Listen to the sermon here.
When I was little my family spent a lot of time with good friends of ours—the von Hendys. The von Hendys also had two children, Vanessa and Stephan. Vanessa was just a year or two younger than me and Stephan was just a year or two younger than my sister, Marianne. At the time, I was a huge, huge fan of Solid Gold. For those of you who were too tasteful—or young–to watch such things, Solid Gold was a TV series that aired on Saturday nights from 1980 until 1988. I don’t think I was actually allowed to watch it that often, but when I did I was totally entranced. The premise was pretty simple: extremely sexy dancers danced to whatever Top 40 songs were popular at the time. They wore extremely high heels and often wore gold lamé. They were awesome.
My favorite game to play with the von Hendys was a much more tasteful version of that show. Basically Vanessa and I, as the older siblings, would make Marianne and Stephan hold a flashlight on us while we danced around to Starship songs. You should have seen our artistic interpretations of We Build This City. Our dance involved a lot of leaping back and forth across the room, but in a very elegant way, of course. Eventually Marianne and Stephan would get bored of shining lights on their elders and wander off to do something more interesting and the game would end. I was always a little sad when they wised up that their turn in the spotlight was never going to come, because I loved being in the spotlight.
And its no wonder I loved being in the spotlight—our culture is built around spotlights! Movie sets! The flashbulbs of paparazzi! You tube videos! Culture teaches us that the ultimate success is to be famous and to be caught in the glare of those lights. I’ll confess that a remnant of my love of the spotlight is that I still love celebrity culture. I love reading gossip columns and seeing movies and I watch the Golden Globes and Oscars every year. This celebrity culture is so prevalent on television, on line and on newsstands we can begin to think that light was developed just to shine on these people! And we’re left with the hope that maybe, one day, the spotlight will shine upon us.
Our Gospel reading today challenges our whole understanding of our relationship to light. After all, this passage was written thousands of years ago, before neon signs, before flashbulbs, before marquees. After the sun set, light was a rare and remarkable commodity. People might have light from a fire, or some kind of lamp or candle, but that light was treasured and used sparingly. Light broke through the darkness with subtle illumination, inviting rather than commanding attention.
Our reading today is part of what is called the Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls his disciples, travels around, gets famous and soon hundreds of people are following him, hoping to get healed. He sneaks away to a mountain with his disciples and starts to talk. And talk. And talk. The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, which Fr. Paul read to us last week, but the rest of the sermon goes on for three more chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, we will be reading bits from the Sermon on the Mount Sunday mornings until Lent begins! The sermon is a framework that the author of the Gospel uses to collect all the famous sayings of Jesus in one place. By the time Jesus is done in Matthew’s version of the story, the crowds have found him again, so he goes from speaking to just his disciples to hundreds of followers.
Our passage today about salt and light comes pretty early in the Sermon, right after the Beatitudes. Jesus uses the imagery of light to describe how his followers should interact with the world. They are, we are, to be the light of the world. We are to be beacons on a hill. We are to let our light shine in the darkness so that others will know about our good works and give glory to God.
Note here that Jesus does not say, “You are in the spotlight of the world. When the light shines on you, you seem really, really fabulous.” There is a huge difference between being in the spotlight, and being a source of light.
When we’re in the spotlight, we are drawing attention to ourselves. We are showing how beautiful or graceful or talented we are. We are seeking to be admired. Now, some celebrities who are stuck in the spotlight whether they like it or not have gotten clever and have been able to use the spotlight that is constantly on them to point out injustices of the world. Think of George Clooney’s work in the Sudan, or the Pitt-Jolie’s work in New Orleans. But even that kind of good work is not the same thing as being the light of the world.
Jesus is not talking about us being in the spotlight. Jesus is talking about us generating the light. We become the source of illumination, not the object of it.
And we do not become a source of illumination because of our beauty, or our amazing Starship dance moves. We become a source of illumination because we follow God and do good works. A life of following God leads to the kind of illumination Jesus wants us to have. And that illumination always points toward God.
God calls all of us to bear his light into the world. To learn how, we can seek role models. To find role models, we don’t follow the spot light. People who light up and point us toward God are not the same people who seek the spotlight. In fact, those who bear God’s light are often the quietest in the room. They would rather listen than speak. They would rather serve than lead. They have deep lives of prayer. They listen with patience and empathy. They are slow to anger and quick to forgive. When you are with them, you sense the presence of something holy. It’s also entirely possible that you walk by these lights every day and do not notice them. All the other bright lights of our culture make it hard to see the slow, long burning light of God.
I and the other 3000 students at University of Richmond walked by one of these lights every day. The year before I graduated from college, one of the postal workers that served the University of Richmond retired. Normally, this would not be a big deal. To a group of self-absorbed students; postal workers were pretty interchangeable. So long as your mail showed up in your mailbox, there was no reason to pay much attention to who put it there.
However, this particular postal worker had an incredible story that came in out in local papers that made us realize we students were entitled idiots who were so absorbed in our own spotlights we did not even notice the true light among us.
Thomas Cannon was a postal worker who had a 7th grade education. He never made more than $30,000 a year. In his later years, he took care of his ailing wife. So far, this is a fairly common story. What made Thomas Cannon unique is that over the course of his life, he donated more than $150,000 to charity. This was not a man with a large savings account. He lived a bare bones existence and put any extra money towards donations to others that needed the money. He read the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a prayerful eye. When he came across a story of someone in need or someone who had been courageous, he would send the author of the article a check and ask him or her to pass it along to the subject of the article.
This is a man who lived out God’s light. Remember last week, when Fr. Paul talked about the foolishness of Christ? Thomas Cannon was a giant fool for God. He lived the upside down life of the Beatitudes—giving away money instead of hoarding it, thinking of others instead of himself, helping instead of hurting.
Even when the word got out about his actions, and the spotlight started to shine on him, he made it very clear that he did not want any buildings named after him or permanent memorials—he just hoped his actions would inspire others to give.
Thomas Cannon was letting his light shine.
As we mature in our faith, God’s light in us will shine brighter and brighter. Our path will not look exactly like Thomas Cannon’s. Each of our lights will shine in its own way. What we have in common is that we will become beacons in the dark—inviting others into a life that is filled with the true light of God.
Thanks be to God.