“Season and Shine” Matthew 5:13-20
The woman shifted nervously in her chair, smoothed her short brown hair, and straightened her jumper. The setting was a clinical training workshop in a particular form of psychotherapy called Depth Oriented Brief Therapy. She had volunteered to be the client as the therapist, Bruce Ecker, demonstrated his particular approach to helping people create solutions for their identified problems. The “client,” whom I will call Mary, was warm, bright, and articulate, and soon she clearly outlined the problem that she wanted to work on in the demonstration session. Mary wanted the session to help her resolve “her deep ambivalence about her own success.”
Mary found that she often turned down opportunities to advance herself or her career, and couldn’t pinpoint what got in the way of her moving forward into success in new areas. For example, a local Cable network had invited her to submit a tape of herself so that she might be considered for the job of a talk show host. Mary had been very interested, but she just never sent in the video.
As her story unfolded, she shared that she had come from a poor family, and she was the only one that she knew of in the family who had actually graduated from college. The oldest of five, Mary felt that her many successes went against the cultural norm of her Polish American background. And at the root of it all, she feared that her mother would find her success too difficult to take, and that if she were too successful, then she would risk losing her connection with her mother. Under the skillful guidance of the therapist, Mary carried on a conversation with her mother, who, though dead, was still powerfully alive in Mary’s mind and heart. She felt that being different, being successful, was too difficult for her mother to accept, and her mother would become angry, cold, distant, or rejecting if Mary was too successful. Mary said to her mother: “I’d rather cut short my possibilities- make my life into a stump- rather than deal with that rage…”
Mary had hit a ceiling on her ability to embrace success, and that ceiling had to do with protecting her mother. She was afraid of going beyond her roots, but more deeply, she feared that her success would hurt her mother, would make her mother feel deeply inadequate about her own life. Mary’s solution to this internal and familial conflict was to put a lid on her success. It kept peace in the family, it preserved her relationship with her mother, and it kept the deep sadness over being alienated from her mother at bay.
Jesus said: “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a bowl, or a bushel,” but the sad truth is that many do that all the time. For a variety of reasons, like Mary, we take the essence of our creative selves and stifle it, refuse to develop who we are, or we censor ourselves. We construct false selves, and move through the world cautiously, as if we are afraid that being truly who we are might cost us too much. We hide our lights under a bushel. “Let your light shine before all people,” Jesus says. “You are the light of the world.” Jesus does not say: “If you try hard to be someone you are not, then you will be the light of the world.” He says: “You are the light of the world.” In all of your uniqueness, in all of your particularity. In the same way, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.” Not: “Maybe in twenty years, when you have finally gotten it right or had enough therapy, you will be the salt of the earth, but you ARE the salt of the earth.
Before Mary could allow her light to shine before all people, including her mother, she had some inner work to do. She had to accept and value who she was, and she had to be willing to grieve that her mother couldn’t fully accept who she was, or that her mother had died without really knowing her. But Mary came away from that session with a stronger sense of herself and her own creativity, her own light and saltiness.
As individuals, Jesus affirms the gift of our own uniqueness, and he invites us to live into the fullness of our light and salt. These words were not only directed toward individuals, but also at a community. Matthew was writing to a group of people who were discovering the deeper truth of who they really were as people created in God’s image and reconciled to God. But as they lived into their identify as Christians, they found there were consequences. They had to suffer the possible anger and rejection of those who did not understand them, of those family and synagogue members who were threatened by their saltiness. It was too different, too scary, too threatening. Matthew quotes Jesus to give them encouragement to be fully who God is calling them to be. You are the salt and the light, he tells them. Don’t be afraid to let it out because the world needs it.
How about us? What is our saltiness and light? How do we answer that question not only as individuals, but also as the body of Christ in this place? One of the unique gifts of this community is its diversity. We already are salt and light in our diversity: we already have a unique mix of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, we already welcome gay and lesbian and transgender people into the life of our congregation, we already have a diverse socio-economic representation and a variety of theological perspectives here. This is God’s gift of salt and light to us, and our gift to God.
But how does OCBC build on its ability to spice things up? How do we maintain our saltiness? How do we allow our light to shine before others? How do we take on new challenges of inclusiveness, such as addressing issues around racial equity and the injustice of the mass incarceration system?
Like Mary, maybe we as a community have some struggling to do before we are unafraid to be fully who we are in this world: a truly diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community where God is revealed in all of that variety. Like Mary, maybe we as a community must be willing to face the possible rage or rejection by people we care about as a part of being more fully who we are as a diverse community. We too, are challenged to figure out what it might take to grow beyond our self-imposed glass ceiling of comfort if we are to be truly salt and light for the world. For no one lights a lamp and hides it under a bowl, and if salt looses its taste, what good is it? The question impacts our collective and individual identities.
Mary stunted her own growth rather than hurt or alienate her mother. But she found a way to say to her mother, even after her mother died, that she loved her; that she grieved deeply the fact that her mother never really knew who she was as her daughter. Mary managed to connect emotionally and lovingly with her mother, and at the same time she found a way to be more fully who she was as a creative individual.
After this one session, Mary began to view achievement in a different way: “as a means for self expression rather than a means of obtaining external validation.” She quit a job where she felt her talents were underutilized. Her sense of self-esteem improved, and she stopped using Prozac. Her depression lifted, and she felt freer to be herself. She no longer had to protect others by refusing to be who she was. She accepted her own salt and light.
You are the salt of the earth. You already are the light of the world. Be yourselves. As individuals, be who you are in the fullness of who God invites you to be. As a community, boldly go where no one has gone before, take on new challenges of justice and righteousness. Be not afraid of growing and changing as you season and shine. You already know how to be salt and light, and the world needs what you have in this beloved community of diversity as well as in your individual uniqueness. Be salt. Be light. Be who God calls you to be. Amen.