Light of the World
Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
Guest Sermonizer: Elyse Fairweather, M. Div.
February 9, 2020
A couple months ago, I had a patient who quite possibly did far more for those of us who were caring for him, than any of us did for him. This was a young man in his mid-twenties who needed a heart transplant. What’s amazing is that he didn’t know he had any heart problems at all until he arrived at the hospital for shortness of breath and decreased energy. When he arrived at the ER, he was told that his heart was functioning at 12%, and that if he did not stay in the hospital, he would surely die. He was admitted and transferred to one of our cardiac ICU floors, where he spent months receiving various medications and therapies, all in the effort to get him strong enough to receive a heart transplant. While he was there, he was far from much of his family, and his grandmother, with whom he was very close, received a terminal diagnosis. It was one thing after another, after another. This young man had every reason to be angry, bitter, or simply cranky toward staff. Yet despite all of this, this patient was kind, gracious, and funny. He came to know the schedule of the staff on his unit, learned their quirks, played tricks on them, and all in all, just tried to have fun with them. He became “everyone’s little brother,” and was quickly beloved by all who met him. During a visit one afternoon, he told me “there’s not a whole lot I can do to get better – I’m doing everything the doctors tell me to do, but for now, I just have to wait. But one thing I can do, is I can make people smile.” So that became his mission.
This story, for all of the fear and trepidation around his condition, actually has a happy ending. Our patient received a heart, and less than two days later he returned to the ICU to visit the friends he made there. He became strong enough to discharge quicker than the team expected, and just the other day he was on the unit just to say hello and to lift everyone’s spirits. He is someone who brings light in the midst of the darkness that can sometimes be the ICU.
Today’s New Testament reading is from Matthew, in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus gives us an illustration of the call he places on our lives. He says to us;
“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.
It’s easy, in times like these, to lose sight of what’s good, and what Jesus teaches us – to be the light, and to amplify the light of others. But – what does that mean, to “be the light,” especially in a time where the darkness and the murkiness of the world can feel insurmountable and impenetrable? Furthermore, how can we restore our saltiness, when we feel bland, worn out, and ineffective?
With the state of our world right now, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, powerless, or just plain fed up. The task at hand seems so great, that we may feel called to question, “how can I – one solitary person – do anything to change it?” It’s tempting to accepting feelings of apathy or complacency, or maybe even defeat.
But I would offer you this; a teaching from the Jewish tradition, which says, “it is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” That is to say, it is impossible for any one of us to heal the world on our own, but the depth of need does not exempt us from doing our part. Jesus calls us to be salt and light – to fortify and strengthen not only one another, but also ourselves. Because the fact of the matter is, no matter how much we’d like to believe that salt never loses its saltiness, there are times where we, as people, need to be reminded of who we are and who we are called to be.
When I’ve examined this passage in the past, I’ve had a tendency to focus on the portion where Jesus calls us to be the light of the world. Historically, there’s been a disconnect for me around being salt. But after looking at the passage again, I think that Jesus is acknowledging that sometimes, for whatever reason, we lose grip on our “saltiness,” which is to say that which makes us “us,” and that which draws us closer to the Divine. Sometimes, life, the weight of the world, or any multitude of reasons can cause us to feel a little “off,” and in need of coming home to ourselves and drawing nearer to God. How we do that, however, is likely different for all of us. For some people, regaining their saltiness might mean spending time outdoors, or maybe it means curling up with a good book. Perhaps for someone else, it includes spending time with loved ones, or creating art. Just as God is creative, so too are we enabled to be creative in how we recapture our “saltiness.” Because in this metaphor, shifting from salt to light, the main teaching is this; Jesus calls us to care for ourselves so that we can continue to care for others. We are called to love ourselves – to maintain our saltiness – in order to continue to shine light into the world.
The patient from a few moments ago wasn’t always so focused on bringing light to the lives of the staff on the cardiac ICU. When he first arrived, he was feeling low – depressed even – and with good reason. Here was a man who was formerly healthy, living his life as a 20-something, who suddenly was bed-bound and whose own body had turned against him. While he remained pleasant, he seemed to have lost his saltiness – at one point, he told the doctors that he didn’t want a heart transplant – he was defeated. He was disengaged. What helped him regain his saltiness was the support of his family, encouragement from the medical team, and – to be honest – playing a video game or two, taking a break from the weight of the situation. Little by little, he began to smile and even laugh, and before we knew it, he made it his goal to bring that smile and that laughter to those around him. He found himself again and he shone his light so bright that even now the staff still talk about the joy that he brought them.
So, I would ask you, dear ones – what is it that you need, in order to regain your saltiness? Or maybe you’re feeling super salty right now and you’re ready to shine that light as bright as the sun! That’s great. How can you continue to nourish your own spirit so you are resilient in times where you feel that strength dwindling? Sometimes the answer to that question can feel just out of reach and could maybe use some help in naming it. There’s an exercise I do with my patients at times, called a Compassionate Body Scan, and I think it might be useful to run through it right now, if you’re willing.
I would ask that you participate at whatever level feels most comfortable to you. There’s no right or wrong way to do this exercise, but I’ll lead us through some steps that may be helpful.
First, let’s get our bodies into a comfortable position. For me, that feels like feet flat on the floor, connecting to the floor, which is connected to our earth, grounding us to this moment. I would encourage you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so – if not, maybe softening your gaze – this means lowering your eyeline to about 45degrees and shifting your vision just out of focus. Here we’ll take a few deep breaths, breathing in… and breathing out. Once again, breathing in… and breathing out. Throughout this exercise, I would encourage each of us to look upon ourselves with compassion, as we try something that might feel new. At any time, coming back to the breath, just noticing how it feels as we breathe in… and breathe out.
In this place, we are going to do a scan of our bodies, just noticing any points where the energy feels “stuck.” We’ll start at the top of our heads, moving down to our necks, and then to our shoulders. If we feel any tightness, maybe we shrug our shoulders to move some of that energy around. Then down to our chest, noticing how the breath fills our lungs as we breathe in… and out. Then we move to our stomachs, just noticing what our bodies feel like, down to our bottoms, which hold us up in the pew. We might notice the way that the back of our legs feel as we continue to move down the body, down to the calves, the ankles, and finally our feet, which continue to ground us to the earth. Taking a few breaths here, we’ll bring our awareness to any sensations in our bodies – maybe it’s a feeling of butterflies in our stomach, or tightness in our chests. Often times, our emotional memories remain in our bodies, so we might have a physical feeling that is attached to an emotional feeling. If nothing speaks up, that’s okay, we are just noticing, not judging.
In this place, we are going to take two more deep breaths – breathing in… and breathing out. Once more, breathing in… and breathing out. In this place, with the busyness of the outside world set aside for a moment, where it’s just you and God in a peaceful place, I’ll ask this question; “what do you need right now?” Remembering there are no wrong answers, we’ll make a mental note of the answer; “what do you need right now?” Taking a few deep breaths, we might feel compelled to thank ourselves for an answer, or practice self-compassion even if no answer feels apparent right now.
And we’ll start to come back to the room – we might wiggle our fingers or toes, maybe shrug our shoulders, bringing awareness back to our physical selves. When you’re ready, I’ll invite you to reopen your eyes, or lift your gaze back to this place.
My hope for each of us is that we would continue to lean into asking that question, “what do I need right now?” Because truly, self-care and self-compassion are the building blocks of regaining and maintaining our saltiness. And without that, what light will we have to bring to the world?
Beloved, hear and believe the good news – that you are the light of the world. Come back to yourself, draw nearer to God, and shine your light into the darkness.