open and out). Can you feel the difference? One is the way it feels to hold tight to something, to cling. The other is the way it feels to let go. When we cling to something – like, say, our own egos, our own specialness, our own inherent skills and talents deserving of attention, we’re tightened up, wrapped up in our selves, blocked and caught up in our own stuff. When we let go, we are freer, more open to movement, readier to the Spirit’s actions within us and through us. Truths that are hard to explain through words, but that we can tell right away by how it feels to make the gestures.
Right after telling us to be salt and light, Jesus issues what sounds like a stern warning about following the law, that only by fulfilling it in every last bit, only by exceeding the righteousness of the most careful of Pharisees, will we enter the kingdom of heaven. People have freaked out about this statement ever since. But it is of a piece with what he said before it. Because when we allow God to be the source of light through us, when we let go of our own stuff and our need to be something important to others, then God can act fully in us; God can use us to bring light to others. Through us God can shine, purify, season the world. God shines through us, simply because we aren’t cluttering up the way anymore.
The pose of letting go, of open hands not clinging to our entitlement or specialness, is not something we attain all at once. It is something we practice, over and over again. We practice it together in our community life as we yield to each other’s needs, as we look for what is best for the other instead of simply what suits us most. We practice as we think about how to work for the good of the whole instead of insisting others adapt to our own cherished way. We practice it in our prayer, offering ourselves in quiet and openness to God instead of always presenting a laundry list of our needs and complaints. We practice it as we let things go in our daily life that tempt us to cling and clutter, instead of allowing the space for light to come through. We practice and we practice and we practice, over and over again turning ourselves over to God, opening ourselves to Christ’s light. And eventually, as we see in the great saints of the church, we might just really be transparent, full of the kingdom of heaven, drawing others toward God.
So there is work for us to do in today’s teaching – but it is not the work of being something really wonderful, something we strive for and seek to do better on. Instead, it is the work of letting go. Of laying ourselves down bit by bit, letting fall drop by drop the things we’ve been clinging to, allowing God more and more to act in us and through us for others. We are the light of the world – may we let that light of God shine through us for all. Amen.