What Paul Revere, Motel 6, and Harriet Tubman Have in Common

Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
9 February 2020 + Epiphany 5 / Lectionary 5A
Matthew 5.13-20
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching


“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of ___ [Paul Revere].”

So begins Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem depicting the night that ignited the American Revolution. With Boston under British occupation, threatening to squash any hint of a rebellion, Revere and others devised a plan to take the British army by surprise. Their secret signal, as Longfellow writes: “one if by land, and two if by sea” – referring of course to the number of lanterns to be placed in the steeple of Old North Church. Lanterns shining in the night as a signal, lighting the way for revolution.

It also reminds of the old advertising slogan for Motel 6: “We’ll leave the light on for you.” A sign of hospitality and safety and welcome for road-weary travelers. Meanwhile at home, we might leave the porch light on for company coming over at night or the pizza delivery driver trying to find our house in the dark. Or when young kids are scared in their rooms, we leave nightlights on to disrupt the pitch black and keep the stuff of nightmares at bay.

We know that light is powerful. It’s a powerful image, particularly in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. Jesus comes as the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, a light that reveals God’s glory and promise to all people. In our gospel today, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount and tells the crowds, “You are the light of the world.”

Let your light shine before others… words we use in our baptismal liturgy. Claimed as God’s own children, we are called to be light to the world, as together we bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world.

So what does light do? Light shines. Light illuminates something else. It reveals something and makes it known. Think about the first time you realized the moon doesn’t actually give off its own light. Mindblowing, right? It’s basically just a giant rock. Without the sun to illuminate it, we wouldn’t really know it’s there.

Light doesn’t exist as an end to itself, but in order to reveal something else. Like a lantern signal in a church steeple or a nightlight in a darkened room, it lights the way. The sun illumines the moon. A lamp on a lampstand gives light to all in the house. In the same way, our light doesn’t shine for its own sake. But it shines so that the world might see our good works – our serving and our working for justice – not to pat ourselves on the back and show off, but to witness to God’s love for all people and all creation.

But how? It’s easy to become absorbed in the business of being church: budgets, reports, annual meetings, worship attendance, property maintenance. All important things, to be sure. But Jesus never said, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your pristine annual report, perfectly balanced budget, and increasing membership roster.” Sometimes it feels a lot like the business of being church acts like a bushel basket, obscuring or even extinguishing the light.

We worry that we won’t have enough or that we’re not doing enough. Or individually, we worry that we’re not good enough or that we don’t have anything to offer. Sometimes, in an effort to preserve what we have, we worry about that dreaded word change and try to keep things exactly as they’ve always been for as long as they possibly can be.

Sometimes, dear church, it feels like we become the bushel basket.

But here’s the promise and good news of Jesus: “You are the light of the world.” That’s not a command or wishful thinking. It’s a statement of fact, of what already is true. We are the light of the world. It’s part of who we are now as children of God, called and sent by God. We already have everything we need. We are enough. We are good enough. We do have something to offer.

To quote the poet Wendell Berry, “What we need is here.” Here: in water, in bread and cup, in being together. Here is where we are fed. Here is where Christ, the light of the world, makes us God’s own holy people, light for the world to see. Here Christ is our light and gives light to all. As we sing and pray: Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Shine in your church gathered today.

Longfellow actually wrote his poem about Paul Revere eighty years after the events he describes – when the country was on the brink of Civil War. Revere’s lanterns lit the way toward revolution, but Longfellow, an ardent abolitionist, would have been acquainted with the lanterns of the Underground Railroad, shining brightly in the windows of safehouses, lighting the way toward freedom. In one scene from the recent film Harriet, depicting the life of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, she confronts her fellow abolitionist William Still. Where Still is reluctant to let her go back to the South out of concern for her safety, Harriet is defiant. Eventually Still relents, and Harriet’s lights the way to freedom for over 300 slaves.

Sometimes, letting our light shine just means getting out of the way and trusting the light do its thing.

We let our light shine when we celebrate the ministries of Unity now. We let our light shine when we let God’s love shine through us, instead of letting worry or fear hold us back. Let your light shine, and let it shine brightly and boldly!

This annual meeting weekend, we celebrate where we have been and imagine where the Spirit is calling us into the future. Maybe we can take our cue from Motel 6: Who are we leaving the light on for? For our community, for our neighbors, for our partners, for the world, for generations to come.

To paraphrase an original song from Harriet, when we do what we can, when we can, while we can, we let our light shine – lighting the way towards the transformation of the world, now and into the future.

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