Monday, May 12, 2008

Shining Lights and Dim Bulbs

Shining Lights and Dim Bulbs
Matthew 5:14-16

A Sermon for the Class of 2008
Baccalaureate Service
Schreiner University, Kerrville, Texas
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
May 10, 2008

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.

We all know what a special day this is on which we are gathered, and I just want to pay homage to it by wishing you an early Happy Mother’s Day! Just in case any of you graduating scholars thought this weekend was intended to be entirely about you, I might suggest, if your mom has been able to be here to celebrate this weekend with you, that you take at least a moment today or tomorrow to slip out to a flower shop or candy store. Then you really will be the light of the world - of her world anyway.

The impact behind Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 5 reinforces a theme declaring that whatever else may be true about our lives of discipleship, it is true that our lives are not all about us. This is a pretty good word to hear from him, a counterpoint, I suspect, on a day that is really and rightfully pretty much given over to being about you, as you graduate from Schreiner.

When Jesus spoke the words about being the light of the world, he was speaking to people who lived in tiny one-room homes, where the only source of light after sunset was typically a small oil lamp, made from fired clay, with a single flame, about the size of a small candle flame. It would have been set on a lampstand in the middle of the room to give its little light to the entire house. We can imagine how small a light it would give, a single flame in the midst of total darkness. But imagine how futile it would be, as Jesus said, to light such a lamp, and then hide it under a basket. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? One might as well not light the lamp at all!

Now his point, and mine today, is that our lives may be compared to those oil lamps. My light is not meant for me alone. Nor is yours. Your light - and your life - are meant to be set on a lampstand to give light to others as well as yourself. It sounds simple enough, but it is a lesson our culture has great difficulty learning. I hope your generation learns it better than mine has.

Let your light shine before others. Ours is not a time that has been entirely kind to the idea of the calling of individuals to serve the greater good of the community, though I think your generation may have a better recognition of this communitarian spirit than mine has. But in every generation there is always a temptation to turn away from the idea of service to the community and turn inward.

When Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” he used the plural “you,” as in “all of you are the light of the world.” Here in Texas, the plural form of you still lives in our typically colloquial southern term, “y’all.” The word in Matthew 5 is not addressed to individuals, but to the group that had gathered to listen to Jesus’ sermon. “Y’all are the light of the world,” he said. He might even have said, “All y’all.” A disciple whose light and witness are entirely a personal matter is not a disciple by the measure of these words of Matthew 5.

Jesus phrased his affirmation of us, “You all are the light of the world,” in the present tense. Believers are just what we are. Light is light. A candle doesn’t have to go to light school to learn how to do it. It is as much in the nature of our being as believers to love one another and be light for each other as it is in the nature of light to be bright. It can’t be anything else.

Jesus also said “You are the salt of the earth.” Both salt and light have in common that their form and function are the same. This isn’t true of very many things. A kitchen table can serve as a desk for homework or a stool to stand on and change a light bulb. But salt and light stop being what they are if they do anything different. As Jesus observed, if salt stops tasting like salt, functioning chemically as salt, it stops being salt. If light behaves any differently it stops being light. And if we turn our backs on each other, turn inward, give up on the mutual obligations we all share in building a society, then we have stopped being light, salt, stopped being what we were and have become something else altogether.

And why do we do this, why are we called to be salt of the earth, light of the world, and moreover, why do we respond?

It’s because of “A.M.D.G.”1 We let our lights shine before others because of A.M.D.G. Those four letters were scrawled across the top of every one of J.S. Bach’s music manuscripts. They formed the personal motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Often, in older churches, the letters A.M.D.G. appear above or on everything from organ pipes to stained glass windows to furniture.

And A.M.D.G. circumscribes the reason that disciples do what we do, they form the purpose behind Jesus’ words to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. A.M.D.G. helps us remember that what we do and the lives we pursue are not about us. The reason this university stands on these grounds is not to bring glory to students, administration or faculty. Schreiner is here because of A.M.D.G.

A.M.D.G. was the prime motivation in the establishment of some 62 Presbyterian Colleges and universities and 10 theological seminaries in the USA, in addition to Schreiner. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a pretty small denomination, so that’s a lot of motivation. It was also the motivation behind Jesus’ ministry, behind every bake sale to raise money for missions, behind the work of countless teachers, preachers, engineers, physicians, lawyers, elders and deacons and others in places familiar to us and remote places where we are never likely to venture.

Jesus declares Let your light shine… but then comes “one of those Jesus stealth-zingers”2: so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. A.M.D.G., letters which appear around all sorts of human efforts in churches and schools, are an abbreviation for a Latin phrase: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - “To the Greater Glory of God.” They serve as a reminder which human beings need far more often than we’d care to admit, that this life, this world, thousands of hospitals and schools, even this university, they are not all about us, but they are, in the end, all about the glory of God.

Let your light shine before others. In a city where I used to live there was a wonderful old family-owned camera store. Such businesses are mostly relics of the past now. The digital era of photography has pretty much put these places out of business. Still I will always remember that shop, which itself had been there for decades, had been handed down for a couple of generations in one family. The owner I knew then was a man named Keith. Keith was a one-of-a-kind individual, and I used to go into his shop all the time. I bought film there - in case any of us can remember when cameras needed film - had it developed there, shopped for photographic gadgets there, and swapped stories with Keith there because he was, not incidentally, a fine professional photographer. I remember a conversation I had with a friend who discovered that I did all my photographic shopping there, and he said to me, “Why on earth do you go there to buy film and have it developed? Cameras and supplies are cheaper at the big box store and even cheaper if you order them through the mail. Why go to Keith’s for the privilege of buying photo supplies at full list price?”

I replied, “I take my photo needs to Keith, because when you buy camera supplies there, you don’t just get stuff - which as you are so right in saying, you can get anywhere - you get Keith. And Keith is worth the price.” Keith lit his little light in that store, and then he let it shine for others to see and be guided by it.

Let your light shine before others. I pray that each of us gathered here this day will find that letting our lights shine before others so that they will see the good we do, and give glory to God, will form part of our life’s calling.

And, dear graduates, ours appears to me to be a world that could well use the light you have to bring. The task for all of us now is to pray that in today’s leave-taking you will light your lights and let them shine so that those who see your good works will give glory to God.

It is time for that, time to give glory to God, class of 2008. Your time. Light up your lights. And let them shine - in God’s good time, and in God’s good name. God bless you, and Godspeed. Amen.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Thanks to Michael Lindvall for this idea, from his sermon “A.M.D.G.”, preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 10/16/2005.
2 Ibid.