By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:13-18
In the book Craddock Stories, renowned preacher Fred Craddock tells delightful stories about his many decades of experience as a pastor and preacher. He writes of the first church he ever served:
I remember the first church I served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and it had about $100 in it. They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.”
I said, “Well, what else is there?” As far as I know, they still have that money.
What are the criteria Christians should use to determine and understand the practice of “doing good?” Jesus did a great deal of good and was often criticized for it. Jesus seemed to do a lot of good for some pretty unsavory characters: prostitutes, tax collectors, a wide assortment of sinners. According to the thinking of the day, many of the people for whom Jesus performed miracles were hardly deserving of the mercy Jesus showed. Quite the contrary, according to the religious thinking of the day, many of the folks Jesus helped had “made their own bed” and, thus, should have been expected to “lie in it.”
Yet Jesus, quite indiscriminately, is in the business of doing good; of dispensing unimagined mercy and unmerited grace. And he expects exactly the same from those who consider him their Lord. Disciples of Jesus, according to Matthew, are not simply those who hang out with Jesus hoping to absorb his holiness like an airborne virus. Disciples of Jesus are those called to share with him in the work of ministry. In Matthew, chapter 4, Jesus calls his first disciples, fishermen by trade, with this very appropriate invitation: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Yet, immediately before the story of Jesus calling the first disciples, our gospel narrator announces the launch of Jesus’ ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”[i] The coming of Jesus means the coming of light into the world and if disciples are those who learn from Jesus and imitate the lifestyle of Jesus; then our being in the world – our day to day living – must also be a source of light powerful enough to overcome the world’s darkness. Sharing in the ministry of Jesus clearly involves the bringing of light into places of deep darkness and the hopelessness and fear that dwell there.
In this morning’s gospel passage from chapter five, Jesus defines the role of his followers with two powerful metaphors. Disciples of Jesus are to be “salt for the earth” and “light for the world.” Now, what’s interesting about these two things is that neither of them draws attention for the sake of themselves, but rather, is important because of the way they impact the objects or substances in their midst. One does not, generally, eat salt all by itself. Salt, served alone, is not a very satisfying meal. But it is the way in which salt alters or changes the flavor, the quality, even the texture of other foods that makes salt so invaluable, so essential. Likewise, we do not buy a light bulb so that we may sit in a room and stare at the bulb. We purchase a light bulb for the benefit of everything else in the room. Or, as bible scholar Eugene Boring puts it, “The primary function of light is not to be seen, but to let [other] things be seen as they are.” And so, it is quite fitting that Jesus tells his followers: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” As followers of Christ, we do not do good for others in order to draw attention to ourselves, anymore than a light bulb draws attention to itself. Furthermore, our “doing good” is not something that we add to our life’s “to do” list.
These verses follow immediately on the heels of Jesus’ beatitudes. And in those beatitudes (like this morning’s verses), it’s critical for us to notice that – these are not Jesus’ wishes or hopes for the future. Jesus is not saying to his followers: “I hope you’ll try out being gentle or righteous or peaceful. I hope you’ll give ‘shining light’ a try sometime. If you do, here’s what might happen.” No; that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. These verses are not Jesus’ wishes or hopes or even invitations to those who have made the commitment to follow him. These are Jesus’ pronouncements of a reality that already exists. Jesus pronounces that – if we are truly his followers – this is who we already are; this is, already, our lifestyle. Our “doing good” is not an item we add to our moral checklist. If we are truly followers of Jesus; then we are shining light in the world; a light that takes the shape of good works that honor God because they reveal the nature of God. Jesus will later say in this Sermon on the Mount that God makes the sun rise not only on the good people, but even on the evil people. God is the source of good; God is the giver of good gifts.
We do good for others so that God can be seen through the good things we do. In other words, so that people can know and experience that our God is a God of mercy who cares deeply for them… whether they deserve it or not. Whether we think they deserve it or not.
Friends; right now our world needs some light. It doesn’t just need volunteerism – as good and noble as that is. Our world doesn’t just need activism – although that also is an important thing. But what our world needs more than anything else is light to shine into the darkness; light that honors God by revealing the nature of God; the one who is the origin of any and all “good works.” As followers of Jesus, the light within us is not something we conjure up for ourselves; rather, the light within us is the light that has been kindled by Christ. And that light overpowers the darkness and fear and despair that may, at times, appear to be enveloping the world. But it is not; it cannot for Jesus reminds us that we bring light into the world. We are those whose lives reveal that our God is good and generous.
People of God, as Methodists, we come from a long history of shining light in the world and that light does bring change to the world. The work of John Wesley and the early Methodists changed the social and political map of 18th century England as they led the charge in reforming the treatment of prisoners, children, coal miners and other laborers and even the treatment of animals. Wesley was bold and outspoken in his admonishment of those who believed that holiness was defined only by our times of prayer, worship and study of scripture. In fact, Wesley went so far as to declare that the absence of good works within our lives is an indication that our spirits are not right with God; that we have inwardly withered, so to speak.
Friends and fellow light bulbs, we cannot fix all the world’s problems. But we can shed some light on the world and, through our good works, point the way to a God of goodness and generosity and grace.
[i] See Isaiah 9:2
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