Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Let Your Light Shine” Matt. 5:13-16
Ever since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879, our nights have gotten a lot brighter, so much so that if you live on the eastern seaboard or are near a big city, you may never catch a glimpse of the Milky Way or witness a meteor shower. On our last trip to Acadia, Duane and I attended a presentation on Dark Sky Parks. These are places that have been specially certified for their exceptional starry nights and nocturnal environment. Park lighting must be shielded and feature energy-efficient amber bulbs. Trails are unlit, so bring your headlamp. Even roadways and signs are minimally lighted, relying on reflective paint and your car’s headlights to show you the way. Dark Sky areas have a light curfew – no outside lights from 10PM until an hour before dawn. That goes for your home and your camper.
They may not be official, but we are blessed with some dark sky areas here in the Adirondacks, like the Adirondack Sky Center on Big Wolf Road in Tupper Lake, where you can explore the night sky on second and fourth Friday nights for much of the year. When I moved to Saranac Lake from the Chicago area 18 years ago, I was shocked by the darkness of the night, so deep that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face inside the tiny cottage that I shared with my sheltie on Lake Flower. I bought nightlights, which helped until I became accustomed to the darkness.
Unless they live in a place like the Adirondacks or a Dark Sky Park, most folks hearing today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount will have little appreciation for the point that Jesus was trying to make when he told his disciples that they are the light of the world. In Jesus’s day, life was governed by the rising and the setting of the sun. Every night was a dark sky night, an opportunity for exceptional stargazing.
Light was a precious commodity in the Ancient Near East, pushing back against the darkness and extending the day. Travelers caught on the road after dark would rejoice in the tiny pinpoints of light that marked their destination ahead. Every household had an oil lamp, a simple clay pinch pot filled with olive oil and lit to impart a small, warm, golden glow to the simple one- or two-room home that was typical of the day. So, Jesus was making a bold statement when he told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Just as God had created the heavenly lights of sun and moon, planets and stars, Jesus’s followers had likewise been made with a special purpose: to shine light amid the darkness of the world around them.
That darkness of Jesus’s world had nothing to do with Dark Sky Parks. Darkness for Jesus’s listeners meant the Roman occupation of their land, with soldiers garrisoned from Dan to Beer Sheba, from the Great Sea to the western cities of the Decapolis. Darkness for the disciples included a religious milieu that prized holiness and purity above compassion and mercy. Lepers, demoniacs, and those living with disability were seen as sinners afflicted by God. Tax collectors, scoundrels, and foreigners were labeled unclean and unfit for pious company. Vulnerable widows, orphans, and slaves rarely saw vindication in courts where justice tilted to the highest bidder. In this world where the darkness of occupation, exclusion, and injustice abounded, Jesus told his friends that God had made them to be light.
In this post-modern world where artificial light is so abundant that we have to create sanctuaries to observe the night sky, we are not strangers to darkness. Darkness for us looks like hate, whether it is the systemic racial hatred that puts people of color at terrible risk for brutality or it is the partisan spirit that pits neighbor against neighbor. Darkness for us looks like generational poverty and income inequality in an area where multi-million-dollar camps are nestled among rusted out trailers and poorly heated sub-standard housing, and a quarter of our children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Darkness for us looks like addiction, from the family member who can’t make it through the day without a drink to the opioid epidemic that sweeps our nation. For 2020, the most recent year in which data is available nationally, overdose deaths were the highest in history. New York State is part of this national trend. We experienced a 37% increase in overdose deaths, the highest annual amount ever recorded, thanks to the increased presence of the prescription drug fentanyl in the illicit drug market.
Jesus’s followers knew what it felt like to be daunted by growing darkness. As the Lord’s ministry continued, a growing number of powerful opponents would commit themselves to the cause of extinguishing the light of Christ that God was shining in the dark of the first century world. The disciples were tempted to hide their light: they slept in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prayed; they ran when the Temple guards arrived to make an arrest; they hid in a dark, locked room until the risen Lord broke in with a message of peace.
Whether disciples live in the first century or the twenty-first century, darkness abounds, and it can feel overwhelming. We feel powerless in the face of the violent deaths of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols. We feel puzzled by the neighbor who rejects us when they learn that we don’t share their political beliefs. We are saddened by the unending issues of North Country homelessness and hunger. We are frightened by the addiction that touches our families and community. The darkness makes us want to give up and go home, to hide our light under a big bushel basket, plunging our world into shadows where we don’t want to look and we can’t really see. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, and we say, “Who me?”
One of my favorite memes that you can see floating around the internet, from Facebook to Instagram to Pinterest, is by the cartoonist Sandra Boynton, known for her humorous renderings of cats and cows. This meme shows a very worried looking grey cat, standing human-like on two legs against a dark backdrop. In the cat’s paw is clutched a lit candle. The caption reads, “So much darkness. Offer whatever light you can.” It’s a reminder that, like that little oil lamp in a first-century home, even a single light can make a dent in the world’s darkness if we will only cast off the bushel basket and let it shine.
Letting our light shine before others gets easier when we do not do it alone. Something gets lost in the translation of today’s reading from biblical Greek to English. The “you” that Jesus uses—you are the light of the world—is second person plural. It’s collective, speaking to all the disciples, not just one disciple. You—all together—are the light of the world. The darkness of this world is much less daunting when we work together, each shining our little bit to push back against the night.
Churches like this one are a remarkable witness to the power of light shared in the Lord’s purpose. We may not feel effective when we act alone, but our collective gifts, abilities, and actions make a powerful difference. Nine African villages will be blessed with lifesaving clean drinking water this year, thanks to our Christmas gift of shallow wells. Those big pots will fill up on Super Bowl Sunday with dollar bills and cans of soup and our hungry neighbors will get hot meals. A crew of caring deacons comes alongside the pastor and casts a caring net of cards and phone calls, hot dishes and funeral hospitality to ease loneliness and grief of hurting friends. A growing crew of children comes to church, and a corps of steadfast adults joins forces to teach Sunday School, revealing the love of Christ for all God’s children.
Our light shines in more ways than I could possibly name on a Sunday morning. Those collective actions shine a vision of the world that Jesus would have his disciples make. It’s a world where strangers are neighbors, everyone has enough, people feel valued and loved, and our little ones know that they belong to God. We may not singlehandedly end hate, or resolve income inequality, or stem the opioid crisis, but when we work together, the world begins to feel like a brighter place. I think Jesus, who exhorted his disciples to shine their light before others, would like that. May it be so.
Eric Baretto. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 9, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 5, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Amy G. Oden. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 9, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
New York State Department of Health. The New York State Department of Health Announces Quarterly Opioid Report and Increased Actions to Prevent Opioid Overdose Statewide (ny.gov) April 4, 2022, Albany.
International Dark Association. “Our Work.” Accessed online at https://www.darksky.org/our-work/
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.