This Little Light
A sermon preached by
The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
March 9, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
It seems these days that the lectionary is all tales of darkness and light – a fitting motif for this the dark season before our winter’s end. Today’s lesson in the gospel reminds me of a story, some of you might recall I’ve told it before, about a hiking trip I took with a dear friend while in Taiwan.
Daniel, my colleague and fellow lay chaplain at St. John’s University insisted that I come with him on a guided climb of Taiwan’s tallest peak, Yushan, or Jade Mountain. At 13,000 feet it is by no means a feat to summit, but impressive nevertheless. Since the guide and company were local, and my Chinese was rudimentary at best, Daniel agreed to make all of the accommodations.
We would drive with a group of grad students to a staging area deep in the national park at about 2,000 feet above sea level. Daniel made sure I brought my sleeping bag and backpack and warm clothes, and explained we would be hiking in to just below the peak on the first night and summit the next day. We climbed within range of the summit that first night, and we made camp in a rustic shelter nestled in the embrace of Formosan hemlock, with a pristine view of the whole western coast of the island. Because of the language barrier, the trip was something of an ongoing experiment in trust. As with most things, when living as a foreigner in a strange land, I was reliant on my friends and hosts to communicate as best they could what I needed to do and when I needed to do it.
Just before we drifted off to sleep that night, Daniel quickly informed me that we would be rising early.
The shelter was freezing cold and dark when he shook me awake the next morning. Encouraging me to leave most of my gear, to take only my water bottle and a snack, I hurried out of my sleeping bag and out the door to find 15 twinkling headlamps on the heads of our fellow hikers and guides. I had not packed so much as a flashlight or a book of matches.
“Don’t worry.” said Daniel. “I packed us each a flashlight.” Rummaging in his pack he produced both. I examined mine to find that the switch was already in the “on” position. It had been on in his pack all night and the battery was dead.
“Don’t worry.” he repeated. “I will walk behind you and the light from my light will be enough for both of us.”
So it was that silently and steadily we climbed through the predawn darkness of a cold Taiwan morning, sometimes hand over hand, the wind tearing at our packs, all toward an unseen peak above, and all with Daniel’s light bouncing and bobbing, as promised, lighting both our paths.
As I said at the outset, the theme of light in the darkness is not unfamiliar in this season of the church, or in this season of winter. And, what’s more, the lesson we have today from Jesus is not unfamiliar to those of us who spent any time in a Sunday school classroom as children. The call to be ‘salt and light’ which comes to us today from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel has been reduced, for better or worse, into a quite famous little song – This Little Light of Mine.
That song, as does the gospel, raises the question of whether or not we should let our light shine under a bushel. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. And, so it introduces perhaps the most corrosive idea in modern Christianity – the notion that the good work we do in the name of God, the way in which we bear witness to the good news, the way in which we grow in faith and develop spiritually – that any and all of what we do as Christians and disciples of Jesus is somehow an individual act, something we do (or should do!) under our own steam. Too often we allow the modern emphasis on the importance of the individual to cloud our reading of scripture and the whole of our faith such that we end up with “This little light of MINE!”
I can’t count the number of times that I have spent with parishioners and friends in the faith who were wrestling – wrestling with prayer, wrestling with belief, wrestling with a sense of calling, with how to let their light shine, how to make sense of the words of Scripture in their modern lives – and how often it was evident that that wrestling was happening alone. Friends, we are not called to go at this life of faith alone. This is not a solitary journey. We cannot do any of this – proclaim good news, heal the sick, welcome the outcast, feed the hungry, and grow in faith – we cannot let our light shine on our own.
After all, what is this little light? The gospel seems to imply that the light we’ve been called to shine is the light of good works, the very list I have just recited – healing and feeding and proclaiming. But, we know if we study our tradition that the power to do good works, the ability to shine forth at all is the power of God within us.
As Paul writes today – “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ.”
This is the light we’ve been given, Christ with us, the liberator and healer, the presence of God in the humble form of a servant. And, if the light of Christ is the light of liberation and healing, the power to do good in a world sometimes full of darkness, we can understand why it was that “This Little Light of Mine” was co-opted by the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, and became an anthem against oppression by the masses that marched for the dignity of a people. Their faith then, as ours today, was a call to come together, to let each little light combine into something far more glorious and incandescent than individually they could have ever asked or imagined. They did not march alone.
Whether it is doubt in your faith, or fear of rejection, or whether you just feel inadequate to the task you are called to – don’t go it alone. Lean on the faith of others. Find those who are wrestling as you are wrestling, with a calling and a hunger to heal the world. Find others who are struggling to pray, and pray with them. Find others who are lighting the path, and walk with them.
That cold morning as we climbed with Daniel’s light showing the trail, always just a few steps ahead at a time, we finally reached the peak, and stood on ice and stone at what felt like the top of the world. Finding a cleft in the rock, on the eastern face, we huddled in out of the wind, and a welcome stillness descended on our company. And, then, almost imperceptibly, the sun slipped slowly above the horizon. There was a sea of clouds as far as the eye could see stretching out to infinity, bathed in breathtaking pinks and oranges, and the world began to blaze with a glory I had never seen before nor since. With the faltering and sometimes futile light from a friend I had been led to this, a light and an experience I could never have imagined – a beauty that I cannot describe and a moment which will live with me forever.
This morning friends, whatever would hold you back, whatever it is that covers the light of Christ, let it shine. Do not let fear of rejection or doubt in your belief, embarrassment at needing help, or the four walls of this church become a bushel underneath which hides a little light. All you need is a little light. You and those who come here with you, each of us has been given the promise of Christ with us, and each of us travels the way together. We all have a little light, and we can shine it for each other, and together, we can shine it for the world. Let it shine.