Let Your Light Shine
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, February 9, 2014, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany.
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Last summer, in prayer, I was given the idea to use the quote that you see on the banner behind me as a kind of frame for our shared life in worship and scripture reflection over the year. Having come out of a year full of challenge, death, and grief as a congregation, my hope was for us to connect to the ways that our mission to “Live Like Jesus” connects us to practices and promises of abundant LIFE even in the midst of struggle. Once I had this overall vision for the year, I took some time to reflect on the scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary and devised themes to guide my preaching. Last Sunday, we began the latest series, “Mountain Climbing with the Master,” inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
My research on mountain climbing was not terribly in-depth but when I came across the WikiHow site about “How to Climb a Mountain” I was struck by the description of mountain climbing as “an exhilarating pastime that offers the ultimate challenge of strength, endurance, and sacrifice” that is also an exciting and rewarding experience. Our life of faith can be described in the same way. To be “fully alive”—which is what Jesus shows and teaches us how to do—requires strength, endurance, and sacrifice. Our “reward” for persevering is to share more and more in God’s life of love, peace and joy. The rewards of embarking on the trek up the “mountain” with Jesus are great, but the things Jesus teaches us on the mountain are challenging. As we saw last week, the view from the mountain changes the way we see things and calls us to live in ways that run counter to the culture around us. If we really try to put the vision into practice and to follow Jesus, then on that journey we will encounter obstacles, challenges, surprises, twists and turns on the path, and new opportunities. Months ago when I envisioned this series, I couldn’t have known that God would give us a concrete opportunity to test our strength, endurance, and sacrifice and our ability to be faithful and hopeful in the midst of challenge. But that is what God has done.
Some weeks ago, I received a call from the District Superintendent of the Greater Washington District asking me to pray about a new appointment as Senior Pastor to Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. After my years with all of you, I hope you know that I am someone who prays. And that is what I did. The night I received the phone call, I slept very little. In the middle of the night, I arose and went downstairs to pray with the scriptures. My Bible fell open to Psalm 40. Among the verses of the Psalm are these: “The Lord put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord… God, you have given me an open ear…Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God…’” (vss. 3,6-7) I prayed these verses and asked for God’s help to lead me to discern and to do God’s will. The following Sunday, I was struck when I saw that the Psalm for the day was none other than Psalm 40. My goal since I was a little child has been to do and to be the person whom God wants me to be—to live according to God’s will for me. The problem with having this as a primary goal is that sometimes what God has in mind (God’s will) is different from what I had planned. And in this case, many of you will know, what I had planned was to stay right here as pastor of St. Matthew’s for a long time. What I have discerned through a great deal of prayer and reflection is that the call I have received is not just from our Bishop, but is from God. I believe the call to Foundry is the will of God for me. Therefore, I will conclude my ministry as your pastor this spring and will begin my new appointment as pastor of Foundry on July 1st.
As I have prayed over these past weeks, I have realized that it seems that God’s purpose for me here has been to serve as a kind of interim pastor, to provide a bridge between Dick Stetler and the person whom God is preparing right now to come among you and lead you into the future as you envision new goals and dreams. Because, you see, if God is calling me to Foundry, then God is calling someone to St. Matthew’s. This very day, there is a pastor who is being prepared by the Holy Spirit to serve in this place, there is a pastor who is praying to be brought to you—though they don’t yet know that St. Matthew’s—that you—are who they are praying for. Your District Superintendent, Rev. Rebecca Ianicelli, has been praying about this and working with the Bishop to identify who that person is. Whoever it is, she or he will be mightily blessed to serve you and this community at this turning point in your history—just as I have been mightily blessed to serve as your pastor these past years. As soon as the person is identified, then he or she will be introduced to the members of the Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and then the appointment will be made the Sunday following that introductory meeting. Your new pastor will begin July 1st.
It felt very powerful to me that today’s announcement would coincide with the Gospel text we have heard today—the same text that inspired our fiftieth anniversary celebration: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5.16) St. Matthew’s has been a shining light in this community and in the world for fifty years and you will continue to be just that for many years to come. You worship and pray and give and serve in so many ways that truly make a difference. I personally have been challenged and inspired by the extraordinary commitment and generosity of time and talent and treasure that many of you offer to this congregation and community—often with only a few people really knowing the full extent of your offerings. You have such a wealth of talent and faith among you. This is truly a special and powerful community of faith. You are a blessing.
It is appropriate that today we hear Jesus say, “YOU are the light of the world.” One of the things that I have tried to communicate since my arrival is that the “professional Christians”—your pastor and church staff—are not the church nor are we fully responsible for the mission and ministry of the church on your behalf. I am not the one who has shone that light all these years. The Holy Spirit works through YOU to shine the light of God’s love, compassion, care and mercy. YOU are the church; together we share ministry as we contribute our varied skills and gifts to the mission to which God has called us. I understand that a change in pastoral leadership causes anxiety and uncertainty. But it does not change who you are and what God has been doing and will continue to do in and through you. YOU are the church; you are the light of the world and will continue to shine. My hope is that the foundation that we have laid to support you in being the church together—through developing a shared vision and mission, increased opportunities for education and training, small groups, spiritual practices, team-based ministries, and resources to equip servant leadership and participation throughout the congregation—will continue to be strengthened and nurtured. We have recently affirmed and blessed the key servant leaders who will provide leadership through the transition; you are in loving, thoughtful, and capable hands. The members of the S/PPRC have particular responsibility for helping guide the transition period. They will be available to speak with you today if you have questions about the process ahead.
My focus over the next several months will be to make sure that I do everything I can to ensure a smooth transition for you and for your next pastor. We don’t tend to manage grief and transition very well in the church, but I’m committed to try. I hope you will do the same. There will be time to name and to celebrate what we have accomplished and shared together and time to do the work of transition. For today, I invite you to simply observe whatever thoughts and feelings you are having and carry them into your prayers, offering them to God. I know from experience that folks will have a variety of emotions and responses—from grief to relief, from anger to hopefulness, from anxiety to anticipation, and lots more. I remind you that, as with every moment of change and loss, we hold on to each other and God holds on to us. God does hold all of us and will be our constant companion as we move forward.
Mountain climbing with Jesus is hard; it always includes risk and change and loss and grief. But we are promised grace to persevere on the journey. Ultimately, mountain climbing with Jesus brings us onto the path with people who bless our lives, who teach us new things, who bring out our best, and with whom we are able to shine ever more brightly with the love and peace and meaning and justice and joy that is God’s own heart. This has been true for me as I have come alongside you on the path. It will be true for your next pastor as well. I love you and give thanks to God for you. And I look forward to our last climb together over the next several months. If we stay close to Jesus, then we know that all will be well.