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Psalm 112, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
The annual Northampton Pride Parade and Festival actually begins an hour or two before the parade steps off. That beginning is marked not by great fanfare, but by no small amount of chaos, searching, excitement, and impatience. On the street that runs alongside the parking garage and the Northampton Brewery, pick-up trucks and floats start lining up. In the large public parking lot on the other side of the street, various groups who will be walking the parade route begin assembling.
It is a joyous occasion, as we run into folks we haven’t seen since last year’s parade, check to see that someone has brought the First Church banners, and otherwise get ourselves organized and in position with the other participating churches. Hugs are given and received. Depending on the weather—which could be anything on the first Saturday in May—there is some amount of wardrobe strategizing, accompanied by the sharing of layers, umbrellas, granola bars, and, all too rarely, sunscreen.
The Rev. Ellen Petersen is the unofficial wrangler of the UCC congregations, and one of her jobs is to collect and distribute various UCC signs for us to carry to let the thousands of folks lining the parade route know a little more about who we are and the extravagant and absolutely all-inclusive and all-affirming love of God. When I arrived at the so-called staging area last year, there was a variety of signs to choose from. But the one that caught my eye, and the one I ended up carrying the entire length of the parade was one I hadn’t seen before:
Against a black background and above a rainbow-colored UCC comma, were the words: “Be You [exclamation point].” Then, down in the bottom right-hand corner of the sign, was a long dash and the word “God.” As in, God says, “Be you!”
Perhaps you’ve seen a picture of me carrying that sign on the church’s Facebook page.
It was a great sign with a bold and life-giving message and, if I’m going to be completely honest with you, I must tell you that it gave me pause.
“Be You! —God?”
Was that really the message I wanted to send?
It’s not, of course, that I doubted for one second that God wants each and every person on earth to live into the fullness of their sacred, God-given sexuality and gender identity. I believe that with every fiber of my being.
What made me a little uncomfortable had nothing to do with God’s love—and everything to do with my own personal hang-ups, influenced by all kinds of things, not the least of them my fundamentalist upbringing and what may be an innate, if somewhat unconscious, human sense that we have to earn or otherwise be worthy of love and all good things.
Would my sign’s “Be You! —God” message let people off the hook? Would it imply that I thought that we’re all absolutely fine just the way we are—wounds and sins and projections and fears and unhealthy behaviors and all? Was that an appropriate message for a pastor to send? I was wearing a clerical collar, after all!
Now, I’m not going to pretend that my thoughts were anywhere near that clear or conscious in the handful of seconds that passed before I decided to take that sign. I only knew that something in me was resisting what might be interpreted as an overly simplistic and dangerously permissive expression of God’s radical love and amazing grace. The sign and my reaction to it reminded me that I sorely needed that love and grace.
I bring all this up because today’s Gospel lesson continues with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard the Beatitudes, in which Jesus tells the poor and the grieving and the humble and the merciful and the longing and the peacemakers and the persecuted that they are blessed and beloved of God. We noted that Jesus’ “blessed are” proclamations are not meant to be aspirational—Jesus is not saying, “Strive to be meek,” which would be kind of odd—but rather statements of fact. Statements of counterintuitive fact. The world says it is the rich and powerful who are blessed, but in God’s realm, the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus is bringing near, it is the poor and the lowly who are happy and whole.
Last week Jesus told us that we are blessed and beloved just as we are, and this week, in the very next breath, according to Matthew, Jesus tells us who and what we are, by the grace of God:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Once again, notice what Jesus is and is not saying: He does not tell us to try our best to bethe salt of the earth. He doesn’t say we should work hard to be the light of the world.
What he’s saying is quite plain and straightforward:
You are the light of the world, so shine with all your might. Light up the darkness with your life.
In other words: Be you.
Be who and what God has created you to be. God has blessed you, so live out that blessedness. God has made you her partner in healing and loving the world, so live out your God-given identity.
This way of living is not something we do to earn God’s love. It is how we live because God loves us. It is who we are as children of God. It is our God-given nature, our spiritual orientation.
To be anything other than salty will make for a bland, unsatisfying existence.
To be anything less than bright, to hide or block our Spirit-powered light, is to leave ourselves and others flailing in the dark.
To be anyone or anything other than who we are, who we were made to be, is to settle for less than the abundant life we’ve been given.
Be you! Jesus says. Be salty and bright, beloved and blessed. Let yourself be loved into wholeness and oneness. Be at home and at peace with God, and the world will be made better by your very presence in it.
“Be you!” is not permission to stay the way we are, but an invitation to open our hearts and our lives to all we are meant to be.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? What could be easier than being who we are?
A lot, as it turns out, and for a whole host of reasons.
Today, I want to mention just a few reasons why being our salty selves and letting our lights shine can be hard:
First, we often forget who we are. All kinds of labels—some of them not so great—are attached to us, relating to everything from our place of birth, race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, to economic class, political party, and health status. We are measured and identified according to our looks, our education, our gender identity, our income, our achievements, what we buy, and where we live.
Given all that, it’s easy to forget that we are children of God. That we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That we are blessed.
Second, we often base our identity more on what we do than who we are. This starts when we are young children, and adults ask us what we want to be when we grow up. The very question suggests that what we do is who we are. Then, when because of aging challenges or other health issues we can no longer do those things, we can feel lost and useless and unsure of who we are. Even something as supposedly joyful as retirement can cause existential angst if our identities are entirely wrapped up in our jobs.
The good news of Jesus is that we are so much more than what we do. The good news of Jesus is that both our worth and our effectiveness come from being who we are meant to be, at one with God and one another.
Finally, we sometimes get the idea from the church, of all places, that being faithful is about becoming a better person. I cringe every time I hear someone say that, as if following Jesus is a self-improvement project rather than a love story, as if becoming who we’re meant to be is all up to us.
The good news is that love heals us. The good news is that a church community creates a safe space where we can explore who we are and be supported in our journey of living into that sacred identity. The good news is that when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s powerful mercy and grace, over time we are transformed, made new and whole and more at peace. The good news is that when we receive more love and forgiveness and abundance and joy than we ever imagined, we can’t help but want to share it.
When we realize that we are the salt of the earth, we can’t help but spice things up. When we understand that we are the light of the world, we can’t help but brighten up every place we go.
Let your light shine, Jesus says, so that God will be glorified.
In other words: Be you!