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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Epiphany 5 – Year A

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world….let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to [God].” (Matthew 5:14,16) Over and over in the four gospels we hear about God’s light and how we’re meant to walk in it and reflect it. What does that really mean for you and me? Partly, it’s about “appearances” isn’t it? God wants us to look and act in ways that are not offensive to others but rather help bring them closer to God. Onetime, in another church I served, as my congregation was gathering for a funeral, I was trying to light the two big candles on the altar, and one of them simply refused to light. So I picked it up, intending to set it on the floor where I could get at it. But when I had it in mid air, the heavy base fell away and came down squarely on my big toe. It hurt like sin! But when I told my wife, she seemed more concerned about whether I had given glory to God, and her first question was, “What did you say?” I told her I said plenty but managed to keep it under my breath!
Appearances do matter, despite our human temptation to hide behind them or use them to show off. But now think again about that word light. Some people just do seem to have a kind of light about them. That was so abundantly true of Jesus himself that he is often shown in stained glass windows surrounded by a halo. You and I know people who always seem to light up the space around them. Sometimes they’re like floodlights. When you’re in their presence, the darkness in your life doesn’t seem so dark anymore. Or, sometimes they’re like spotlights—they have a way of sensing the very place inside where you’re hurting, and somehow, without prying or intruding, they illuminate it so you can see it more clearly and deal with it.
Jesus’ light was often like an x-ray. He could see right through people and into their hurts, their fears, their sins, their blindness. Onetime he spotted a little tax collector, Zacchaeus, up in a tree, and invited himself to the man’s house, knowing he was ripe to be transformed. His heart melted at the plight of a woman caught in adultery who so needed the release of forgiveness. He refused to take sides between two brothers as they argued over their inheritance—knowing they needed to work it out themselves. He set Mary Magdalene free from the many demons that had so darkened her life. He saw the huge potential in Peter, that big bumbling fisherman, and called it forth.
Light illuminates; light penetrates; light pierces the darkness. Light also creates an atmosphere. Some of us, including myself, have a problem this time of year when the nights are long and the days are short—and especially when it’s cloudy and gloomy outside. It’s called “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD. The only answer is a lot of extra light. A friend of mine who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, recalls how on those very short winter days all the school classrooms would be brilliantly illuminated with all sorts of special lights to keep kids from getting depressed. People who take seriously Jesus’ advice about being lights for others know how important it is to help create a healthy, positive atmosphere. There simply is a lot of sadness in the world—and not just when the days are short. I thank God for the people in my life who have created such an atmosphere of light and hope and joy.
One of those was my associate rector in Newport News, a priest named Joe Buchanan. Joe was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. He was a short, chubby, bespectacled little man with a fringe of white hair around his bald head and a contagious twinkle in his eye. Joe had the gift of seeing the humorous side of any situation. He also helped the rest of us not to take ourselves too seriously. He was a born actor, and almost a legend from his college days at William and Mary.
One year, at the Bishop’s annual conference for clergy and spouses at Nags Head, we had a talent show. For his part, Joe somehow acquired some bishop’s vestments and dressed himself up to look like an elderly, nearly blind and quite senile bishop who had been pressed into service for a confirmation. With a little help he had arranged in the meeting room a kind of altar rail with posts, and cords in between. Then he had one of the other clergy lead him in to start the “service.” As he made his way unsteadily up on the platform, he at first faced blindly away from the congregation, until his helper got him turned around. Then he began the laying on of hands—and confirmed one of the posts! When he stopped at a young woman who had come forward he became so fascinated with her curly hair that he couldn’t stop fingering it until his helper urged him along. He came to one of the young men, and after he had laid his hands on him, he blurted out in a frail voice, “You’re on your own now, Sonny!” And so it went! Joe’s bishop act brought down the house that year and we never forgot it!
Joe was ten years older than I, and I learned a lot from him about being a light for others. He was utterly unpretentious. He was perfectly happy being an associate rector and not in charge. Earlier on he had led parishes in West Virginia and Norfolk, but he just didn’t enjoy the daily demands. He was one of those rare clergy who didn’t have a need to control! He was also a superb preacher. He was sophisticated, well-read and full of stories, but thoroughly down to earth. Sadly, Joe died of cancer a few years after he retired. But his funeral, in a church packed with the hundreds of lives he had touched, radiated the light and humor and warmth that had so characterized his life and ministry.
God calls us to be people of light in the world, and to help set a tone and create an atmosphere of light for others. People of light care enough to be sensitive to people’s needs without always assuming they know what they are. People of light are good listeners—and they talk with people, not at people. People of light aren’t afraid of silence—they’re willing just to be there for others while they hurt, or grieve, or sort things out. People of light aren’t threatened when others complain, or disagree, or get angry. They’re tuned in enough as fellow human beings to know that there’s usually a story behind the story, and that we usually feel better after we’re allowed to vent our emotions.
People of light “let go and let God,” as the famous saying goes. They tend to “get out of the way” so that others can have an unobstructed experience of God’s glory. They are like St. Paul and his friends who wrote to the Corinthians, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)

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