Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Sermon: Camp and Congregations Partnering as Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

One of the things I learned my first summer as a camp counselor was that the really cool, expert counselors that everyone looked up to did NOT carry flashlights.  It was like a badge of honor.  They knew every path, every twig, every rock so well that they didn’t need anything to guide them at night.    Even though I was the newbie on staff, I had been a camper there for years and years.  I figured I knew the land as well as they did, and I knew I was at least as cool as they were.  So my flashlight got hidden away at the bottom of my duffle bag. 

It was all well and good until the night I had to leave campfire early with one of my campers.  Susannah was 33 years old and a part of our special needs program.  She was the sweetest woman on earth, and I loved spending my days with her.  We forgot Susannah’s flashlight at the campfire that night.  I almost went back to get it, but figured nah, I got this, who needs a flashlight?  Someone else can grab it.
Susannah wasn’t very steady on her feet, so she leaned on me for support, as we walked up from the campfire first dodging tree roots along the path and then maneuvering over the rocky trail.  We were doing okay with Susannah gripping my arm and me feeling for the path…. until we got far enough from campfire that it got really, really dark.  Suddenly, my confidence in my ability to maneuver in the darkness disappeared.  I was stumbling along while trying to hold Susannah up.  In trying to avoid the rougher terrain, I lost track of the path.  After a few near falls and a twisted ankle on my part, I gave up.  Susannah and I stopped and sat down in the middle of the woods.  And there, we waited for everyone to leave campfire and come with their flashlights to save us from the darkness. 

After that, I accepted flashlights as a sometimes necessary evil at camp.  In the dark, dark woods  without the light pollution we see in the cities, suburbs, or just living around the corner from some ski slopes,  campers are aware of their need for light.  Campers who would never be afraid of the dark anywhere else become obsessed with where their flashlights are, which is why we have so many flashlight rules at camp, like the all-important rule that flashlights must stay pointed at the ground!  

As a counselor, there was nothing more maddening than getting blinded by 13 flashlights shone in your face at one time as your campers tried to locate you when campfire ended….  But in the darkness of camp, we needed  the light of those flashlights to guide groups of campers unfamiliar with the terrain safely back to cabins.  

In our gospel today, we hear about light.  You are the light of the world.   A city built on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  

While camp is a place of great darkness, it is also a place of great light.  Jesus tells the disciples, you ARE the light of the world.  We don’t run from darkness, instead we shine our lights into the darkness, and not just with our flashlights.  At camp, as we leave the limits of our daily lives, we leave the expectations others place on us and the labels we’ve been given, and we enter into a safe and sacred community where we are reminded of our identity as Children of God.  Firm in that identity, we are able to explore, try new things, ask deep questions, make new friends and share our gifts and talents.  

I think this is one of the reasons that camps are such an ideal place for leadership and faith development, because at camp, no one has to be afraid to shine their lights.  More than 60 percent of seminary students say that outdoor ministries served a significant part in their decision to attend seminary.  I know it did for Pastor. Camp is among the most formative pieces in the faith development of young people.  At camp, youth are set out into the goodness of creation for a week of independence, friendship building, campfires, and worship.  They paddle canoes, do arts and crafts, and try their hand at the climbing wall or the high ropes course.  And they return home more connected to creation and to God who created it all.  They return home citing improvements in confidence, in faith, in the ability to stand up and be a leader.  And it’s all because the community at camp, beginning with the staff, shine their lights into the darkness for others to see…and that encourages us to shine our lights for others.

Once again I think back to that first year as a counselor at camp.  I received a note from my secret pal.  Secret pals are a silly tradition where staff pick a name from a hat and then shower that person with random acts of kindness and encouragement throughout the week in secret only to reveal their identity at week’s end.  I got a lot of great things that week from a big sign welcoming to breakfast or fresh flowers in my cabin one afternoon.  But this note I received has stuck with me ever since.  It was a quote by Nelson Mandela. 

Our  worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be.

You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone of us, and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

At camp, in intentional Christian community, in the safe and sacred space created, we get to test out our lights...  we encourage individuals and communities to let their lights shine and to be who God calls us to be.
But camp doesn’t do this alone.  Camp doesn’t replace congregational life.   The Gospel of Matthew was written to the Jews.  In today’s text we read how Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Jesus’ teachings didn’t take away from all that came before him.  Jesus couldn’t be Jesus without the prophets.  In the same way camp doesn’t take away from the work of the congregation, and camp couldn’t be camp without all of YOU. 

As partners, camps and congregations work together to raise up disciples, shining our lights into the world to show others how to let their own lights shine.   Together camps and congregations are cities on hills that cannot be hid.  The light can shine forth so brightly from these places no one can miss the presence of God.
Together, we encourage one another and everyone around us to be who God says we already ARE.  That’s right, Jesus says in today’s gospel, that you ARE the light of the world and that you ARE the salt of the earth.   Jesus doesn't say, "If you want to become salt and light, do this...." Or, "before I'll call you salt and light, I'll need to see this from you...." Rather, he says both simply and directly, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." It’s like last week's Beatitudes – it is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.

It’s easy to hear this, and knowing all too well our sinful nature, our failures, and to say “yea, yea, uh huh, of course.”  In fact, we hear all too often of our brokenness.  The messages we receive from our culture and our world are that we don’t measure up, that we are never good enough, and that unless we do more than any one person could ever do, we are failures.  Jesus says otherwise.  You are the light of the world.  You are the salt of the earth.  Did you hear that?  Are you really hearing it?

Psychologists have told us that for every negative thing children hear, they must hear ten positive things to restore their self-esteem.   Children, to put it simply, become what they are named.  So if we call a child bad long enough, they will live up to that label and act bad.   I’d venture to say this doesn’t change all that much with age. So if the world around us is telling us that we as individuals, as Christians, as the church… that we are ignorant, we are irrelevant, we are hypocritical, we are failures.  What do you think we are in danger of becoming?   

But what does God say we are.  God says we are salt. God says we add flavor, interest. God says we preserve and enhance. God says we bring light. the light that lets the Holy One be seen.No matter what the world says, no matter what we do (and we sure do a lot to the contrary) we can't shake our saltiness or lose our light. It's what God has made us to be.

This is big.  We are so inherently valuable to the world around us, we have gifts that we must give.  But what’s really awesome, is that because God made us so carefully and wonderfully, so special, even just one of us can make a difference.  In the dark, dark woods, just one flashlight can change everything.  And a little salt can go a long way… think of those recipes where you need just a quarter of a teaspoon but without it, your dish turns out bland and flavorless.  Each and every one of us has the ability to be salt and light all on our own, and together in community with one another, the power is enormous.  As Mandela said, We were born to manifest the glory of God within us. . It is not just in some of us, it is in every one of us, and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  

Remember, the campers I described with the desperate need for their flashlights in the overwhelming darkness.  We are those lights.  Light functions in order to allow humans to see.  We are the light that allows others to witness God in the world around us.  God’s work, our hands.  And salt, think about salt.  It’s not an element useful to itself.  By itself, it’s just a rock.  Its value comes in its application on other things.  Salt and light are meant to serve.  As followers of Jesus, we are called for service with others.  We are called to take these amazing qualities, these gifts, this light God has created in us, and use them… as congregations, as camp, and as individuals in the world.  Do not lose your saltiness and do not hide your light.  Be that city on the hill.  Give light to all in the house.

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