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Lamplight vs Starlight

Sermon - 2/06/11
LeRoy Hershiser
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 5:13-16

From the first harnessing of fire I would guess there have been lamps –
simple clay dishes or containers with some animal fat and wick to burn
the fatty oil as it melted. Although THIS lamp [showing a lamp at the pulpit] is made of metal, glass, and a cotton wick, it still burns, as did that first lamp, to make light – a container, a wick, and oil (Kerosene).

But this lantern has something else – something that makes it shine brighter, casting its light much further out into the darkness – a glass chimney to shield the flame and more importantly, IT HAS A REFLECTOR.

It seems to me that REFLECTOR is what Jesus is thinking mostly about in
our lesson today from Matt. 5:13-16:

‘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 hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, 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 Father in heaven.

In the middle of the New Mexico desert, astronomers fume about the
“light pollution” from the sprawling cities that are gradually snaking
out across the land. Even on the darkest moonless nights, the stars that
used to gleam and twinkle so brilliantly look faded and dim. But there
is good news – the Hubble Telescope circling our earth above the lights,
above the atmosphere is showing us things about stars we never dreamed
of. There are many more to “wish upon.”

We who live in the middle of cities and towns rarely glance heavenward
at night anymore – at least not to see stars. Unlike the Magi, we do not
follow the stars unless we happen to keep track of our horoscope, and
THAT is in trouble. It has been reported that due to the normal wobble
of the earth the stars are no longer in alignment. My birthday is this
month – Aquarius! Does that mean that now I am sunk?

The lights that now illumine our nights as brightly as our days read:
“McDonalds,” “Holiday Inn,” “Casino Open,” and “Twenty-Four Hour
Service.” In the glare of all these high-powered night lights, it is
hard to remember just how dark and frightening the hours between sunset
and sunrise used to be for our ancestors. light, whether natural or
artificial, was a precious commodity. Today, whether in literature,
academe, Hollywood or the firmament, stars inspire us, they dazzle us,
they entice us to dream. But a star won’t keep us from stubbing our toe
on a stone as we wander down a dark and lonely road. In Matthew's text
this week, Jesus urges us to serve as LAMPS for one another, not STARS
that only dazzle and inspire. Jesus calls us to be lights for the world,
not exploding super-novas.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot more people, including some
politicians, media pundits, and even some Christians, who want to be
STARS, trying to outshine those not as bright as them, than are willing
to be LAMPS to share light for everyone.

Even Jesus encountered the “STAR syndrome” among his own disciples. In
Matthew 20:20ff, the SONS OF ZEBEDEE and their equally ambitious mother,
petitioned Jesus, begging him to “save them seats” in heaven. JAMES and
JOHN don’t want just any old place – they specifically ask Jesus for the
“star” seats, those immediately at his right and left hands. James and
John are looking for stellar status, a place where they may shine down
on others. Jesus tries to teach those two star-seekers that their
request is wrong-headed for two reasons: First, Jesus claims that
heaven’s seating order is his Father’s domain – not his. More
importantly, Jesus patiently reminds James and John that the way they
may emulate him and be “first” in the kingdom is through selfless
service to others. Jesus moves them, and us, from the idea of heaven
sometime later, and it’s rewards, to the kingdom now and what we do
here, now, to shed the light of hope.

“Out, out, brief candle!” cried Macbeth; and declared that “…life,
that struts and fret his hour upon the stage…is heard no more.” But
Jesus implies that people themselves are meant to be the bearers of the
eternal light. The sun warms by radiation. So the Christian, gathering
and reflecting light from Christ, can be radiant in the true sense of
the word; and that light in him confers its own immortality. This
age-on-age, is the Christian calling. What seems to be the message here
is that the only way to turn up the candlepower, is through our
individual selfless lives - through stepping out beyond ourselves.

Matthew goes on with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and he tells the
multitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.... Blessed are those who
mourn.... Blessed are the meek...etc. Notice something missing? No
“Should, ought, or must.” Jesus begins with "Blessings": blessings upon
those who are unblessed, those who are failures by the way the world
judges success and failure. No Imperative, just blessing for all the
poor, hungry, persecuted, meek of the earth. Blessing for those whom the
world has cursed and have decided not to see.

We are glad that Jesus blesses the poor, the empty, the bereft. We are
pleased that he begins his sermon by going on record as having, as the
Liberation Theologians say, A PREFERENTIAL OPTION FOR THE POOR.

Wherever people are suffering, oppressed, or hurting in the whole world, Jesus blesses them as part of his family. By patting them on the head and
blessing them? No, he blesses them by sending his people, people like
you and me, to them to help at the point of their need. Families take
care of all their people. Not just our immediate family and clan! We are
talking here about the FAMILY OF GOD - everybody! WHAT HE SAYS HERE, HE SAYS TO ALL!

So then, in verse 11 of his Sermon, the Beatitudes shift from the third
to the second person. Jesus turns from the suffering multitudes toward
his own disciples, toward us, and says: "Blessed are you...!" Can you
see him turn? "Blessed are YOU….!" WHAT HE SAYS NOW, HE SAYS JUST

I don’t know about you but I begin to squirm a bit. With his gaze fixed
so directly upon us, and I would add, for just a time as now: “Blessed
are you when they revile you, persecute you, utter all kinds of evil
against you falsely on my account....That's the way they treated
prophets before you." (Mt. 5:12) This little rag-tag band of fisher
folk, ex-IRS agents, people just off the streets – prophets? SIMON PETER
swatted a fly. NATHANIEL nudged Mary Magdalene who broke out in a
toothless grin – US? “Yeah,” says Jesus. “Prophets, Interpreters &
Truth-tellers of Israel –YOU! “You are the salt of the entire earth….
“You are the light of the whole world – SHINE!

Light, like salt, is mainly of significance in what it enables to
happen. You don’t stare at a light bulb – light is valuable in that it
enables us to see something else. Switch on a light, and a dark room is
transformed. I can remember the first time I went through the Oregon
Caves. Many of you have probably done it in this cave or some other one.
At one point, deep inside the mountain, all of the lights were turned
off. Time was given for our eyes to adjust and then the guide said,
“Put your hand in front of your face.” It was totally dark – couldn’t
see a thing. Then the guide lit a single match. Not only could I see my
hand, and everyone else in our tour. I could see the walls and ceiling
of the huge domed room we were in. AMAZING WHAT ONE LIGHT CAN DO! Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind.

As a child didn’t you love to sing “This little light of mine, I’m
going to let it shine?”  I did! The only problem with that song is that
it focuses exclusively on the single beam of light emitted by our small
singular light.

Jesus wanted us to think as community about the illuminating power he
generates in each of us. The “city built on a hill” is not noticed
because one lone light flickers in a window. It is the combined wattage
of an array of lights, each burning in its own place, but for a common
purpose that sets the city ablaze in the midst of a dark and dreary night.

“You are the light of the cosmos,” says Jesus. “Without you, the world
cannot see what it is.”

The world has no means of seeing that it is violent, that all of its
national orders and governments are propped up by force. Not until it
meets someone who isn’t violent in word or deed.

People of the world don’t know that they are superficial, until they
come face-to-face with someone who isn’t.

The world needs you to be redeemed, before it can know what is fallen,
corrupt, and sin-filled - selfish-filled if you please.

The world must stumble across just one free person still running
loose, before the world sees how enslaved it is to a host of cruel masters.

“You are the only light the world has,” says Jesus. Hide your light
under a basket, and EVERYONE stumbles! The world is quite right in
judging the truth of Jesus by the sort of people faith-in-Jesus is able
to produce.

It is a great gift to know that our life is caught up in some vast,
cosmic program of Jesus. You are the way Jesus is busy turning inside
out the whole world.*Here at Eugene First Christian Church by our
statement of purpose as a Inclusive, Affirming, Transforming
congregation* we indicate we are trying to step up to the challenge. So
the little things we do: things like the way we spend the money we have;
the words we use to speak TO and ABOUT other people; the jokes we tell;
the manner in which we spend our time. All are transformed from being
purely personal matters of our individual lifestyle so ingrained in us
in the world in which we live,- transformed into a great, cosmic,
witness to the Light of the World.

This is the season AFTER the Epiphany. Epiphany means “revelation,” an
“aha now I get it” time. Of course, a month after Christmas, the
Epiphany we are talking about is Jesus. The “aha” moment for all the
people around his birth. The “aha” moment for the Magi, the wise men,
astrologers, not particularly religious guys. Jesus, the Light to the

So here we are at church, and in a few minutes we will be handed bread
and the fruit of the cup by this Galilean Light of the World. Are you
surprised when Mr. Light of the World turns around and focuses his laser
beam of truth upon your life and calls YOU his light of the world, YOU
his salt of the earth, You his bread blessed that he might give YOU to a
hungry world.“Be dressed and ready for action, and keep your lamps
lit.” Luke 12:35 reminds us.

In the swirl of despair over the shootings in Tucson, last month a few
bright spots emerge from the story of what happened: AN AIDE who quickly
rushes to Gabrielle Gifford’s’ aid, keeping her from bleeding to death,
while others, sensibly, are running for cover. TWO MEN who seize the
moment, and the shooter, as he is reloading. A WOMAN who quickly grabs
the gun magazine clip off the ground. And dozens who call 911, urging a
speedy response.

There are other bright spots as well: A SHERIFF who urges calm and
restraint in our political conversation, along with more sensible gun laws. ELECTED OFFICIALS who, for the moment, tone down the nasty rhetoric that surely leads to incidents like this one. Sadly, it won’t take them long to forget.

Jesus tells us to be ready, always, to respond: to respond to VIOLENCE,
non-violently; to respond to HATE, compassionately; to respond to
CYNICISM with love, hope and understanding! To never forget we have been
called to be the light of hope to a selfish confused world.

When Jesus said to that crowd, “You are the light of the world,” he
was using an expression quite familiar to the Jews. They themselves
spoke of Jerusalem as “a light to the Gentiles.”But the way in which
the Jews used this expression will give us a key to the way in which
Jesus also used it. Of one thing the Jews were sure - No person kindled
their own light.  It was “God, who lit the lamp.” The light with which
the nation or the people of God shone was a borrowed light. It must be
so with the Christian. It is not the demand of Jesus that we should, as
it were, produce our own light. We are to shine with the reflection of
his light. The radiance which shines form the Christian comes from the
presence of Christ within the Christian’s heart.

We are not all standing within reach of Rep. Gifford on a Saturday
morning. But we are wherever we are. And no one else is always where you
are but you, and God. May God give each of us the courage, love and
insight to respond well. Don’t worry about whether or not you are “star
material." Probably none of us are. Instead, turn up your lamp and hold
it up to help your neighbor or a stranger around the unexpected holes
and rocks that mark every path. There IS a difference between
"Starlight" and "Lamplight." It seems to me we as individuals and a
congregation are ready to let God light our lamp as never before!

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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