"New Tree, New Light, New Look"

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:14-16


Last Thursday they planted a new tree over on the Pentecrest. It’s now where the old, iconic larch tree stood until it fell in the thunderstorm back in September. This is no small sapling, however. It was uprooted and shipped here from a Chicago suburb—kind of like some the students, I guess. The new tree is like the old one in some respects. It, too, has a limb that is close to the ground. It’s photogenic and you can climb on it. But it is a stronger and should last a long time.

And I love what President Bruce Harreld said about this: “It won’t be the same size as the old tree yet, but we have time.”

We have time.

We forget this. President Harreld encourages us to take the long view—to see a tree planted as an act of hope.

That’s not always easy.

Climate change, gun violence, racial injustice, our nation in crisis all cry out to us that we can’t wait, that time is running out. So we are seized by a fierce and paralyzing urgency.

And you know what this does to you, to all of us—how it wears us out.

The comedian and film maker, Judd Apatow, was on the NPR show, Fresh Air, this past week. Near the end of the interview, Terry Gross asked him about his Twitter feed.

She said “What you’ve been tweeting about is Trump—Trump. Trump. Trump. It sounds like you’re in a very political frame of mind right now, as are many people in America.”

Apatow agreed that he followed politics too closely. He said, “My wife decided not to watch the news that much. And she is getting younger by the day,” he said. “She’s regenerating.” On the other hand, Apatow acknowledged that because of his obsession with politics, “I look like a wartime president.”

Apatow gets at the danger of a tradition like ours: we are involved in the world. And almost every week I encourage you to continue that involvement. As members of the United Church of Christ, we do not retreat from the world into sectarian isolation. We engage.

Again and again as we open the Bible we discover God’s concern with:

Honest weights and measures in the marketplace;

Judges who will not take bribes;

Leaders who seek the good of the people;

The plight of the poor and the perils of wealth;

Hospitality for strangers and foreigners;

Beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

This is to say, again and again as we open the Bible, we discover God’s concern with our political life.

Since God created us for each other, our security depends on the well-being of our global neighbors. War—and our call to be peacemakers—are religious and political issues.

In a time when the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, how will we show compassion? Poverty—and caring for the poor and the vulnerable in a way that empowers—are religious and political issues.

We are stewards of the earth, caretakers of God’s goodness. The environment—and protecting the creation—are religious and political issues.

Each and every human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth. Human rights, racial justice—respecting the image of God in every person—are religious and political issues.

Truth telling, education, healthcare, immigration—all religious and political issues.

Of course people of good will can take different positions on how these issues are to be addressed. Indeed, because we are part of the United Church of Christ—and especially because we are members of Congregational UCC, where everyone’s right to his or her own opinion is also a religious tenet—we will differ.

Faith calls us into politics.

Politics and faith are public acts. Remember the words of Isaiah: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” By engagement with politics, we add our voices and our votes to the process by which Americans organize our common life, allocate our resources, and deal with shared problems so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order, and peace.

But, let’s face it—the stress is getting to us. I talk with people around here and sense that in recent years and in recent weeks, our faithful concern with politics means we often end up looking like wartime presidents.

So where is the good news?

How do we keep or find the strength and hope that we need for the living of these day?

As the sun sets and the evening arrives earlier each day, as one newspaper reminds its readers each day that “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” we are reminded that we are light. We are part of the future that dawns even now.

And our light is a part of a greater light.

I’ve been getting some help with this from our choir. After worship on recent Sundays our choir has been rehearsing in preparation for offering Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in worship on December 8. This is an almost overwhelming piece of music that opens with the singing of “Gloria!”—“Glory, glory to God in the highest.”

It is, in a sense, easy to sing or speak of the glory of God. It’s common religious language—and like most common religious language, it is often used without our thinking about it.

But what do we mean by the “glory” of God?

The word “glory” points to the radiance, the fullness, the beauty of God. Theologians suggest that it is something like the feeling aroused in us by bright, concentrated light—something that can only be described by pointing to that feeling. So when we speak of the glory of God we point to an ecstasy that includes joy and happiness, beauty and the thrill of great power and meaning, the overflowing of all that is cherished and desired.

We try hard as Congregationalist to speak faithfully and accurately about God. We weigh our words, we study the ancient words of the Bible, we listen to the words of one another. Still we confess that God is beyond our thinking and our speaking. The light of God’s glory shines brighter than even our best efforts.

The choir is preparing to bring us music that lets us stand in the light, the glory of God, that we might better be the light ourselves.

When we hear Jesus telling his followers: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine,” the Greek is the second person plural—all of you—all of us—together. Or as some might say: “Y’all are the light of the world.” Let the light of the community shine before others.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the spiritual too much, but Jesus wasn’t encouraging individual followers to let their little light shine. Generally we’re pretty good at that anyway.

What we hear is a call to community: to work together for the common good and to support one another when our hearts are weary and our light grows dim.

As a community, as a congregation, we are called to shine. Remember those commonsense words: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” Once lit, a lamp just naturally sheds light. And like a lamp on a stand, like a city on a hill, we are a visible community. A world in shadows needs the illumination that we can provide.

This is what Isaiah was getting at with his talk about loosing the bonds of wickedness and sharing bread with the hungry. Remember the promise? “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you.” In other words, we will be what we are: the light of the world.

The good news is that here and there, now and then, our light does shine.

What we need to remember at times when the shadows lengthen, when the light dims, is that we have time to let our light shine.

So we do not loose heart.

We don’t give up.

This is the encouragement of the good news: Do not give up. Do not quit the good and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, what you are doing matters.

Just be the light that you are.

The ability to act for the benefit of yourself and the benefit of others is nothing less than the light, the glory of God shining through us.

As Isaiah suggests, it is as we relate to the poor and the hungry, as we work toward peace, as we recognize the judgement of God on all of our actions that our light will break forth and healing shall come.

We are entering into that time of the year that speaks to us of some of the best things in life—and even offers them to us. This begins with a time of heightened awareness of all that we have received from so good and gracious hand, that calls to a deeper sense of gratitude. This is followed by those wonderful weeks in December filled with music and festive gatherings and food and drink and the end of a semester of study and learning and warmth in the cold and light in the darkness. All this will culminate in the celebration of God with us at Christmas.

So I do encourage you in the weeks ahead to look forward, to embrace all the good that comes to you, to share all the good that can come from you, to live in the light—the glory of God that shines at all times, even when the shadows can seem so deep.

Our struggles for justice, our standing for what is right, our work toward peace, our efforts of healing, out acts of compassion will wait for us if we rest a little and celebrate a little and let our weary souls be renewed. It doesn’t all depend on us.

We have the time.      

We have the time to let our light shine.

And if we use this time, these days to let our light shine, we might even get a new look. Oh, we might not become younger looking every day, but we will see ourselves—and each other in the shining glory of God.