Let Your (Dusty) Light Shine

Sermon: Let Your (Dusty) Light Shine

Texts: Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 5:13-16

Date: July 8, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

          Greetings, you Salt of the Earth, you Lights of the World!  You haven’t lost your flavor, have you?  You aren’t hiding your light under a bushel basket, are you? 

          Am I making you feel a little judged by asking you such questions?  Did I push anybody’s guilt buttons?  It’s ridiculously easy to shortcut right to guilt through many of the gospels’ teachings.  One thing we might feel guilty about is keeping our faith under wraps, so to speak, particularly among our unchurched neighbors.  As we discussed in Bible study what it means to be a light, not to keep one’s light under a bushel basket, we tossed the word “evangelism” about, noting that evangelism was not the strong suit of any of the few of us in the room.  That is, we don’t talk about Christian faith all that much outside the walls of our church among like-minded folk, where it feels pretty safe.  Even if Christianity is the guiding principle of our lives, we may keep pretty quiet about it out in public.  That’s partly due to the mean-spirited, sex-obsessed Christianity that gets so much press in this country; we don’t want to get lumped in with that crowd. 

          But there’s another reason we might not be big on being terribly public about where we stand, faith wise.  Most of us live with a good deal of uncertainty, which may make us timid about talking about what we believe.  In faith communities outside fundamentalisms, we don’t have checklists of beliefs that we can look at and say, “If I believe all these things, I qualify as a Christian.”  Since practically every theological idea is up for debate in this post-modern age, and since we belong to a church that believes in testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith, we may be in a state of insecurity regarding faith and doubt.  We might feel a bit tongue-tied whenever questions of faith come up, not sure how to express ourselves, haunted by worries that having ditched the “Faith of our Fathers” means we might have wandered outside the bounds of Christianity altogether. 

          Questions and doubts are messy.  Faith that evolves outside the categories we learned as youngsters is disorderly.  We might just as soon huddle under the figurative bushel basket until such time (we hope) we’ll get it straightened out in our own minds, at least. 

          Let me tell you a story. There was a well-known Buddhist monk in the 11th Century named Geshe Ben.  This story is told of him about a period when he lived in a mountainside cave which generations of hermit yogis had furnished with a door, rock altar, fireplace, and other amenities of civilized life.  Still, it remained a simple cave in the mountainside, where Geshe Ben practiced Buddhism in solitude most of the time. 

          One day at the end of a long period of total solitude, Ben received word that his patrons would be coming the following day to bring supplies, make offerings, and receive his blessings.  Therefore, Geshe Ben cleaned everything, put things in place, and prepared for the visit.  He arranged beautiful offerings on his altar, and dusted and polished everything, so much of which had been sorely neglected for months.  Then he stepped back and surveyed his realm, such as it was, with pride.

          “Ah-yii!” Ben suddenly exclaimed, in a pained voice, having observed his own handiwork.  “What demonic force has entered here, into this hypocrite’s haven?!”  And reaching into a dark corner, he grabbed up a double handful of dust and dirt and threw it on the altar.

          “Let them see this mountain hermitage and its occupant as it is!” He shouted exultantly.  “Better no offerings at all than offerings to the mere façade of virtue.”  For he had realized that all the offerings he had so generously and artfully arranged on the newly cleaned shrine in the freshly scrubbed hermitage were not at all offerings to the enlightened Buddha, but had been for himself.

          “Let them come and visit now,” he thought with satisfaction.  And so they did.

          When another monk heard the tale some years later, he exclaimed, “That handful of dirt was the best offering made in Tibet.[1]

          That double handful of dust and dirt—later called the best offering in Tibet—that’s a sign of mature honesty in the holy man.  He leaves off trying to look like he’s practically perfect in every way, like he’s got everything in order, and prepares to let his guests see the cave and its occupant “as is.”  Beautiful.

          I wonder if one of the things that keeps folks like us in the somewhat less evangelical traditions from talking much about our faith is that we think we can’t let anyone into our inner space unless it’s all in perfectly good order?           You might have noticed that I am trying to encourage the church this summer to bring our faith AND our doubts and questions out.  My hope is that being forthright about our doubt and bold in our declaration of faith will strengthen our individual and collective testimonies.  If doubts and questions are the double handful of dust and dirt, bring them on!  The glass chimney of your kerosene lamp can be mighty dusty and still shine when it’s lit, if you bring it out of its closet.  Rumi once wrote, “Blessed is the one who sees [their] weakness…Because, half of any person is wrong and weak and off the path. Half!  The other half is dancing and swimming and flying in the Invisible Joy.”[2]

          It seems important to me that we recognize the weakness, the questionability, of anything we say about the Ineffable Holy One, the Mystery we call God.  Theology is fascinating and has real consequences in the real world because the way we think about God shapes what we do.  Yet our conceptions about God will be limited by incomplete understanding by virtue of being humans steeped in a particular culture and a particular time and place.  So perhaps the most faithful thing we can do is not so much simply spell out our beliefs as follow God’s call into love, just action and joy. 

          Every formerly held belief about God might go by the wayside and one might still be following Love, summoned to do justice, flying in “Invisible Joy.” John D. Caputo includes a story in his book Hoping Against Hope about an old friend of his who described himself as a “lapsed Catholic.”  Caputo says the remark about being a lapsed Catholic took him by surprise because the friend was an active member of a Catholic religious order.  When Caputo asked him how that worked, his friend said that he observed his duties as a member of the order, including daily Mass, but down deep he believes he no longer really believes any of it.  Caputo asked him the obvious question: Then why didn’t he leave the order?  Because, his friend said, his real vocation is the children, with or without the backup theology of the Church.  He works with children who have seen more trouble in their young lives than most of us do in a lifetime, and Caputo says, knowing his friend, that he is sure he works wonders with them.  Caputo lifts up his friend’s work as an example of what he is writing about, making the kingdom of God come true with or without God because the work of mercy with the children IS the kingdom of God.[3] 

          This priest exemplifies a shift from “believing” to “beloving.”  Theologian and Biblical scholar Marcus Borg wrote about older meanings of “believe” that go beyond agreeing intellectually with a set of ideas.  “If you go back to the English language before the Enlightenment, Shakespeare and before, the word “believe” invariably means “love.” You see this in the Middle English word believen. That is where you get the modern English word “believe.” Believen means to belove, so that ultimately, what you believe really means what you belove.”  Borg says further that the roots of the word “credo,” from which we get the word “creed” does not mean “I agree with my intellect that the following statements are true,” but rather means, “I give my heart to, I give my self at its deepest level to.”[4]

To what do we give our hearts, our deepest selves?  Even if the word “God” (as we have learned what that word meant in the past) no longer seems to describe what calls to us, we may feel ourselves called into love, justice, mercy, kindness.  God is calling to us as much as we are calling to God—calling us to give ourselves to something, to belove God and the world.  And beloving is every bit as compelling as believing.  That is, I think, the essence of Micah’s prophecy in Micah 6:8.  The prophet questions age-old belief and practice about making things right with God through prescribed offerings, insisting that what is good is following God into doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly. 

We’ve all met people who may or not be “believers” but are very apparently “belovers.”  Fred Craddock tells a story of a rather ordinary, dull reception he attended; he couldn’t remember the occasion. “There was a punch bowl, and a bowl of salted peanuts, little mints, some of those little triangle sandwiches, you know? There was pimento cheese, tuna fish, ham—really nice, but you had to eat a lot to make anything out of it.  Standing around, having a lot of conversation, but not really important.  “Could use some more rain.” “Yeah, need some more rain.  It’s been pretty hot too, cooling off, getting close to fall now.” “You watch the game?”

And then Barbara Jenkins came in.  There was something about the room that changed when she came in. “Who is Barbara Jenkins?”  “That’s Barbara?” “Yeah, that’s Barbara Jenkins.”  Barbara Jenkins spends her time writing letters, making calls, going and seeing folk to make a difference in the way the law treats juvenile offenders.  Night and day, seven days a week she worries the authorities to death.

“You enjoy doing that?”

“Well, not really.”

“You get paid? Are you on salary?”

“No, no, no.”

“You have children in trouble with the law and you want…”

“No, no, no.”

“Then why in the world?  It’s no fun; you’re not making any money, none of your friends are doing it.”

And she says, “I have to.”[5]       

We don’t know from Craddock’s story whether she was a believer.  But we can tell she was a belover.  She changed the room when she walked into it; that’s how much her commitment to her calling shone.  She was known for it.  She was like a lamp on a stand, a city on a hill, the salt on the corn chip.  A belover, reflecting God’s light regardless of whether she could talk smoothly about her theology. 

Belovers are shining all over this world.  My friend Amy Johnson just posted a picture of a teenager speaking at a youth event she is attending, one of a group of young people who marched 50 miles to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home to demonstrate for safer gun laws in the wake of too many mass shootings.  She’s a belover.  One of my friends and colleagues is Rev. Vincent Lachina, who serves as chaplain for Seattle’s Planned Parenthood office, who rallies the support of clergy guarding women’s reproductive rights and who ministers to health care providers under attack.  He’s a belover and a believer.  Who comes to mind for you who are bold belovers of justice and mercy?   

Beloved, we’re beckoned to be salt and light in this world, summoned to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  To me, the humble walk says that we don’t need to have our theological house altogether in order; we recognize and confess that our doubts and questions and stumbles are as much a part of us as our convictions and assurances.  But the dusty lamp still shines, especially when we are lit up with passion for justice and loving kindness.  What can the world see us beloving?  It’s more important that our beloving shines than that our believing finds elegant articulation.  And the really beautiful thing is that we can do both, we can act our beloving and speak our believing. Both action and articulation bring glory to God.  As The Message translation of Matthew 5:14-16 puts it:

You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.

 



[1] Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from Around the World Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p. 240

[2] Ibid. p.

[3] Caputo, John D. Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015, p. 57

[5] Craddock, Fred Craddock Stories Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, ed. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p.

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