Jun 19, 2016
Bishop Larry Goodpaster
Jesus said: “You are the light of the world.” Is there any part of that audacious declaration that you do not understand? Say it with me: you are the light of the world. Now make it personal: pat your heart and repeat after me: I am … light … in … of … for the world. Remember Jesus is addressing a rather large crowd of disciples, believers, seekers, questioners, and hangers-on, and I suspect he waved both arms across the crowd for emphasis on “you.” We are in this together.
In the year 1893, the great World’s Fair captured the imagination of the people of Chicago. The World’s Columbian Exposition, as it was called, was built at Jackson Park near the shores of Lake Michigan, and attracted people from all over the world, in spite of a deepening economic depression at that time. The Chicago fair introduced many new products and some of the latest inventions for what promised to be a marvelous twentieth century that was just around the corner. Some things that were first seen at that 1893 World’s Fair: Cracker Jacks, long-distance telephone service, moving pictures, zippers, all-electric kitchen, Juicy Fruit gum and Shredded Wheat cereal.
Perhaps the most amazing display at the fair was the electric street lights that paved the way through the immense fairgrounds. In his best-selling book, The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson describes that display this way:
“The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago … what visitors adored was the sheer beauty of seeing so many lights ignited in one place at one time.” (The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson, Crown Publishing, 2003, page 47)
Is it possible to imagine such “sheer beauty” shining forth from the churches of the Western North Carolina Conference? Can you picture the most “elaborate demonstration” of members and disciples letting their light shine? Envision thousands of lights ignited for one purpose: to shine the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and shatter the darkness that surrounds the people of our communities and world. Jesus said: “Let your light shine!”
Unfortunately as I have traveled across our conference for the last eight years, and around the connection for the last sixteen, I have heard a disturbing clicking sound. It is not the click of a computer mouse connecting to the internet, nor the clicks of a smart phone accessing information at the touch of your finger. It is the sound of light switches being turned off at our churches.
- A church says, “we’re just about the right size now” … click, light switch is turned off.
- Another church says, “what if we attract the wrong kind of people” … click, light switch is turned off.
- Still another says, “our neighborhood is changing and we are afraid” … click, light switch is turned off.
- And many continue to say, “we’ve never done it that way before” … click, light switch is turned off.
Yesterday we officially closed five churches and as I have felt every year there is sadness around that action. These were places where people had been baptized and professed their faith, where weddings and funerals had been conducted, where Vacation Bible Schools and revivals had occurred, and now the doors are closed. But I also know that the action yesterday was the result of light switches being turned off years ago.
Some of you may remember an advertising slogan that filled the airwaves during the last decades of the last century. It was actually named one of the Top 100 advertising campaigns of the entire twentieth century. Tom Bodett was the spokesperson for Motel 6 and ended each spot with the words, “we’ll leave the light on for you.” Four years ago Motel 6 changed the wording slightly: “50 years, the light’s still on.” Church: is your light still on?
Jesus said: “You are the light of the world.” Notice that he did not say, “You have to try harder to be a brighter light,” as if somehow we could get spot-light brilliance out of 60-watt members! Neither did he say that you ought to be light, as if we have any choice in the matter. “Let your light shine” he says. How shall we do that? Throughout Matthew’s Gospel I find signs of what that might look like. It is as if Matthew amplifies and illumines this word from Jesus.
One of those signs is recorded in the 18th chapter of Matthew. Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We have all probably waxed eloquently on some required childlike qualities but notice that the word from Jesus begins with “unless you change.” Unless you change you will never glow with the brilliance of God’s grace and mercy and disperse the darkness of this world.
I have always get a good chuckle from all of those amusing sometimes insightful one-liners about changing light bulbs. I especially like the ones about Methodists. You know: how many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? One answer: “Change! Are you kidding me, my grandfather gave that light bulb!” Or: “We’re not sure, but we will appoint a 12-person study committee to determine the feasibility of instructing the trustees to investigate the cost and benefits of changing that light bulb.”
There is an encounter between Jesus and a seeker that illustrates what Jesus is saying. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night looking for some light for his soul. Like countless others since, he is puzzled over what he hears – this notion of being born anew, born from above. It’s like turning or changing or starting over again. “You mean,” He says, “I have to become an infant again.” That’s just it, Jesus says – you have to learn to depend on and trust God and the movement of God’s Spirit in your life.
Many act and think as if they need no assistance from anyone, that they can make it on our own and have it their way, or that their ideas and practices are better than others. In a world left to its own devices inhabited by people who believe they are better than everyone else, darkness prevails. As Nicodemus learned no light can fulfill its intended purpose if it is not connected to the power source. If we are going to be light, if we are going to let our light shine we must allow God’s power to flow into and through us.
A second revealing statement is found in the 10th chapter of Matthew where Jesus says: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” That is an echo of “no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.” In the 24th of his 52 standard sermons (the 4th one on the Sermon on the Mount), John Wesley wrote: “Whatever religion can be concealed is not Christianity … it is absolutely contrary to the design of the great author of it.” Almost 200 years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer would sound the same theme in Cost of Discipleship. “Any community of Jesus,” he wrote, “which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1995 Touchstone Edition, page 118)
Tell it, Jesus says. Proclaim it. Do not keep it to yourselves. We are called to be witnesses to the love, grace, and mercy of God, without which none of us would be here. In this world where a pall of darkness seems to have covered us – from global terrorism to domestic violence, from racist attitudes to irrational fears, from diseases of poverty to human trafficking, from angry shouting matches to mass shootings and senseless gun deaths – the need for bold witnesses for Jesus Christ has never been more necessary or more urgent.
It is my unscientific hunch that we have turned off more light switches in our churches because all of us (lay and clergy, young and old, rich and poor) have stopped telling and modeling the Gospel in compelling and relevant ways. Our talking has tended more toward arguing among ourselves instead of lighting the way for a dark, hurting world. While the world seems to be spinning out of control, we have spent far too much of our energy and burned up far too many light bulbs doing battle over worship styles, music tastes, dress codes and how many visible tattoos the youth director should have. It is time to quit squabbling and bickering over such things and let our light shine. Some of us may be incandescent bulbs and some may be fluorescent, some flashlights and others floodlights, but all of us … wait for it … Jesus says are the light of the world.
Finally, in the 14th chapter of Matthew, surrounded by a crowd of more than 5000 people, Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” The people had been hanging around for hours, hanging on every word Jesus spoke, and now, honestly, they were hungry. The disciples, ever watching out to protect Jesus, come to him saying, “okay, it’s time to shut this thing down for the day; pronounce the benediction and let them go into town and beat the Pharisees and Sadducees to the café. No, Jesus says, you take care of it. You give them something to eat.
Now I think those disciples would have been good church members in the 21st century. You see they were able to volunteer plenty of information and give advice; they were able to analyze the situation, and they surely felt some measure of sympathy for the crowd, but they were not going to do anything about it. Let them fend for themselves they suggest. Or better yet, let someone else take care of it. After all, we have don’t have enough, our resources are scarce, we do not like special offerings, and besides we all left our jobs and are now on fixed incomes.
If we are going to let our light shine we must adopt a missional mindset. Have you heard me say that in the last eight years? We will have to take risks, move out of our comfort zones and into the mission field which starts at the front door of our church building. The theme song we chose for this Annual Conference session is the Chris Rice song “Go Light your World.” Some of those words capture this missional approach:
“Carry your candle, run to the darkness,
…seek out the hopeless, confused and torn;
…seek out the lonely, the tired and worn …
…carry your candle, go light your world.”
You give them something to eat. Light up the world with deeds of compassion and concern. Be missional. Shine your light so all will see AND give glory to God. Not to you; not for a reward you might earn; not for a recognition plaque; not even to increase membership. But so that all will give glory to God.
When we began our journey together in 2008 we had no idea where God would take us, what road we would travel, or how we might more faithfully and fruitfully serve Christ Jesus. We started in the midst of an economic collapse that was deeper and went on longer than any could have imagined. In that dark time we chose to turn on the light of Christ Jesus in new and creative ways. Out of that time has been birthed a missional movement that challenges all of us to get outside the walls of our buildings, hit the streets, and make a difference in our communities for Jesus Christ.
Our missional networks have opened doors and shined the light of Christ in astounding ways across our conference. Welcome tables and open hands projects provide food to those who struggle daily to survive. Children not only return to school with supplies at the beginning of the year, but also get connected with a mentor, a tutor, a relationship with someone who genuinely cares. We heard this week that more than 540 schools are now connected with our churches providing light for thousands of children. Our churches and our networks are shining the light of Christ is other ways as well.
- In the Denver area of Catawba Valley a ninety year old woman raising her great-grandchildren now has a well to provide water for her home, and in other houses of that area there are now new roofs and repaired floors … a network turning on lights and making a difference!
- In central Charlotte immigrant and refugee families receive clothing, household goods, furniture and appliances along with tutoring, work support, healthcare screenings and most important personal relationships. A network turning on lights and making a difference!
- Two weeks ago at a service in Asheville to bid farewell to one superintendent and welcome another, I met a person who had started coming to one of the “welcome tables” supported by our churches. A good meal and a welcoming spirit provided what she needed. As a result she has now been clean and sober for 2 years, and has made a profession of faith and joined the church. Two years ago she had no idea what a DS was and now here she worshipping with us. Turning on lights and making a difference!
Here, then, is the Jesus Strategy of illuminating the world with the light of the Gospel: be connected to God as our power source; be walking and talking witnesses to the love, mercy, and grace of God; be fully engaged in your community by reaching out to those who are hurting and those most vulnerable. I hope the next clicking sounds we here all over this conference will be lights being turned on and shining brightly. When we do that what a sheer beauty that will be!
Jesus says: “you are the light of the world.” Go … light your world!