In 1993, there was a bit of a controversy on television and in the media when “Sir” Charles Barkley—he calls himself the “Round Mound of Rebound,” if you follow basketball—said in a Nike television ad that he is not a role model. You might remember this. It was quite the stir. He said, “I am not a role model.” Now, of course, what he meant was quite correct: he ought not be a role model, and as we found out a little later with his gambling debt and drinking issues, that was a good thing for him to say, but what he said in a subsequent interview was that there are plenty of men in prisons who can dunk a basketball, so maybe when we’re looking for role models for our children we should look a little higher… which brings us to this morning’s gospel reading.
This morning in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in the fifth chapter, the Lord says something quite provocative for us. What he says is this:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor do men 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 (sort of “therefore” is implied) so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
When we hear Scripture passages like this, we tend to do on the fly a little bit of editing in our mind, because we sometimes think to ourselves something like this: “You know, all things being equal, you should be light of the world” or “Perhaps on a really good day, you could be the light of the world.” We might even think to ourselves, “You should really strive and endeavor to be the light of the world,” but that is not in fact what the Lord says. He says, “You are the light of the world. You are a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.” We are, in fact, role models whether we want to be or not.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the thought of being a role model to anyone scares me to death. I have to live inside of my own proper skin, as do each of us, so we know our issues, our hang-ups, our challenges, right? But the Lord says, quite clearly, “You are the light of the world.” And we really don’t need to look very far, do we, to begin to see the contrast, that irreducible contrast between Light—capital-L, the light of Christ—and the darkness in the world around us. In fact, St. Paul wrote to the Philippians the following; in the second chapter he says:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing (which kind of disqualifies all of us, I think, immediately) so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God, above reproach, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world. In the contrast of the darkness in which we all live, in the world around us, we appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ, I will have reason to glorify because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
Many years ago I had a young employee in one of the departments that I managed in a company in Utah, and he came to me with some particular issue. I forget the precise nature of it, but he wanted some advice. I was a bit older than he was, so in the context of having this very brief conversation with him, I made the comment, “Well, you may not have known, but as a Christian person, this is kind of the way that we look at things.” The young man kind of chuckled and said, “You know, it may not be obvious to you, but to everyone else it’s pretty obvious that you’re a Christian.” I recall really being kind of flabbergasted by that, because I wasn’t in any way striving to be overt. I didn’t leave little pamphlets in the lunchroom and things of that nature. I just went about my business.
And in exactly the same way, whether you believe that you are or not, whether you think that you’re doing anything overtly Christian, overtly Orthodox, the fact of the matter is: You are always being observed. Eyes are always on you. And this, not because of anything that we do. St. Paul also wrote to the Ephesians about the light of Christ that is within us. You get a candle, you put it in the lamp, right? The lamp has no cause for bragging. It’s the light inside of the lamp that illuminates through the walls. This is what St. Paul says. Ephesians 5, he says:
For this you know with certainty: that no immoral or impure person or covetous man who is an idolater has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them.
So if we’re going to be part of that city set upon a hill, we have to draw very clear distinctions between the things that we do and the things that others do. And he continues and says, “For you were formerly darkness.” Now, note that he doesn’t say, “You were formerly in the darkness.” He says, “You were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Again, not saying, “You are in the light in the Lord,” but:
You are light in the Lord, so walk as children of light. For the fruit of light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
So we have no cause here for celebration, for conceit, for arrogance, because it’s not our light that is shining through us. It is the light of Christ that is shining through us. If he is inside of us, there is no way that we can cover that under any bushel to make it less obvious to those around us who in fact it is who is living inside of us.
St. Peter has quite a lot to say about this, and we will quote him in three places in this morning’s homily, and the first thing that he says in his first epistle in the fourth chapter is this, and that is: Don’t expect people around you to be all excited about the light that is within you. I’m sure that many of us here have experienced that, where people say to us things like, “Oh, so you’re better than we are, therefore you can’t go out and do the things that we do.”
I remember once, many years ago, we had a sales conference meeting in New Orleans. Now, there’s really only one reason, really, that you have a sales meeting in New Orleans. So we had our sales meeting. We had a lovely dinner at the Court of the Three Sisters on Bourbon Street. It was lovely, and it was Lent for me, so I could have any number of wonderful, amazing nisteia [fasting] Cajun dishes. It was great. So then we all get done, and they say, “We’re going to go out and have some drinks.” “Have fun.” And someone said, “Well, then, you’re not part of the group!” I said, “You’re right. I’m not part of that group. So go and have fun.” So the next day, they start stumbling into the meeting all bleary-eyed and hung over. I made precisely no attempt to be quiet that next morning; quite the opposite. St. Peter says this:
Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already passed is sufficient for you to have carried out the desires of the Gentiles. Having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties (as I just mentioned), and abominable idolatries.
And this very important part, verse 5:
In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you. But they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
I dare say many of us have had experiences, whether at work, on the job, at school, in our circle of friends, in the neighborhood, perhaps, and maybe even within our own families, and we determined, that, say, on any given Saturday night: “No, I am not going to go out late with you and party, because I have an appointment Sunday morning with the Lord to be in church. And I’ve chosen to structure and order my life around the liturgical rhythm of the Church, and nothing is going to get in the way of that.” And if you have the courage to do that, I can absolutely guarantee you that they will malign you and will be surprised that you choose not to run with them.
There is a distance here that must be affirmed. People come into the church and they say, “Father, I’d like to deepen, perhaps, my walk with Christ in Orthodoxy” or “I’d like to begin to learn what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.” And I let them know: “You need to understand that whether in beginning or in deepening your union with God and Jesus Christ, there [are] going to come your way challenges and persecution, because we do not make sense to the world around us, nor should we endeavor, frankly, to make sense to the world around us.” The Lord says this (Matthew 11); he says:
But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children, sitting in the marketplaces, who call out to the other children and say, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance. We sang a dirge for you, and you did not mourn.”
The world around us would love to set the agenda for what we do. The world around us would love to borrow, that is, to steal essentially, our sort of moral, ethical, spiritual credibility and misappropriate it to purely temporal concerns that have precisely nothing to do with the kingdom of God. And in an election year this year, and in 2016, brace yourselves. It comes just like the swallows to Capistrano, every year. They will seek to borrow what does not belong to them in order to undergird their own flimsy arguments.
St. Peter writes again and says that we are chosen, and in fact everyone is chosen. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” the Scripture says. But God desires that everyone should be in his kingdom, and that is why the light within us is meant to shine out.
It’s said that the human eye can spot the flame of a single candle a mile away; in the darkness of the night, just a little light goes a long way. And if we can have the courage to let the light of Christ shine out of us, does that mean we’re perfect? Absolutely not. Each and every one of us here, myself included—myself first of all—sin every single day. There’s not a day that we wake up, that our feet hit the floor, that we won’t sin. To be human is to live in sin. Christ has come to redeem us from this, but we must understand that it is his light within us and not our own that is the attraction.
St. Peter writes:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. For you were once not a people, but now you are the people of God. You had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
And mercy is what the world around us needs. Do we not see in every newscast the merciless, grinding, murderous iconoclasm of a world that stands so desperately in need of the light that we possess?
Finally, this morning, there’s a beautiful passage that St. Peter writes, again in this first epistle, third chapter. And the precise context of this is his admonition to husbands and wives. He speaks, of course, that husbands must love their wives and wives must be subject to, that is, to honor and reverence their husbands, but in the midst of that, in the third and fourth verse of 1 Peter 3, he says something that I think that really crystallizes for us what we’re about this morning. Again, he’s talking here to women, and I dare say that particularly for our young women that this is something they should pay attention to when he writes:
Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair and wearing gold jewelry or putting on dresses—but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.
Applying this, then, to the Lord’s words in St. Matthew’s Gospel today, we could say this. Our adornment as the Church, as the people of God, as lights in the world, as that city set on the hill, is not our externals. It’s not how grand and glorious our edifices are. It’s not how well we sing. It’s not in the sheen on our façade. It is rather an authenticity. It is in authentically admitting the truth of ourselves that we, like everyone else, are beggars looking for bread. We are sinners looking for salvation, but we have had the great grace that someone loved us enough to bring us into the Church, whether it was our parents and godparents as infants, or if we converted into Orthodoxy later in our lives, someone who shared the Gospel with us, who loved us enough to bring us out of the darkness, out of the rain, into the light of Christ in the Church. And now because of that, that is a thing that people are attracted to.
I cannot impress upon all of us this morning enough the desperate need that the world around us has for the light that we possess. So, brothers and sisters, you and I, whether we like it or not—and most days I would say I’m not too crazy about it—we are the light of the world, and all together a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. Let us with humility, but also with courage, knowing that he who has begun a good work in us will see it through to its completion, let us then commit ourselves to being the role models that Christ has called us to be.