A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 9, 2014 (5 Epiphany, Year A)
Unless you’re a farmer, you probably don’t measure many things by the bushel. You may not even have any idea what a bushel basket looks like. The only reason I’ve ever seen one is because I’m from Maryland and when you’re having a big summer party you might order a bushel of crabs — that’s one of the standard measurements for hard shell crabs out of the Chesapeake Bay. You either get them by the dozen, half bushel or a full bushel. Depending on the size of the crabs, a bushel could mean anywhere from 60 to 100 crabs. Throw in some sweet corn and a keg of cheap beer and you’ve got yourself a crab feast.
The bushel baskets used by fishermen or farmers are typically made of wood — think Hingham bucket but larger and flimsier (see, I know my context — that’s one of those rules from Preaching 101). So when Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand,” picture a wooden basket covering a lamp. It’s a great illustration because it’s so absurd. You can almost see Jesus smirking and hear him speaking in a voice reminiscent of Captain Obvious: “No one in their right mind would put a lamp under a basket.”
But what’s he really talking about here? Jesus starts out by talking about light and salt. Now to us these are pretty pedestrian things. If we need salt we go down to Stop & Shop and pick up that big blue container of Morton’s. Or if we’re feeling fancy, we might go to the Fruit Center and pick up some gourmet rock salt. It’s such a common commodity that if you’re desperate you can even go into McDonalds and borrow a few of those tiny salt packets that are wedged between the straws and the ketchup pump.
This is one of those times when we need to dip into the cultural context of Biblical times because salt — an important preservative as well as flavoring — was a luxury item in Jesus’ day. In fact, the expression he’s “worth his salt” came about because the Roman soldiers were paid in salt rather than currency. So to say someone is worth his salt meant then, as it still does, that someone was worthy of their salary and status.
Light is something else we take for granted these days. It’s dark? Flip the switch and the room is suddenly and magically illuminated. We think so little of natural light because Thomas Edison enabled us to function without it. But in Jesus’ time, if you didn’t get done what needed doing during the day, your opportunity was likely lost. If you were lucky enough to have an oil lamp you maximized its use and you certainly wouldn’t be covering it up with a bushel basket.
Jesus goes on to compare us to this precious and valuable light and calls us the “salt of the earth.” Now in John’s gospel we’re used to hearing about Jesus as the Light of the World. We talk about the Light of Christ. But here Jesus calls us, you and me, the “light of the world.” And it’s hard not to think, ‘Um, excuse me, Jesus but have you ever actually met me? Light of the world? I’m barely the light of my own house.’
Yet this is exactly the point. Jesus knows us, loves us, and despite our humanity and brokenness, calls us to shine forth and illuminate the world. Easier said than done, of course, but Jesus goes on to tell us how and why. “Let your light shine before others,” he says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
We’re challenged to live in the world as followers of Jesus, not just on Sunday morning but at every moment of our lives, allowing our good deeds and all the ethical decisions and choices we face on a daily basis to be consistent with Jesus’ message of love for God and one another.
That’s enough of a challenge in itself but it doesn’t stop there. As a parish community, we also need to shine forth in the world. We can’t let this beautiful Weymouth stone and slate roof serve as a bushel basket covering a light that shines only inside our four walls.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” That’s a tough statement especially if you’re a faithful member of a parish community. It’s not that we wouldn’t want to reach out to help the poor and it’s not as if we don’t think it’s important to share the Gospel with those beyond our walls. But, frankly, it’s countercultural to think beyond ourselves to such a degree. To support your own parish financially, emotionally, and spiritually and to think all the effort should go to benefit those who are not yet nor may ever become part of this community. We want if not all, at least some bang for our ecclesiastical buck!
Archbishop Temple is really inviting us to think about the church as a society whose sole purpose is to share the Good News of the Gospel with those beyond itself rather than as a club, a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends every week. Now this is an important aspect of parish life — Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community and it is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency and faith, to be the light of the world. And it is the parish community that offers comfort and help during times of crisis.
But think about Jesus’ approach. He didn’t say “Follow me” to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little stone chapel where they could gather once a week before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation, into becoming the light of the world.
I think a lot of our recent strategic planing work focused around ways to make sure we’re not using this beautiful building as a bushel basket over the light that shines here at St. John’s. Like every parish we’re always seeking to strike the right balance between looking inward and looking outward — between outreach and pastoral care and reaching out to the wider community.
Parishes are most effective when they hold these three in creative tension with one another. Not by saying “no” to one at the expense of the other but by saying “yes” to all three. This doesn’t mean burn out the clergy and lay leaders in trying to be all things to all people but rather identifying those with gifts in each area and encouraging them to let their own lights shine. I invite you to think about how you might let your light shine through one of the many ministries here at St. John’s. A lot of small lights working together really do have the potential to illuminate the whole world.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014