YOU are Light– Ignite!

A sermon based on Matthew 5: 13-20
given at Mount Vernon, OH on November 16, 2014*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today’s sermon focuses on two things from the reading: (1) Jesus’ observation that “You are the light of the world;” and (2) His command in the lesson to “Let your light shine . . .”
We covered this text way back in February looking at the “You are the salt of the earth” part. This scripture, like many in the Bible, is multifaceted and before our liturgical year ends next week I wanted to re-visit the reading and look at the “You are the light of the world part.”

For those of you who are wondering, being “the light of the world” has nothing to do with Lite beer or lighting cigarettes or even light bulbs. Jesus is talking about people being light in the world– a spark of God. Light in Jesus’ time and place was not taken for granted as it is today. Electricity did not exist. Candles and lamps were a bit of a luxury, cities and houses for the most part went dark with the dusk. Light’s important now too, but our ancient ancestors were much more aware and appreciative of it.

To be the light of the world carried a lot of meaning in a time when darkness was harder to overcome and foreboding and dangerous.

Often sermons on this part of the text are a call to be a shining example of goodness, and the text can certainly be fairly heard that way. It is also sometimes understood to be a call to Christians who hide their religious allegiance in order to avoid being persecuted– or uncomfortable. These are both fair ways to interpret the text.

For me one of the beauties of Bible verses and especially Jesus’ teachings are that they can have layered meanings not just multiple images like salt and light, but actually multiple meanings. More than one understanding is possible and intended. It’s good thing to be a shining example of goodness in the world. It is also a good thing to not hide your religion so others can see goodness and give glory to God. Those are meaningful teachings that can be found in the text. I want to suggest another meaningful teaching. A third option. Jesus can be heard to teach all of us that we have a light to shine in the metaphoric darkness of the world and especially in the darknesses of our own lives AND the lives of our neighbors and community.

As we discussed last week, regardless of what the culture or others may say, or even what we ourselves might even think, God sees us all for what we are, a great and good light–a spark of God– and we need to let that light shine– FAN THAT SPARK TO A BURNING FLAME! Jesus’ teaching “You are the light of the world” can be heard to make this point.

This sounds simpler to buy into than it is. Many people live in a metaphoric darkness, right? Many people do not understand themselves as being a light in the world– a spark of God. The culture and subcultures are often the root of this, telling folks they are lesser beings or making them aware they do not fit cultural constructed “norms.”

We see this with things like race and religion, gender and sexual orientation. Things that make a person seem different from the majority– or from those in power– are often used to dampen the light– or try to do so.

This is particularly true amongst adolescents. Over the past half dozen years there has been an emphasis on stories in the media of young adults who have taken their lives or had violence inflicted on them due to bullying, especially based on sexual orientation.
Here are some facts that keep LGBT teen lights from shining:

9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
LGBT teens are bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens.
More than 1/3 of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
LGBT teens are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. 1

These type of statistics sadden me greatly, they have brought me to tears.
It is beyond reasonable doubt in the scientific and medical world, in the world of reason, that homosexuality is a natural part of creation. It is a fact that a percent of humanity has been created by God as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, L. . . G . . . B . . . T. The Bible indicates that God has declared all of creation good. If that is true, then logically this includes all Godly made LGBT! So it is natural to be sad and shed tears about people being hurt over how God made them.

As a heterosexual male I get asked now and then why I am such an advocate for LGBT justice. My sadness and my tears and my advocacy are not just about statistics and reports of people being brutalized for being LGBT . . .though that would be enough.

It is not just that I know dear people in this and other congregations who have told me stories of such violence in their lives . . .that would be more than enough too.
But my sadness and my tears and my quest for justice for my LGBT sisters and brothers go much deeper than that, very personal experiences are involved.

The first two statistics I read about bullying reflect my own experience decades ago in college and high school and middle school. First of all, for most males of my generation being bullied was pretty much your lot in life as you moved into school as an underclassman. The small males endured taunting and brutality by the upperclassmen and bigger kids. Threats, hall gang violence, hitting, shoving, and lots of scary words were the norm. I know, I was small until I was a junior in high school and harassment was an all too common-place occurrence at my schools.

No one should have to undergo such bullying LGBT or Straight, Black or White, Christian or Muslim, Jew or Buddhist, Agnostic or Atheist, large or small, short or tall, Male or Female.

When I got involved in theatre as a youth the harassment increased. You know why? Because in the teen world of the 1970s to be an actor meant to a great many folks that you were a homosexual. There was no logic to this. It did not matter that tough guy heros of the culture, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, were all actors. In the teen world I occupied males like me who were in drama were, to use a legal term, ipso facto Gay. Period. You could have a note from your doctor saying otherwise, you could have lots of girlfriends, it did not matter, drama connections meant you were homosexual. It’s the craziest thing really.

I was not Gay, but that did not matter, I was perceived as Gay and became a part of some of the statistics we are talking about. I may not have been a bonafide LGBT teen, but, I was an honorary one. And so like 9 out of 10 LGBT students I experienced harassment at school. Like LGBT teens I was probably bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens. Mean words, threats, assault and battery occurred.

The worse of this bullying took place when I was not only shoved around and harassed in the halls of my college dorm, but also received anonymous written death threats from a gang in that dorm. It was very ugly.

My best friend at that college had it even worse. When he went on to graduate school he was brutally beat up on campus by a bully who perceived him as Gay.

Both my friend and I are, however, not Gay. We are straight males, but, we were subjected to very real, very scary, senseless violence because some boys declared us to be Gay by our major– if you can believe that. But you know what? Even though our being straight did not prevent others from perceiving that we were Gay and trying to hurt us, it saved us from something else. The greater cultural’s sense of unworthiness. We had to wrestle with some bullies’ sense of our worth, but never our own or the culture as a whole. When you are really LGBT (not just honorary) much of the culture tries to snuff out the light of your LGBT-ness, who you are.

The culture’s preferred norm was heterosexuality. Anything outside the norm was suspect, and people were raised back then – and even still today– to think there is something wrong with you if you are not heterosexual. This is wrong of course, since all of God’s creation is not just good, but right . . . and frankly normal.

As straight men my drama pal and I did not have to wrestle every moment with the wrongheaded idea ingrained in our culture and into many people’s heads that there was something wrong with us. We knew that in reality we fit the heterosexual norm (even if we were actors).

I was not rejected by my family and I did not attempt suicide because of my sexuality. Oddly enough all I had to do to become acceptable to those who bullied me was change my major and not be an actor. But even as an actor I knew I fit the sexual norm of the culture.

But my friends who were LGBT could not walk away from who they were made to be by God in order to fit in a culturally constructed box that others wanted them in.

There are, by the way, a number of folks in drama who are Gay. So while I suffered side-by-side with them some types of harassment, my Gay friends suffered wherever they were Gay–which was, of course, everywhere.

My closest and dearest friend in high school was named Scott. (a good name, if I do say so myself.) Our friends and family called him Scotty so we’d know who was being spoken to. Scotty was a wonderful young man with a sweet loving disposition and a singing voice that was otherworldly good. We were in plays together and performed songs together and we spent many hours with one another as close friends are wont to do.

When I was a high school senior I received a call from Scotty after he had taken a bottle of pills in an attempt to kill himself. He was one of the more than 1/3 of LGBT kids that have attempted suicide. Thankfully we got him out of that attempt alive. But Scotty grew up to live his life recklessly with harmful, even near death events, as a not so uncommon feature.

Over the years I lost track of Scotty and a number of years ago I traced his family down in an effort to reconnect. I sadly discovered that Scotty had died in his forties of a combination of problems due to ill health. It may not have been suicide, but, he died way before his time.

LGBT kids are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. Scotty’s father rejected him so he fit both of these categories. ///

So did Jeff. Jeff went to church youth group and high school with me. Jeff was in plays with me, he was Barnaby to my Cornelius in “Hello Dolly” so we even sang a duet and danced together. Jeff looked up to me like a younger brother might. He thought I was funny, so naturally I liked Jeff. He hung out at our house a lot.

Later when Nancy and I lived in LA Jeff was down there too and we met up once or twice. But Jeff did not call me in LA after he took his bottle of pills. I wish he had. They found him dead of an overdose thirty-four years ago. I still mourn that loss.

It was very hard to be bullied as a teen. I hated going to school. I hated being small and helpless. But I never tried to take my life. Because no one had taught me that a major core of my being was not a light.

My dear friends Scotty and Jeff, were taught otherwise. They were wonderful people and so full of light, but they could not see it. In many ways the culture hid their lights, even tried to put them out– and arguably succeeded. Both Jeff and Scotty could not see their own bright lights, they were hidden under the bushel of homophobia, because they were Gay they were told that to be that way was to have no light, to be that way was to be a dark AND sinful being going to hell. What nonsense! What a hateful-unGodliness. What harmful lies! God commands us to call no one profane or unclean. (Acts 10:28).

And Jesus puts absolutely no limits or exceptions on his statement in today’s text. He literally says “You are the light of the world.” He can be heard to be speaking to every single person – that means each one of us.

WE are the light of the world. You and me are all lights of the world Everyone needs to hear that. Teens need to hear that. Scotty and Jeff needed to hear that. Today’s Scottys and Jeffs need to hear that.

No matter where you have been, what you have done, what others may say, please take Jesus seriously: “YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.” And don’t be afraid to do as Jesus says and let your light shine!

Four years ago an online project began called the It Gets Better Project which shares videos and information with teens about a light at the end of the tunnel of teen bullying. It does get better, I can vouch for that, having not been harassed for being a perceived Gay since I was 20 (which I know does not look like it, but it was a long time ago).

The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.

What a beautiful ministry. You can google “youtube” and ‘It Gets Better” and find the videos with that message.

Over 50,000 videos have been reported on the Its Gets Better website. I got over 500 hundred thousand videos on a Youtube search last week.

The It Gets Better videos are submitted with stories of grown ups telling LGBT teens that life gets better after high school that the bullies and bullying become much less important in life later on. The videos have been viewed a combined tens of millions of times. Tens of millions of views. This topic matters. It matters. A lot.

The videos I’ve seen are inspirational and touching, very powerful examples of God working in the lives and words of others.

A very popular mainline song from a few years ago touches upon this issue. You have probably heard it on the radio. It is called “Firework” by Katy Perry.  Ms. Perry has a very powerful video of the song that makes the very point of this sermon, that echos the teaching of Jesus in today’s text that “You are the light of the world” and his command to “let your light shine.”

I have no idea if Katy Perry knows that she is paraphrasing Jesus, but her song and video bring the very kind of hope we can hear in Jesus words. We are lights! And we are suppose to shine the light that we are. That’s what Jesus can be heard to say in our lesson today. And he is saying it to everyone. “You are the light of the world! . . . Let your light shine! “ Katy Perry’s song does the same thing. She calls upon those who are feeling less than light– perhaps even dark– to “ignite the light, And let it shine.”

We are gong to watch the video in just a minute but I want to read some of the lyrics, they are so uplifting.

You just gotta ignite the light/And let it shine/Just own the night/Like the Fourth of July/’Cause baby you’re a firework/Come on show ‘em what your worth/Make ‘em go “Oh, oh, oh!”/As you shoot across the sky-y-y. 2

To every single one of you, not just LGBT teens, but all of you; LGBT, Straight, Disabled, Abused, Rich, Poor, Middle Class, Young, Old, Middle-age, Teen, Men, Women, Black, White, Red, Brown, Yellow, Conservatives, Moderate and Liberals, Theists, Agnostics and Atheists: hear –HEAR– what Jesus says: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD! . . . LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE!

So that I know we all heard what Jesus said give me a loud and a clear “AMEN!”

(Click here to watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGJuMBdaqIw )
ENDNOTES

* This sermon is based in large part on a sermon I first gave in 2011 and again in 2013.

1. From the It Gets Better Project website at: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/

2. Katy Perry Firework lyrics found on http://www.directlyrics.com/katy-perry-firework-lyrics.html. They are surely copyrighted.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED