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Sermon – February 6, 2011 – You are the Light

Sermon for February 6, 2011

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

You are the Light

Isaiah 58: 1-9a, Psalm 112: 1-9, Matthew 5: 13-20
Through the years some people have come to me to say that they don’t have good enough clothes to wear to church, and they hope I don’t mind if they come in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I tell them I don’t mind. The thing is, these folks have got the wrong idea about Christianity. Christianity isn’t about having the right things with you from home so when you get here you have what God wants. It’s about gaining the right things here so when you go home you can do what God wants.
Church isn’t a place you come because you are fit to be in the presence of God. Church is a place you come so that your whole life can be lived in the presence of God, because what you’re supposed to take away from here is being reminded of God’s forgiveness and God’s encouragement to start your life over as a child of God.
While I’m talking about wrong ideas about God I’ll mention another one. I know why people say that God doesn’t need people. They say it because they want to emphasize God’s completeness and self-sufficiency and superiority over creation.
Well, I’m sure there’s a sense in which God is fine without us, but there’s an important sense in which God needs us. It’s not because God is weak or incomplete, it’s because God is love. Love exists by having an object. The object of God’s loving us, however, isn’t that “needy” kind of insecure relationship. God loves us as part of God’s loving the world.
Understanding that God needs us in order to make the love of God evident and effective in the world helps straighten out another misunderstanding. A person might think about living as a child of God this way: “If I live as a child of God I’ll make God happy and then God will love me and receive me into God’s kingdom.” That’s not the way it is. God loves you right now. You’re already living in God’s kingdom if you think that God is in charge. If you think you’re in charge you’re kidding yourself. You don’t live as a child of God to make God happy. You live as a child of God to make the world happier.
That’s what God has made you for. God has made you a beloved child of God so that God’s love gets into the relationships of life and the places people are. That’s why it makes sense for Jesus to remind you that you are the salt of the earth, that you are the light of the world. You are blessed by God to have God’s heart in your own breast, and that’s why you are forgiving, generous, compassionate, just, and brave. Those are the qualities by which God preserves people and shows the way. They’re your qualities when you most completely accept the love of God.
This is where the people have gone wrong whom Isaiah confronts in his prophecy. They haven’t really understood God’s love for them and God’s hope for them. They’ve thought about God as this invisible powerful being out there somewhere who insists that they make sacrifices a certain way and pray certain prayers and scruple about rituals. If they do things like that right, they think, then they’ll have God on their side and God will respond by giving them what they want.
They rather think that God is about the outward stuff of religion, because they can do that. They can afford the best sacrificial animal, and they can recite the proper prayer. If people think that’s what religion is, it’s easy to see why so many people have a negative view of religion. Who needs religion if it is about having a deity who requires being pleased by worshipers espousing certain beliefs and worrying about ritual niceties?
What does God want? God wants people to love people. God wants the love that God has for people to keep on going, to go from making the person of God grateful and feeling cared for to making the people who interact with the person of God grateful and feeling cared for. When people don’t love God, God has to put all this in terms of “I hate the religioius behavior you offer me, what I really want is justice and mercy!”
All these scriptures today are about being God’s person, being God’s child. Love doesn’t end with one person. Love isn’t fulfilled in filling you up– it has to go somewhere. There is necessarily a social, a communal result of your being loved. But the message is for us as individuals. We live as children of God, because we live with other people, but each of us has the potential to recognize that we are a child of God, and to grasp who we are as a child of God, and each of us has the opportunity to spend time with God in prayer and to seek more fully to realize our own deep identity as God’s person.
Sometimes we emphasize the collective character of Christianity. We see how the faith is expressed through groups of believers, and emphasize the whole church as the Body of Christ. We often think of the church as an existing body to which we may attach ourselves, and that community of faith concept is important.
Today, though, I want to remember that the church begins with individuals committing themselves to God. Religion is an established thing, and there are days when we are grateful that there is a place to go sit and be in the presence of God, and times when we benefit by joining in and getting swept into the worship and earnestness of others. The problem with thinking about a relationship with God in terms of an established group of people with its practices and precepts, or thinking about working out one’s spirituality as part of an institution, is that it overlooks the sufficiency of the self to engage God, and it understates God’s interest in the individual. God knows you one-by-one, and cares for you one-by-one. It is not some tradition to which you’ve been loyal or some teacher whom you’ve trusted or some organization you’ve supported which will stand before God when all is said and done, it is you. And by the same token, it is you who needs sometimes to have the strength to continue in the way you know is right, and you who needs consolation and encouragement and inspiration and hope. It is your life, in a sense always solitary in the midst of every connection and obligation, which benefits by God’s presence and God’s actively urging you on with gifts of the Spirit. The gospel lesson is from the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sermon on the Mount itself has this dual character of being directed to a mass of people– Christianity as good news for the world, Christianity as something intent on transforming entire societies–and Christianity as a calling for persons one-by-one. Jesus, in the midst of the crowd, calls his disciples to him and begins teaching. The teaching is global in its signficance but the setting of the teaching is the inner circle, it’s the few, it’s the dozen individuals who are being invited to understand themselves and life in a new way.
Today’s gospel picks up the theme of a life properly lived for God. Living right is what the psalm is about and what Isaiah’s confrontation of the empty religious life of his contemporaries is about. It is the emphasis of Jesus, who asserts that he hasn’t come to discard the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. We are so familiar with the saying “self- righteous” that I prefer to say that Jesus’ leadership provides the possibility of living right.
Take seriously that this teaching is for you. Discipleship is a possibiity every moment. There are ways better to serve God with what we do and what we choose not to do, by what we say and what we refrain from saying. Christianity is not concepts and definitions, nor is it even rituals, though we celebrate an important ritual this morning. Christianity is a conviction of one’s place in God’s purposes, and the conscious striving to be in harmony with who God is, and what that comes down to is attitudes and actions: hope, humility, trust, kindness, patience, self-control. You can be the person the psalm sings about, who does what is right, and is confident of God’s care. Christ has come to make that old calling clearer and closer. That’s what church is here to say: it is our witness to the truth.

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