The following homily was delivered by Colleen Hartung at Sunday Assembly on February 6, 2011. The Gospel reading from the lectionary schedule that day was Matthew 5:13-20.
“You are the salt of the earth”.
“You are the light of the world”.
“A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket”.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others”.
With these words Jesus names the gathered crowd as salt and as light…as preservers of life and illuminators of wisdom. In a sense he chooses and urges these followers to be bearers of the justice and healing they are seeking.
These words and this sending, in today’s Gospel are familiar to us. But not just because we have heard them read and preached from the pulpit year after year. They are, in fact, foundational metaphors that have become a part of our national psyche and identity.
This parable of the Salt and Light has been the inspiration behind images that political and religious leaders alike have used to inspire peoples, nations and the world. Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy before him claimed the image of the shining city on the hill as a metaphor meant to urge a country toward the fulfillment of an exceptional destiny.
In a speech he gave in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, … must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men (and today we would include women) aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities”. In 1989, in his farewell speech to the nation, President Ronald Reagan said “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans’, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace….”
Martin Luther King Jr. claimed the image of the preserving powers of salt in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, written in 1963. In this letter he talks of the remnant from organized religion that found the courage to support the burgeoning civil rights movement. He said, “…some noble souls…have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. They have gone to jail with us…. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.”
These are mighty words and inspirational rhetoric that echo the wisdom parable that is today’s Gospel. But I am afraid I must confess that these mighty words spoken by mighty men were not among the images that flooded my mind and heart the first time I sat down to ponder and prepare for this reflection. When I read the words of this Gospel, I heard my children singing. I heard them singing the words of a song I’ll bet most of you know—“This little light of mine”. I could hear them signing all the verses. “All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine”. “Hide it under a bushel, No! I’m gonna let it shine”. “Don’t let anyone blow it out. I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.” They sang it from the back seats of the van as I ran my errands. They sang it marching around the living room and they sang it before they went to bed at night. They loved that song.
The learned the song singing along with a recording by a popular children’s musical artist named Raffi. They hadn’t learned this song at bible camp and did not know it as scriptural. Instead, as they marched around the coffee table in our living room, the words resounded as some sort of spontaneous joyful pronouncement. It was as if they were claiming a birthright and making a promise to full it. “This light is mine and I am letting it shine.”
I shared this memory with my oldest daughter Anne and she exclaimed, “I still love that song”. She went on to tell me that every morning, at the subway station where she catches her train there is a man that plays a saw with a violin bow. The first time she saw him he was playing “This Little Light of Mine”. She said it is a regular part of his repertoire and so she gets to enjoy this song regularly. I don’t know why, but I asked her what he looked like. She said, “Mom, he looks like a homeless person, dirty clothes and a long scraggly beard but he is good at what he does. When I can I give him money because he’s talented and he makes me feel good.”
After I hung up the phone, I found myself wondering what the song, “This Little Light of Mine”, sung by exuberant preschoolers and performed by a homeless subway troubadour had to do with a shining city on a hill that cannot be hidden. There is, here, an inescapable tension between the soaring rhetoric of mighty men and the musical proclamations of children and subway troubadours.
Martin Luther King Jr. cites “the creation of tension as part of the work of nonviolent resisters”. In another part of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he confesses, “I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth…. We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood”.
I would say that the tension that Martin Luther King Jr. embraces and the tension invoked by the dissonance between the image of a shining city on a hill and a subway troubadour’s song of light both come down to a matter of justice. Today’s gospel ends with the caution, “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.” For the author of the Gospel of Matthew, the key to heaven is righteousness. But he emphasizes that this righteousness does not abolish the law. Righteousness does not abandon tradition or promote anarchy. Rather righteousness fulfills the law.
And so the question becomes, what does such fulfillment entail? It does not, as Martin Luther King Jr. testified, involve passive resignation or a quiet capitulation that hopes for a better day. I think the words of Isaiah help to bring some clarity. The reading from Isaiah also talks of righteous and the law. The author of this scripture critiques the self serving, law abiding fast of the people of God that would involve a sack cloth and ashes. And then he goes on to say that fast that the Most High chooses is different. The fast that makes God delight and draw near is one that loosens the bonds of injustice. The acceptable fast is the fast that shares our bread with the hungry, brings the homeless poor into our homes, covers the naked and cares for our kin in need. The fast that would inspire
God’s righteous judgment is a fast that lets go of self-serving, literal interpretations of law so that we might be formed by the law’s passion for justice. Isaiah announces that with this fast that is justice our light shall break forth like the dawn and our healing shall spring up quickly”. And so it is, fulfillment comes down to justice.
The readings from Isaiah and Matthew make clear that the gospel call today, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, is not a call to a national exceptionalism that is exclusive or excluding and would be the dark side of a soaring national rhetoric. Yet presidents and religious leaders are right to recognize here a call to the extraordinary. The exceptionalism that Matthew, Isaiah and Paul proclaim and call us to today is not a wisdom that must be secret and hidden. We are all called to the fast that allows our light to break forth like the dawn.
We are all called to be bearers of the justice that will heal us. We have all received it as Spirit. And if we listen closely, we can hear this Spirit as revelation in the voices of children and the music of subway troubadours who proclaim “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.