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Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: “Uncovering the Light”
We all know Jesus loved to teach through parables: very short stories, with very human characters, that illustrate important lessons. And in this morning’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear a popular favorite from “The Sermon on the Mount,” the longest collection of his teachings in the New Testament. It’s the story of “the lamp under the bushel basket.”
As a companion to this parable, and a way to find its meaning for us, I’d like to tell a parable of my own, which I just heard in my seminary class last weekend.
A little girl was bent over her kindergarten desk, enthusiastically coloring a large sheet of paper. She poked her head up to see her teacher standing next to her. “What are you drawing?” her teacher asked. “God!” the little girl shouted. “Oh, no, dear,” her teacher said gently, with a smile. “No one knows what God looks like.” “Well,” the girl said, “they will in a minute!”
Now, I love this parable, this joke, because it has that same upside-down quality of so many of Jesus’s stories. Think you know who the wise one is? The one with authority? The one with the closest relationship to God? Think again. And, going deeper: Do you see aspects of yourself in these characters—and why? Let’s look more closely.
The boldness, the audacity, of this little girl strikes me as utterly delightful. Like Isaiah in our reading this morning, she shouts out; she doesn’t hold back; she lifts up her voice like a trumpet to say she knows what God looks like. Is that subversive?
Well, yes, in this kindergarten universe, it appears to be. This girl is an upstart. She’s just a little child—without any power, a person we’d never expect to be a prophet. But she’s claiming her truth about God. And she’s ready to show it, in bright colors, to the world.
In fact, in this parable, I see her as very similar to the disciples the young Jesus had called to follow him; very similar to the crowds who came to receive his healing and hear his teaching. These men and women and children were on the lowest rung of society: the persecuted, the powerless, the poor. The least likely to be seen as spiritual leaders. Did anyone expect them to be drawing a new picture of God? No.
But Jesus said to them, and to us: You are blessed. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Show the world what God really looks like.
Jesus didn’t say: You have to earn this power by being obedient, or successful, or smart. Truth to tell, his closest disciples often weren’t any of those things.
He said: You are the light. Each one of you. Wake up to it. Open up to it. To this wisdom already in you. To this glowing connection with your Father who loves you, his precious kindergartners. When you become aware of this connection, when you claim this inner light, when you become this light . . . you will have astonishing power.
Jesus told his followers and us, over and over, that this power was real. As did Isaiah: “Your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” As did our psalmist: “Happy are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments! Light shines in the darkness for the upright. They will never be shaken.” Paul called this state of spiritual awareness “the mind of Christ,” an alert state in which we can discern all things and be totally unafraid of judgment.
This, our Teacher told us, is who we’re meant to be. Upstarts. Holding our heads up. Fully awake to God’s presence in us. Filled with light. Using our astonishing power to care for each other.
Because Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” Not only the good works of sharing bread with the hungry; housing the homeless; and healing the sick; but, as Isaiah foresees, the great works of loosing the bonds of injustice and breaking every yoke.
All our spiritual teachers tell us this morning: Living in God’s light—as God’s light—will transform you and the world.
So, I want to pause here and check in. Is there a skeptic hovering in you as you hear these words? Do you really believe this message about your inner light and amazing power? Is there a presence in you right now identifying with the teacher in my parable, looking down on this bold picture, telling you with a gentle, repressive smile: “Oh no, dear. How could you live in and as God’s light? No one knows what God looks like”?
Well, we all hear some version of this voice. We all have this tendency to go dark on this message of light. It’s as human as our capacity to be wise, awake, and connected. Jesus named this tendency “the bushel basket”—and it can lower down on us in many forms, with the same kind of false authority as the kindergarten teacher’s.
But Jesus encouraged each one of us to resist this urge. To pay attention to the moments when you do feel fully alive and salty. When you see, feel, and taste that life is good. When you experience God’s divine presence in your body. In intimate moments. In friendship. In nature. In art and music. In delicious food. In children. In random acts of kindness and gracious acts of forgiveness. In stillness.
These are the moments when your lamp is lit.
And “no one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” Jesus gently observed, “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
As an experiment, I invite you in the week ahead—and maybe even throughout the remaining three weeks of Epiphany, heading into Lent—to connect the imagery of these two parables to your day-to-day life. Notice the times when your lamp is lit, like our fearless and free little artist. When you feel most fully alive. When you share that light with all in your house. God is in you.
And notice whenever a “bushel basket” in your life shuts down that feeling of being connected. It could be an inner voice, like the undermining teacher’s, telling you that you’re not good enough, or smart enough, or wealthy enough. It could be a defensive habit that cuts you off or puts you to sleep: like overeating, overdrinking, or overmedicating. It could be a nagging fear that shuts down your confidence or comes forward as anger.
Or it could be a compulsive habit of distraction, like spending hours in front of a screen—whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop, ipod, or TV. I’ll own that one. Screens have become my biggest “bushel baskets,” cutting me off from being truly present to what’s real and important and divine in my life. Maybe that’s true for you, too.
How will you know? Well, if you go with this parable experiment, it’s going to take some heightened awareness. No one but you can know what habits and patterns you’ve woven together to cover up your light. No one but you has the ability to throw them off.
And it’s going to take some courage. It’s still subversive, just as it was in Jesus’s time, to fully wake up and use your power and start to undo what’s wrong: in your body, your family, your relationships, your workplace, your community, your society.
And it’s going to take some commitment. We have to wake up over and over again in this lifetime, with the encouragement of our spiritual community.
But we’re told by all our truly wise teachers this morning that living in God’s light has big, immediate rewards. We’ll be happier, full of compassion, less afraid. In Isaiah’s words:
“Your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and He will say, Here I am.”
He will say, “You do know what I look like. You are the light of the world.” Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
February 9, 2014