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Hide It Under a Bushel? No!

February 7, 2011

“Hide It Under a Bushel? No!” Matthew 5:13-20 © 2/6/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was growing up, my dad performed a nightly ritual. As the sun went down, he closed the blinds, slats down, in the den, then drew the curtains. Then he went to the living room and did the same.

I sometimes wondered why Daddy was so zealous about making sure the blinds and drapes were closed. I presumed it was so the Harmons, our backdoor neighbors, could not see what we were eating for supper or watching on TV. Of course, that would be have been very difficult, given that in between us and them there was a patio, a large back yard, a wisteria the size of an elephant, a tall hedge, an alley, and the Harmons’ own yard. Out front, much the same was true, except that the wisteria was a magnolia that dwarfed the house and there was a paved street between us and the Garys across the way.

The best explanation was and is that I grew up in a very private family, private to the extreme. We didn’t want anyone knowing our business, even something as trivial as what we were having for dinner.

Indeed, I suspect we all understand such a need and desire. Given a forced choice between remaining private or having our lives displayed for any voyeur to gawk at, we would want to keep our secrets and not have anyone peering in our windows, so to speak. Even those of us who might like their own reality TV show or who put every little detail of our days and feelings on Facebook want to control what others know, and wouldn’t want our dirty or even our clean laundry hung out for anyone we don’t trust or know to see.

The desire for privacy, to remain hidden, is not restricted to individuals and families. Communities of faith as well may wish not to be known. But whereas for families and people, that’s OK, keeping hidden becomes problematic for those who say they are following Jesus. That’s because he commanded us to let our lights shine before others and to be a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. We are, and are to be, those who give light to all in the house.

And that is indeed an urgent task. Chris Steadman and Valerie Kaur, two Millennial bloggers, remind us that they grew up in the “shadow of 9/11” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-stedman/from-ground-zero-to-gays-_b_816123.html ). Indeed, all of us live under the shadow of fear. Of hate. Of suspicion and prejudice. Of despair. And if we do in our relative affluence and great freedom, how much more do the poor and oppressed of the world, who struggle daily for bread and for hope?

But still the Church and the churches are tempted to hide their lights under bushels, reject their identity and call as shining cities on a hill. Why? For the same reason anyone hides. First, out of fear. Perhaps in the case of Matthew’s community, there was a well-founded fear of persecution. If they made themselves known and maintained a very public presence, speaking out, then they could be arrested, tortured, and killed.

In the modern world, in places other than our land, that fear is still real, and understandable. But closer to home the fear may be that the light may go out if burned brightly and shared. The congregation says “We have so little; we don’t want to share it lest it be used up. We don’t want to spend too much energy shining or the energy will soon be gone. We have to conserve fuel—money, resources, time—rather than using it in a bright burst or a strong effort.” The irony of such an approach is that a fire smothered soon goes out, but a fire shared burns and burns. Faith shared grows. Faith kept private gives neither light nor warmth, because the fuel of faith is contact with people, sharing the light.

But if we hide from fear, we may also hide from shame and feelings of inadequacy. This is the church as wallflower rather than the sort of person who lights up a room when she or he enters. When we get in this mode, we tell ourselves that our light is so tiny that it can’t possibly do any good, so why shine at all? What can one candle do to pierce such deep darkness?

Finally, there is the reason the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a “motive more sinister” than the others. The light is hidden intentionally so no one will see it. Bonhoeffer says “the very failure of the light to shine becomes the touchstone of our Christianity” (The Cost of Discipleship: 133). Intentional secrecy. Redefining the church as some sort of club for the initiated. The light is put under a basket for fear somebody unacceptable might see it and be attracted to it.

But with the motive also goes a method for turning shining stars into black holes, bright, beckoning, lively cities into drab ghost towns. Sometimes the church hides physically, so nobody can find the church building or when they find it, it’s not clear where the nursery or the bathrooms or the church school might be.

I still remember a preaching assignment during my doctoral work at Columbia Seminary. Susan and I left Atlanta in what we thought was plenty of time to get to the little church in Alabama. Indeed, we arrived in the town just fine. But after forty-five minutes of driving around, at the end frantically, we still could not find the church, and we were terribly late. We had a map, but it turned out to be poorly drawn and inaccurate. Somehow we finally found the church: way back up in the woods, across some railroad tracks, down an unnamed road. No signs on the highway or indeed, anywhere else. The people had waited on us. They were used to not being found.

I think of another congregation in Birmingham, an affluent church with a beautiful building. They also were hidden, way back in a residential area reached only by navigating confusing streets. Again, no signs. And they blamed the pastor for their lack of new members. One of their elders even said he thought the pastor should work on commission, paid only for the new people he brought in.

We have to ask: did those churches want to be found? Did they want their light to shine?

Another time-honored method of hiding the light is to shine it on ourselves. Imagine a group of people in which each one is equipped with an LED flashlight. They’re sitting in a circle in a tent in the middle of a forest at midnight. They shine their lights on each other’s faces, either in admiration or to avoid being seen themselves or to keep an eye on what the others are doing. Suddenly an urgent cry for help comes from the woods, a plea for direction to a place of safety. Instead of shining their lights into the darkness and assisting the lost, the people in the tent continue illuminating each other.

The church at large or a particular congregation becomes that circle when it focuses nearly exclusively on internal maintenance goals like paying bills or what color the carpet is supposed to be. When controversies sap the energy of everybody. When the jargon is so thick you could cut it with a knife, and we’re talking to each other about the same stuff over and over. As our exec Greg Goodwiller has said: “It’s hard to focus on mission while so much of what we’re doing is paying for brick and mortar and staff positions” (http://www.tippah360.com/view/full_story/8243385/article-Living-Waters?instance=special_coverage_bullets_right_column).

But if there are churches that seem intent on hiding the light, there are others who shine brightly, giving guidance to others and glory to God. I remember Edgewood Church in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham. When Sid Burgess came as pastor some years ago, he saw that the building had opaque glass along both sides, so passersby on the busy street and sidewalk outside could not see what was going on inside, rather like my dad pulling the blinds. The congregation decided to follow Sid’s suggestion and replace all the glass with clear panes. It was a symbol of the church’s openness, its desire to welcome anyone, its commitment to have others see their good works. The congregation grew, by the way, by 35% over a four year period after that one creative change.

And then there’s you. You’re small, but you have not succumbed to the fear of inadequacy I described. Indeed, you are wanting to up your wattage, so to speak. The Food Pantry for years and more recently Project 20/20 with collections in local banks and the Souper Bowl of Caring have shone the light of this congregation into the community and beyond, signaling your commitment to serve God in the way Isaiah described. You’re at the top of your size class in giving to Two Cents a Meal. And there’s more to come. Blessing of the Animals as an annual event. More choir outreach into nursing homes. Publicizing the Meditation Garden as a quiet place for reflection.

You and I can be justly proud of these programs and offerings. But there is one more criterion that has to be met before we can call our efforts a success. It is this: those Jesus called “others” must give glory to God. He meant those outside the church. Those within the church, but alienated. The skeptical. The hostile. The unsure. Those who long for concrete evidence that truth and goodness and beauty really do exist, that the darkness can be overcome. We may prefer that we ourselves be judges of the success of our work, but that’s not the case. Unless and until “others” give glory to God, no matter how wonderful our ministries, we have not fulfilled our calling to be light that shines for all in the house.

Let us resolve to hope so deeply, work so faithfully, live such committed lives that the light will never be hidden, intentionally or forcibly. Let us keep putting into practice what Marty Haugen has sung: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place, new light is shining, now is the kingdom, now is the day” (“Gather Us In”). Or simply remember the words of the spiritual: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

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