Series: September 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"This Not So Little Light of Mine: Sermon on the Mount 2"
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
107 I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me your ordinances.
109 I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
111 Your decrees are my heritage for ever;
they are the joy of my heart.
112 I incline my heart to perform your statutes
for ever, to the end.
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
This Not So Little Light: Sermon on the Mount 2
Does it feel as though the world has lost its salt, the seasoning that both preserves it, sustains it, and that which gives it good flavor? What about the light? Does it seem to have grown dim? I am hesitant to jump to the kind of thinking that looks longingly with rose-colored glasses back at good old days that may not have been as good as selective memory would have us believe. Yet, I do sense an angst and a weariness in our culture about who we have become.
David Brooks opens his article in this month’s edition of The Atlantic with two questions he says he has been asking himself for the past 8 years. First, “Why have Americans become so sad?” Brooks cites a number of measures from reported lack of close friends to feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.
The second question Brooks asks is, “Why have Americans become so mean?” He cites the kind of incidents of public misbehavior that have become all too common place, prompting people in service industries to decide the abuse is just no longer worth it. If you think this is simply the case of increased visibility because of the prevalence of cell phone cameras, Brooks cites objective measures to make his case.
Suppose Brooks to be onto something, why do you think we have gotten so sad and mean? For one, he is right to connect the two. The same disconnectedness that is the source of our loneliness and sadness leads to our meanness. We may simply not know one another well enough to understand each other’s plight and each other’s perspective. We have spoken about that a lot here.
The other piece that Brooks raises, one that is more our focus for today, is the notion that we have stopped studying how to treat one another, learning how to be good members of society. Good societies don’t just happen. We have to cultivate them. Brooks writes, “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” He goes on, “In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.” This is why we are taking ten weeks to study The Sermon on the Mount, the longest of Jesus’ discourses. Last week we heard The Sermon on the Mount described as a behavioral manifesto. It is all about how to be. The series is meant to put Jesus’ teachings back at the center of our faith.
How well are we studying how to be in both the religious and civic realms? In religion, we have seen both decline and a focus on the wrong things—those too are surely linked. Many institutions have seen decline for various reasons, no longer serve a helpful formative role. Schools we have turned away from teaching civics, much less civility. Brooks quotes a historian of education who chronicled the move away from teaching moral formation in schools that began in the 1940s and 50s. The historian, a man named B. Edward McClellan, wrote, “By the 1960s deliberate moral education was in full-scale retreat,” and educators, “paid more attention to the SAT scores of their students, and middle-class parents scrambled to find schools that would give their children the best chances to qualify for elite colleges and universities.” Moral education, full-scale retreat.
Like intelligence, let’s skip a generation. The other day, I heard the head of my son’s soccer club say they were about two things—player development and teaching life skills. Character formation is as important as defensive formations. How many coaches remember that? More importantly, why have we left it to them to provide our moral grounding? Are we not the people of Jesus?
When Jesus teaches, the goal is not to get us to heaven. The goal is to live into heaven on earth. In his commentary on Matthew’s gospel, theologian and New Testament scholar, Herman Waetjen, who taught right over at San Francisco Theological Seminary wrote, “Like salt in its strength, Jesus’ disciples are called to season the world by enhancing the quality of life that is lived in society through the dispositions that the beatitudes distinguish: pursuing justice, being merciful, being peacemakers, and incarnating the integrity of participating in the present reality of God’s reign.” These beatitudes, which we read last week, should form the heart of our character. That is the seasoning, the light, we are called to offer the world, even as we recognize others have gifts too.
But, we cannot offer them if we have not first taken them in. They must become the heart of our practice. Prayer is not only about asking for what you want. Prayer should be about our own formation too. Study should be part of our practices. One of my practices over sabbatical was to read the Proverbs of the Older Testament. Get that wisdom inside you. As I encouraged last week, read the Sermon on the Mount enough that it starts to come out of you. Yes, add other great teachers, but get your foundation, your grounding, in place first.
It takes work to prioritize this. I know it’s hard. I already mentioned the quintessential example for busy parents – soccer. People tend to return to the church when they have children. No shame there. That’s a good instinct— provide some foundation for your child. Then it comes, that age where activities on Sunday mornings start to take over and we no longer live in a society that respects the sacredness of Sunday morning. Now we know how other religions may have felt as society made little room for their sacred time or practices. As parents, we don’t want to risk the opportunity for our children to participate.
That risk is not total, however, and the consequences may not be what we assume. First, there is no more important grounding we can give our children than this, what Jesus taught. Second, other commitments may not be as total as we assume. We repeat this story among the staff a lot: We had a family at this church who when their child joined the travel soccer team, told the coach that their child wouldn’t be able to make all the games on Sunday because church was a priority for them. Guess what the coach had the nerve to say? “Okay.” That was it. “Okay. They’ll play when they’re here.” That was Bethany’s family by the way. Sometimes our fears far outweigh others’ capacity to respect our deeper commitments. I’m sure we won’t make it to church every Sunday, but this past week when we coming to church meant cutting it a little close to arrival time for a game, Sherri said to our son, if the coach says anything to you just say, “My mom made me go to church.” Perhaps our boundary won’t be as well-received. Even when there are consequences, those are valuable lessons too.
If we do not intentionally fill ourselves with sacred wisdom, we will find our guiding principles elsewhere. What did Bob Dylan sing, “You gotta serve somebody.” Who will it be? Scripture provides us a guiding light. The Psalmist sings, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (119:105). Then we ought to study God’s word, and we ought to study the world for that is where people have always first-encountered God. Scripture was written by people who had no scripture but the world, so it is not only about studying the word, but studying the world that is born from divine love. We study the word, which leads us into the world, which refines the way we see the word. It’s a loop that builds upon itself, and this little light of mine because a reflection of this light of thine.
Jesus said to students of the way, “You are the light of the world.” The line that follows, “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14) has become unhelpfully fused with nationalism thanks to John Winthrop. Jesus is imagining a communal commitment to the very beatitude values Waetjen highlights: pursuing justice, being merciful, being peacemakers, and living into the present reality of God’s reign that it shines as visibly as a city perched on a hill. Our challenge is not darkness. Our problem is that the world has been plagued by light pollution, competing sources of light. I’m not talking about other religions or even other helpful philosophies, but vices by any measure – greed, injustice, exploitation, excess, violence as a means for solving problems, selfishness.
Shine a different kind of light. Brooks tells the story of when he first began working on the PBS NewsHour. He said of the host, Jim Lehrer, “Every day, with a series of small gestures, he signaled what kind of behavior was unacceptable…he established a set of norms and practices that still lives on. He and others built a thick and coherent moral ecology, and its way of being was internalized by most of the people who have worked there.” That’s success. I told you I went back to study my childhood camp over sabbatical. Part of what they do so well is make being good the most important thing. We can do this wherever we are—at home; at work, paid or volunteer; in our neighborhood; community; country; planet. Get creative. Get courageous.
We can appreciate how some of the old institutions failed, how it’s harder to develop a thick moral ecology when we are appropriately wary of hegemony, when we are waking up about how life has been like for those not in the dominant identity groups. Deconstructing and dismantling are important processes, but they are not the endpoint. We can’t stop there. We must grow new shared commitments, if not about what we believe then about what we are going to value and how we are going to be together. We have to make sure everyone is invited to join in the work. We have to be committed to growing what Brooks calls “healthy moral ecologies” wherever we are, which he reminds us don’t just happen.
You’re all gardeners now. Read the Sermon on the Mount as a treatise on what a heavenly garden looks like. Then plant some seeds, tend them, weed out what is choking the good, and use that bushel basket not to cover up your light. Use it to carry the fruits of your harvest to share with the world.