LIGHT OF THE WORLD!?
[A short sermon preached at West Grove Unitarian Church, Cardiff, UK, 16 July 2000]
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before people, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven". Matthew 5.14-16.
I would like to ask, and for us to ask ourselves, once again: ‘Are we really the light of the world?’
And I believe the answer is that we are.
This world is divided by beliefs. It is still divided into competing and often warring systems of belief. In Northern Ireland Protestants still clash with Catholics, or would do if they could. In Bosnia and Kosovo, in Indonesia, Nigeria and Sudan Christians fight with Muslims. In the Middle East Jews fight with Muslims, in India Muslims fight with Hindus, in Tibet Communists fight with Buddhists, and everywhere, in families and communities all over the world, people are divided by their beliefs.
Now, I believe that Unitarianism, our tradition and our faith, as it is today, as it has evolved out of liberal Christianity, offers a solution to these problems. For Unitarians believe, according to their website:-
· ‘that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves.
· that the fundamental tools for doing this are your own life experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understanding and the promptings of your own conscience.
· that the best setting for this is a community that welcomes you for who you are, complete with your beliefs, doubts and questions.’
And that, I believe, is a very precious, a very valuable, a very significant step forward in the history of human spirituality, a very necessary new chapter in the religious experience of humanity.
So if we believe this, and if we see this universal inclusiveness and acceptance of diversity in love, if we understand this as the essential core of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, at the heart of the Christian tradition (and not all that stuff about him dying for our sins, etcetera), then – whatever our personal strengths and weaknesses – we are indeed the light of the world.
“Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house”.
So why are we so few, why does this church appear to be a dwindling community?
My wife has recently been going for spiritual sustenance to a church in Newport [Wales, UK], the King’s Church, which you may have heard of. This church was founded in 1989 and now has thousands of members. I know that numbers are not everything but I also think it is clear that a Church needs a certain critical mass of members to fulfil its rightful role in society – which is a role of ministry in all its senses, from spiritual guidance to social action. So what is the difference between that church and this?
When I objected to the fundamentalist beliefs of this evangelical church, my wife answered: “But it’s you who keep on saying that beliefs are not important, that it’s the feeling, it’s the spirit that matters”.
According to its website, the King's Church is made up of Christians from all walks of life, denominations and nations, flowing together in Christian love. ‘This love we extend to you’, they say, ‘no matter what your belief or background may be’. (That’s a very Unitarian idea, isn’t it?)
‘We are’, they go on to say:-
· ‘A Worshipping Church
· A Soul winning Church
· A Disciple making Church
· A Ministry equipping Church’
‘… We are in the community to be of service to people of all ages, from little children to senior citizens. Our desire is that when you visit the King's Church you will enjoy the informal and friendly atmosphere and that you will sense the presence of Jesus Christ as soon as you walk into the building. He is the one we most want you to meet, for He can change your life, bringing love to your home and hope for the future’.
I am not sure that we can, or that we even should, emulate or replicate this simple but effective faith in this our congregation. Things are – reality is – I think, a little more complicated than that. Not that I wish to deny the validity of a personal and powerful faith in Jesus Christ, for I have lived through such an experience myself, but now I believe that what is important is not the person but the lesson of Jesus, the message of universal, unconditional love.
And I think it is essential to understand that our lack – well I should speak for myself, for I cannot speak for you, I know very little about what each of you really believes – let me say that my lack of a personal faith in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the fact that I don’t believe that Jesus died for my sins, does not mean that I have no gospel, no evangel, no good news to proclaim to the world. It does not mean that I have no light to live by, no light to shine forth on the world.
And this I am sure should be true for our congregation too. Harvey Joyner, an American Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote as follows:
‘[We] have a vision for creating a more loveable and liveable world… If our “evangel” is a gospel of healthily integrating choice with justice, then why are we not “out there” telling any and everyone in our community about it? Instead of ridiculing fundamentalists for their seemingly boundless zeal and overly simplistic answers, why are we smugly content with our self-description as “the best-kept secret in town”? Our story is rich with the personalities of those who have suffered, bled, and died that we might inherit a legacy of freedom and promise. Our cause is for the enhancement of human dignity and for creating inclusive circles of love. That is our gospel. That is our good news. Isn’t it about time that we go tell it on the mountain?’
[The Bold Witness, in Salted with Fire, p. 74]
But can we do it? Later in the same essay Harvey Joyner writes that because of our rationalistic history, we Unitarians
‘seem to be struggling to reclaim emotional honesty so that we might be better at saying what we feel. The time has come and is long overdue for us to demonstrate evangelical fervour about our “good news” to a world desperate for heralds of personal choice and social responsibility’.
‘Not only does bold witnessing require spiritual clarity and emotional honesty, it also calls for mission outreach. As theologian Emil Brunner put it, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning”. The mission of the church’, says Joyner, ‘has always been defined as everything we are sent into the world to do. This includes evangelism and service, word and action. Mission outreach involves carrying the gifts of love and respect to people wherever they are, working for a better world with social and political structures that reflect the inherent worth and dignity of all people. So it is crucial that we understand church and mission as inseparable. There is no church without mission nor mission without the church. And the agent of our mission outreach, though called by many names and left nameless by some, is the very soul of our existence, working through us to redeem a broken world’.
[Harvey Joyner, Salted with Fire, p. 78]
When he wrote this, Harvey Joyner was the minister in Colorado Springs and during his ministry membership in the church more than doubled. There are Unitarian Universalist churches in the United States that are growing just as fast as the evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Of course numbers are not everything, as I noted before, but they are a sign that the feeling is right, that the spirit is alive.
Robert Karnan writes that nowadays people
‘demand to see the genuine quality of a church before [they] join it. In times past the denomination was important or perhaps the status of the congregation in the community. Today it is the honesty of the experience in the congregation and the real justice it serves, the love it actually sustains, and the vision it holds for itself. It has a mission for its members, for the community, and for the world. It is a church alive!’
And Tony Larsen says:
‘I know [our children] don’t absolutely need the Unitarian church. And I know you don’t absolutely need the Unitarian church. But that’s not the point. The point is the world needs the Unitarian church. The world needs voices of reason, and it needs voices of compassion. And those are the two main things Unitarianism and Universalism have stood for, for the past 400 years’.
[Salted with Fire p. 132-3]
So I am sorry that I will not be able to stay and help you with this mission, and I am sorry that even in my short time here I have been able to do so little. But I will take this mission with me when I go, wherever I go. And I hope that you will also – each of you and as a congregation – keep this lamp burning and continue to be the light of the world. And I would like to thank you for what you have given me during my time in Cardiff. I want to thank you for being here for me, for helping me to grow and even just for keeping the candle alight over the years.
Tony Larsen tells a story- from the Gemarra, in the Jewish tradition:
Honi ha-Ma’ggel once saw on his travels an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him when he thought the tree would bear fruit.
“Oh, after about seventy years,” was the reply.
“Do you really expect to live another seventy years and eat the fruit of your labour?” asked ha-Ma’ggel.
“Well, said the old man, “I didn’t find the world desolate when I entered it. And since my forebears planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me”.
[Salted with Fire, p. 133]
We plant for those who come after. We trust that the tree will grow. And we hope or pray that it will eventually bear fruit. In the same way we keep the candle burning, for we do not know when the bridegroom will arrive, nor if we will recognise him when he comes. Or perhaps he has come already and we have not recognised him: we have stumbled upon the truth and have not seen it for what it is, as it is hooded and disguised as confusion and doubt. We are the light of the world and we are hiding under a bushel. So let’s stand up and throw off our veils and shine with the light of a thousand suns. For this is the Ark, this is gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven: the promise of the prophets, the good news, the celestial city: Love without limit, world without end…