A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-16 ESV
Reading from “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop
You know what happens when you give small children flashlights to play with, don’t you? We gave each of our five grandchildren a small flashlight for Christmas as a stocking stuffer that we had run across at a bargain sale, one of a different color for each grandchild. Almost invariably when you give a young child – any young child – a flashlight to play with, he or she is going to shine it directly in somebody’s eyes. To draw from that current insurance television commercial, “when you’re a child, that’s what you do.” And so, you then have to remind the child to not shine the light directly in anyone’s eyes. It is not comfortable; it is impolite; and that is not what flashlights are made for; well, unless you are an eye doctor, and then it is okay. But the point is this: the flashlight was made for a noble purpose – to illuminate the darkness. But when the flashlight is misused in such a way that it causes discomfort or threatens someone’s nerves, it fails in its purpose and loses its appeal.
Well, it is the same with shining the light of religion: when shining the light of religion or faith is properly done, it is a good thing. These words attributed to Jesus about his followers being “the light of world” who are to let their “light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14, 16) are some of the most familiar and most beautiful in the New Testament. Many of us learned these verses as children in Sunday school, as well as the familiar song based upon them, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine.”
Today’s Responsive Reading, based upon the words of 18th-century Father of American Universalism, John Murray, also are based upon this passage. Decades ago, Murray struck a chord with me with his positive approach to God and religion when he instructed his followers, “You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine. Use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” Murray’s words were a reaction to the stern, judgmental, somber preaching and teaching of his day that destined much of the human population to hell, causing alarm and robbing people of any hope of fellowship with God or a blessed afterlife.
The message I take from those words of Jesus is as his followers, we are to let the light of love, compassion, service to others, and a positive influence shine in both our words and actions. And such an interpretation opens up a whole world of possibilities about how to practically do that.
But when the light of religion or faith is misused or directed in the wrong way, it loses its appeal and fails in its purpose. And it causes dis-ease and makes those on the receiving end downright uncomfortable or hostile even. Or to put it another way, none of us wants to have “the light of religion” forced upon us.
Allow me to give you an example from American history. The sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” by Puritan leader John Winthrop, is one of the classic pieces of early American literature. It is one of the first pieces assigned in college American Lit courses. The sermon was delivered aboard the ship Arabella in 1629 as a group of Puritans made their way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop would be elected Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His sermon en route to the colony was a rousing treaty which laid out a plan of living together in love. But in his conclusion, Winthrop reminded his Puritan companions that theirs was a God-given mission to “be as a city upon a hill,” because “the eyes of all people” would be upon them. In other words, they had an awesome responsibility to be a light to the world. As I read Winthrop’s sermon, I must confess that it is a beautiful piece of early American literature. And I believe Winthrop’s motives and heart were pure when he delivered it.
Yet, most of us recall our American history well enough to know that although the Puritan endeavor had its positive aspects, it had its negative aspects as well. To put it plainly, the Puritans could be quite inflexible at times. Someone has said that the Puritans did come to America at least in part for religious freedom – their own religious freedom. But they were not as keen on granting the right of religious freedom to others who thought differently. And so, the Puritans sought to not only be that “light to the world” and that “city set upon a hill,” but to force their own particular kind of light upon all around. People who deviated from that particular form of light were silenced, banished, persecuted, or worse, as in the cases of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, to name just two.
As Garry Wills puts it in his book titled Head and Heart: American Christianities, “It would be very hard to overstate the importance of Puritanism in American culture . . . . The founders of the New England colonies did not come to America to protect any variety in religious practice, or to assert the primacy of the individual’s conscience. Far from it. They came to set up the one true faith where corrupt versions of it could not intrude. . . . It would be a mistake to look for religious tolerance in seventeenth-century New England.”1 The Puritans, and other religious groups as well, felt the mandate to be that “light to the world” that Jesus talked about. But how to actually go about sharing that light with the world was always the question. And oftentimes the “light” that such religious groups sought to share was overbearing and downright misguided. Being true to one’s own religious beliefs and impulses, and sharing those beliefs and impulses as light to the world, was and always has been a delicate balancing act.
And how to be “a light to the world” is still a delicate balancing act today. Most of us struggle with the mandate of how to be “a light to the world,” don’t we? All of us probably have been on the receiving end of someone else trying to force their version of the “light” upon us. Some of us have seen such practices, and others of us may have been on the receiving end of zealous Christians or those of other religions who sought to shine the light of their particular brand of religion in such a way that we were made very uncomfortable.
All of us probably have had religious groups appear at our front door who wanted to come in and share their religious thoughts with us, in hopes that they might convert us. Some of us have had the experience of a zealous Christian forcing a religious track in our hand at a restaurant or other public place. And some of us may have had friends or relatives who cornered us and tried to force their brand of Christianity upon us in order to “get us saved.” Well, as that current CarMax television commercial points out about people not wanting to be pounced upon when they visit a car lot, “People don’t like that!” It is the same with religious pressure.
But we are still left with Jesus’ injunction to be “a light to the world.” What do we do with it? From my perspective, we become “light to the world” by being a positive example to others in a non-threatening sort of way. We become light through genuine acts of love and service to others, without exerting any pressure in the process. We become light through our acts of kindness and compassion. We become light by sharing a positive witness about our church and the wonderful community, love, fellowship, support, and spiritual growth that takes place here, without pressuring anyone to visit us if they don’t want to. We can be light to the world by inviting our friends and neighbors to church without shoving the light in their faces. A number of our members and regular attendees today are here because a friend or neighbor invited them to come here. And all of them are glad they did. Being “a light to the world” is vitally important to a congregation like ours. It is the manner in which we become “light to the world” that makes all the difference.
The Puritans had the right idea in that they were, indeed, a “city upon a hill” and the eyes of the world were upon them. But their failure was in “forcing their brand of light” upon everyone within their reach by being short-sighted, intolerant, judgmental, and controlling in all matters of life and faith.
For almost 75 years, this United Church has, likewise, been as “a city upon a hill.” We, too, are called to be light to the community around us. But we do so with tolerance, openness, compassion, and kindness. Light is wonderful when it is projected in the proper way. May it be so for us. Amen.
1Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities. New York: Penguin Press, 2007. Pp. 6, 19, 21.