Sermon – 2.9.20 – Darkness and Light

Rev. John Callaway

Matthew 5:13-20

5:13 “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.
5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
5:15 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.
5:16 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.
5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the written Word of God.

Thanks be to God.

I need your help this morning. I need you to turn to a neighbor or two and say, “Neighbor, good things happen in the dark.”

Now, I won’t ask you what you were thinking about, but I think it is good to have that reminder every once in a while. Good things happen in the dark. We need that reminder because it seems like everything is stacked against darkness.

Being afraid of the dark is very common and these fears are legitimate. It can be really scary when we can’t see, especially when we are behind the wheel of a car. Being afraid of the dark is one of the first first fears many parents have to deal with while raising kids, and it is one of those fears that often runs into adulthood. 

But we unconsciously carry those fears into other areas. The bad witch in the Wizard of Oz wears black. Come to think of it, many, if not most, evil characters wear dark clothing. Did you know that dogs with darker or black furs are less likely to be adopted? People talk about going through periods of spiritual or emotional darkness. I’ve heard the phrase, “the world is a cold, dark place.” In Star Wars, the evil emperor is trying to bring Luke Skywalker over to the dark side.

And then there is the example that continues to haunt our country. The European and American slave trade was built upon the notion of darker skin being less than.

We are worshipping in a month that has been deemed Black History Month, because the stories and triumphs of many with darker skin pigmentation have been trampled upon, lost, left out of history books, and often forgotten. 

Everything is stacked against darkness. Even throughout most of our Bibles, darkness is synonymous with evil. Although our text today doesn’t specifically say anything about darkness, the negativity of darkness is certainly implied.

“You are the light of the world.”

I can’t tell you the number of sermons on this passage that I’ve heard that walked down the same old, well-worn path. They seem to say, “You have the message! You carry the gospel! You have found Jesus Christ! Now go and shine your sacred light bright for all to see in a secular world filled with darkness.”

It seems like we have all been conditioned to think, when in doubt, make a dichotomy. Light good. Dark bad. It kind of sounds caveman-esk. Now, we are raising a two-year-old, I know there is a place in early childhood development for some simple dichotomies. Hitting is bad. Hugging is good. Stranger danger and so on. But we are old enough to know that there may come a day when a child or an adult might need to be physical when someone seeks to do harm. Hopefully, being in a church we’ve gotten over the “stranger danger” phase and can recognize that we must show love and compassion. When we grow up, we can move beyond harmful dichotomies that limit our love, or worse, limit God’s love.

But for some reason, we have not applied this grown up, grey nuance to darkness and light. We’ve forgotten that two of the most beautiful times in a day are sunrise and sunset—the in-between time. We’ve also forgotten that all kinds good things happen in the dark. Our sacred scripture even begins with God creating light on the first day. On the fourth day we hear these words:

“14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good” (NRSV).

God saw that it was good. When creation is finished on the 6th day, God looks over all of creation and says, “it is very good!” All of creation, including human beings, trees, animals, waters, earth, light, and darkness are blessed by God and called “very good.”

Those navigational stars, aren’t very helpful in the sunlight. The constellations aren’t anywhere near as beautiful and captivating at 2:00 pm on Tybee Island. 

Not only is darkness good, but we need darkness. Our bodies need recovery time from the sun and the kind of rest that can only happen in the dark. We all need hours of sleep in the dark. It has been proven over and over again that the best sleep happens in the dark, not in a room lit by a television. When it begins to get dark at night, our bodies begin producing melatonin to help us fall asleep. And it’s in the dark when the peaceful owl hoots fill the silence. The dark is good. 

Yes, too much darkness can be harmful to our psyche but that doesn’t mean that darkness deserves all of these negative descriptions. Good things happen in the dark.

Darkness desperately needs to be redeemed, because we have all seen firsthand the harm done when darkness is viewed as bad. Racism is alive and well in our country and is a huge problem. Just in the last 3 years, there has been major growth in hate groups that claim white superiority. In a time when we have a large number of people in our country questioning Christianity and the need for religion in general, we have white hate groups still proudly claiming Christianity. Still claiming to follow Jesus Christ. A man born 2000 years ago to a family living in Nazareth. Odds are, Jesus was not the white guy he’s been depicted as in Western art. Jesus, a man whose resurrection that changed everything for us, began in the dark. 

Good things happen in the dark. There are great people with dark skin. Before talking about light, we have to do some work redeeming darkness. Good things happen in the dark. 

If we were to take away the negativity from darkness, and understand it as something that is needed, something that is beneficial, something that is good, what good news might that offer the world? The dark night of the soul would be seen for what it can be, liminal space for transition and growth. The darkest hour could be a time for rest and renewal. 

Let me be clear, I am stating that darkness is needed and that we have to do the work of removing the negative stigma. I am not stating that God causes negative moments in life so we can see the positive. Bad things will happen in the dark of night and the light of day, but I think about God being the sun on the other side of the earth in the night, and God being like the moon on the other side of the earth in the day. God is still present even when there not enough light to see and even when the light is blinding.

Too much light can be equally as harmful. There is a problem that happens near our beaches quite often called, “light pollution.” We know that lights near the water can really mess up the tracks of sea turtles and other members of God’s creation. Too much light is a problem. Let’s read our text again:

5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

5:15 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.

5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.

What type of lamp is Jesus talking about in his example? Before my friend, Dr. Lynn Holmes, donated his collection of middle-eastern pottery, coins, statues, and other antiquities to the library at Mercer, he gave me a lamp from the time period Jesus and region just outside of Jerusalem. 

I treasure his friendship and his gift, and I brought it over for you to see as an example. It is actually on the communion table right now. If you squint your eyes, you might be able to see it. House lamps from this time period were incredibly small. For around one hundred years we’ve been using electricity and light bulbs in homes, so I think our modern understanding of a lamp is much different. If Jesus is talking about this kind of lamp, what might that mean for our faith?

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

All too often, people are praised publicly for their Christian faith. The lights that some people shine are less like house lamps and more like spotlights pointed on themselves. Just last week, Katie preached from the Micah 6 passage that said clearly that the Lord requires us “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” If we are to walk humbly, we don’t need a spotlight shining on us, we need a little light shining on the path. We need a faith that will help us bring things into clarity. We need a faith that might help shine a little bit of light on areas of our lives and in the lives of others that are unjust. We need a faith that will help us see just a little more of the path. Lighting up the whole picture and seeing everything/knowing everything would make humility an impossibility. Having all the answers and shining the bright light to show others we have all the faith answers is not what the Lord requires of us. We simply need to shine the little light that we’ve been given for own paths and to help our neighbors see more clearly. 

We can’t forget the example and the instructions that Jesus gave us. When the crowds became too big, he retreated. After healings, he often said don’t tell anybody. When he was asked how to pray he instructed to go into your own room, as to not make a show of it. Carrying the metaphor along, Jesus had a great light of faith to shine. So how did he shine it? He stood up for the woman who was about to be stoned. He went to the house of a tax collector and dined with him. He touched the untouchables and those considered unclean. He turned the tables in the Temple to protest an unjust sacrificial system. 

Over and over, Jesus used his light to help people see the unjust system at work or to see the downtrodden in a new light. That is the context when he gives us the instruction, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”

Just let your own little light shine.

That sounds a lot like the lyrics of one of the most well-known folk songs in the United States. “This Little Light of Mine,” is often attributed to a song-writer named Harry Dixon Loes, but further study has shown no record that he actually wrote the song. He put together a popular arrangement of the song in the 1940s that was recorded by multiple artists, but it certainly doesn’t sound like a folk song written by a white professor at the Moody Bible Institute.

Today, the song is often published with author listed as “unknown.” We don’t know who the dark-skinned person was who probably penned the song, but we do know the power of that little tune and strength the lyrics have provided. Ruthie Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers from Albany, Georgia, described the way “This Little Light of Mine” helped steady the nerves of Civil Rights protestors and demonstrators as abusive police officers began to bear down. In a 2018 NPR article she said, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. You start singing a song, and somehow, those billy clubs would not hit you. It played a very important role in the movement.”

One little tune that many describe as a children’s song was used throughout the Civil Rights movement to help focus a little bit of light on the injustice experienced. In 2017, it was used again to calm the nerves of the counter protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia as the Neo-Nazis spewed hate.

The lyrics of this song don’t say I’m going to light a huge bonfire for everyone to see. They don’t say I’m going to make a spectacle so everybody knows what I believe. No, the lyrics simply call us to shine our own little light. The dark-skinned songwriter, challenges us to follow the words of Jesus: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.

May it be so.