Sermon: “We Are the Light of the World” (February 9, 2014)

Here’s the Cotton Patch version of today’s Gospel lesson:

            You all are the earth’s salt.  But now if you just sit there and don’t salt, how will the world ever get salted?  You’ll be so worthless that [you’ll] be thrown out and trampled on by the rest of society.  You all are the world’s light; you are a city on a hill that cannot be hid.  Have you ever heard of anybody turning on a light and then covering it up?  Don’t you fix it so that it will light up the whole room?  Well, then, since you are God’s light… go ahead and shine so clearly that when your conduct is observed it will plainly be the work of [God].

            In a sermon Cotton Patch translator, Clarence Jordan, preached on these verses in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, he said this:   “This is something which it seems to me the Christian fellowship really needs to get through its thick hide.  I don’t know of anything that has caused me more real suffering and real anxiety than to see the Christian Church sit in this great social revolution(the Civil Rights Movement)…as though nothing were transpiring, keeping God’s salt in a saltcellar that we call the sanctuary.  …I had a preacher friend tell me not too long ago, ‘Clarence, we’ve just got to lay low on this thing, and let it all blow over, and when it all blows over, then you can afford to take a stand on it.”  (Substance of Faith, 65.)

            I want to tell you about some Atlanta pastors who did not wait for the Civil Rights Movement to “blow over” before they took a stand. 

Here’s a copy of an ad that appeared in both Atlanta papers on November 3, 1957.  The headline read:  80 Atlanta Pastors Sign Manifesto on Racial Beliefs.  I first learned about the Manifesto when I served on the Board of the Regional Council of Churches of Atlanta.  In 2007, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the courageous stand these 80 pastors took.

            Retired Methodist Bishop Bevel Jones—who also served on the Board—was one of the 80 signers.  He told us how frightening it was to put his name on that document.  Remember—this was only 3 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.  The prospect of integrating schools was creating significant tension, especially in the South.  Lots of Christian pastors were taking the tack of the one Clarence mentions in his sermon:  Let everything work itself out first then take a stand.  These 80 pastors would not wait.  The Bishop said that, to ensure that names of the signers didn’t get out prematurely, the Manifesto was taped to a table in the basement of one of the churches.  Each pastor surreptitiously scheduled a time to go and sign his name.

            This document makes me very proud.  Southerners—southern Christians, in particular—often are portrayed as close-minded, backward, mean.  It’s true that the South—like every other region of the country—is home to its share of bigots.  But bigotry isn’t the South’s only story line.  This [Manifesto] also is part of our story.  And I mean that literally.  As I read back over the names this week, I saw a familiar one:  Emmet Floyd.  Emmet served as an interim pastor here at Pilgrimage in the late 80s.  Cool, huh?

            So….What Manifesto might be signed today?  What statement would be so radical that it would have to be taped to a table in a church basement?  Those 80 “salty” pastors in 1957 let their lights shine when they signed the Manifesto of Racial Beliefs.  What Manifesto might we “salty” people of faith sign in 2014 that would help our lights shine?

            As part of a denomination that’s firmly committed to social justice, there are tons of causes we can and do support with our time and financial gifts—Lost and Found, MUST Ministries, Family Promise, the Human Rights Campaign, Amnesty International, PETA, Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, organizations advocating for immigration reform, groups advocating for common sense gun legislation…. 

            These days, there are many causes to support—many ways to let our lights shine.  But today, I invite us to focus on one…the one on which the prophet Isaiah focuses.

            When you heard today’s passage from Isaiah, you probably got a twinge of déjà vu.  It’s similar to the verses we heard from Micah last week.  Like the Micah passage, the conversation begins by the people asking why God isn’t pleased with their worship practices.  Last week, God asked the people to look at their worship practices through the lens of “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.” 

This week, when the people complain:  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’  God says this:  “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and to fight…Such fasting as you do today”—that is, fasting as a means of  showing off and proving who was most holy—“Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to “humble” oneself?  Is it to bow down the head…and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?  Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

“Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,” (You’ve got to wonder if Jesus was thinking of this passage when he said, “Let your light shine and later when he talks about caring for the “least of these.”) 

“If you remove the yoke from among you—That is, if you stop focusing on religious laws in legalistic ways, like the laws on fasting—If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry—Huh.  Did you hear that?  It’s not just “offer food to the hungry,” but “offer YOUR food to the hungry”….“If you offer YOUR food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

How do we let our lights shine?  According to Isaiah, our lights shine when we act the poor into well-being….and not just when we give to the poor out of our abundance, our disposable income.  Our lights shine when we recognize the relationship between our abundance and the poor’s poverty.  “If you offer YOUR food to the hungry…your light shall rise,” the prophet says.  Our lights shine when we recognize the connection between our abundance and the poor’s poverty and try to bridge the gap between us.  A couple of verses later, Isaiah says, “You shall be called repairer of the breach”…bridger of the gap, builder of the bridge.  “When you offer YOUR food to the hungry, your light shall rise….and you will be healed.”

If Isaiah were writing a manifesto today, it probably would be titled something like:  People of Faith Sign Manifesto on Eradication of Poverty.  

The 1957 Manifesto contains 3 sections.  In the first section, the authors identify themselves and acknowledge their own participation in racial inequality.  In the second section, they name the current circumstances that have contributed to ongoing racial injustice throughout the country.  The third section contains commitments the group was making…commitments to free speech, to an equitable school system, to the human dignity of every person.

So….if we were to write a Manifesto on the Eradication of Poverty, what might we include in its three sections?  How would we identify ourselves and confess our participation in economic inequities in the world?  How would we describe current circumstances that contribute to the impoverishment of so many people in the world?  What commitments might we make to work actively to eradicate poverty?

On a table in the Fellowship Hall is a big piece of paper and some markers.  You are invited to begin drafting a Manifesto on the Eradication of Poverty.  No doubt, the 1957 Manifesto wasn’t written in one sitting.  It emerged only after LOTS of conversation, lots of going back and forth, lots of listening to each other.  If we decide at some point to formalize our manifesto, it’ll take a LOT more work, maybe even months.  Today’s invitation is simply to brainstorm.  We’ll leave the paper posted for a couple of weeks.  Feel free to keep adding to it.

In your bulletins, you’ll find an 8.5” X 11” handout that gives you a place to jot down your initial thoughts.  As David plays, you’re invited to think, pray, confess, brainstorm, dream.  “If you offer YOUR food to the hungry….your light shall rise and you will be healed.”  [David plays, “They Will Know We are Christians By Our Love”…all four verses.]

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2014



About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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