Monday, January 30, 2017

Let Your Light

Each week, the minister presiding at the Eucharist pronounces an offertory sentence--usually a verse of scripture to invite the congregation to offer some of the riches of their life and labor to God and God's work in the world. Typically, I go back and forth between four of them. There's the one I hear most commonly in Episcopal churches: "Walk in love as Christ loved us..." Because it's so common, I only use it when the lectionary focus has been on Christ's sacrifice for us. My boss in Montgomery usually said, "Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name..." and I use that fairly regularly. Every once in a while, when the sermon or lessons have been about giving to God our whole selves--not just in stewardship season--I use the longest one in the book: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth..." It took me a little while to commit that one to memory, and, when I say it, I still use some of the older language (e.g. "where thieves do not break through and steal"). But my favorite offertory sentence is the one that was used most often in the parish that sent me to seminary, and it isn't even among the suggested offerings of the 1979 Prayer Book.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven." That's the second option provided in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it's part of the gospel lesson for Sunday (Matthew 5:13-20). At our early service, which uses Rite I, I'll use the gender-exclusive language, but, when I say those words at the later service, I adapt it to something closer to the NRSV language: "Let your light so shine before others..." I use it not only because it's a part of my past and because I like to be a little antiquated and contrary but because I believe it is the clearest and fullest expression of our response to God's free gift of grace. And that's something worth preaching on this Sunday.

Jesus says to the disciples, "You are the light of the world." That's the kind of affirmation reserved for helicopter parents. I grew up with parents who told me that I could do anything to which I put my mind, but they never told me that I was the light of the world. I may have been a gift to them, but they didn't let me believe that I was God's gift to the world. But Jesus doesn't hold back. He wants his disciples to know that they are, indeed, God's gift to the world. And that's where it all starts--when we hear that unreserved, unmitigated affirmation from God.

Jesus is God's pledge of unconditional love to the world. He came so that the world might be saved. He died for us while we were yet sinners. In him, God wraps his arms around us even before we can say, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son." It starts with love we do not earn. That is where it must start. For the gospel to have any power at all, it must begin with unconditional love. Otherwise, we're in a ship that is only kept afloat by our own efforts, and that ship will always sink.

Our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ are spent in response to God's unconditional love. Whether it's what we put in the offering plate or how we spend our Saturday mornings or whether we say our prayers at night or whether we help a little old lady across the street, all that we do is in response to that love. We are a light for the world. We did not give ourselves that light; God did. God says, "You are the light of the world," and our lives are spent sharing that light with others so that the giver of that light might receive the glory.

Let the light that God has given you so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father which is in heaven. Think about that. Think about the calculus behind it. Think about where it starts and where it leads. Remember that you have been given a light and that your response to that gift is to let that light shine so that others might find the light God has given them, too. When you put your hands on the offering plate this week, don't start with what you will or will not put in. Start with the unconditional gift that God has given you, and, before the plate passes you by, think of how you might let that light shine so that others might know the love of God.

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