A few years ago I heard a Bill Moyers interview with Bernice Johnson Reagen. A Georgia native, she was the director of a program in African American history at the Smithsonian and the leader of a favorite singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. She and Moyers spoke of church and the important role the church had played as a place of liberation and freedom for many slaves. Later, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Church continued in many places to play a vital role. In the interview, they spoke of music and its central role in the survival of slaves. Singing spirituals carried people through the hard work and helped them survive the abuse. They were songs which spoke of God’s love and a hope of heaven which would carry them beyond the drudgery of their days. One of the songs Moyers asked her about was the one that our children often sing, “This little light of mine”. It was sung during marches and was oft repeated in the days of the Civil Rights Movement. “Why not ‘This little light of ours?’ asked Moyers.” After all, wasn’t it part of a group effort, a community movement.? Aren’t we trying to get away from all this rugged individualism in America toward interdependence?” “Yes, replied Reagen. “But each one of us individually has to believe that our light, our lilfe is worth shining out, worth offering to the movement. We have to believe that we are worth it individually before we can come together to say, We are going to let OUR light shine.” She went on, and I paraphrase:
For a people who’ve been told they are worthless for too long, we need to stand tall, believing that this light of mine is worth shining. To claim my light is to proclaim that I , along with everybody else am made in the image of God. My contribution is valued because it is mine. And then it can be part of the whole.
We have come a long way in understanding all creation as “made in the image of God”, but knowing this in our heads and living it in our hearts is not the same thing.
I am reminded of a woman in our parish who had worked hard for the success of an event, spending late hours cooking and finally cleaning up as the event was over. I thanked her, ‘Great job!” I said. “Oh, it wasn’t much,” she said. “These hands are not good for much.” She went on, stretching her hands out to me. I of course tried to convince her otherwise, but not to much avail at that moment. Until she could claim her own light, see herself in God’s image, good for lots of things, then the light will be under a bushel. “This light of mine” will need to overcome a history which still lingers in such hymns as “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” ( remember that one?) The original version went like this: Two wonders I confess; the wonders of redeeming love and my own worthless ness. The 1982 Hymnal has changed to “my unworthiness”—not much better in my view. We may not in fact deserve God’s redeeming love, but we are not in any case worthless. If we were, why would God bother? Made in the image of God we are part of God’s Body. Great worth. Let your light shine.
Matthew in his continuation of the message of the blessings of the Beattitudes is not interested in our worthlessness but in our great worth to God. You are the light. Do good works, because that is what it is to be God’s creature. We are the light. Shine, do good works because that is what it is to be ourselves, authentically human, claiming the gift that God in Jesus and in ourselves.
That is not to say that such claiming is easy. One has only to look around the world and in our own country to realize the light is too easily extinguished by a world that does all it can to extinguish the light from within.
I think here particularly about women—trafficked in our own country and abroad. Apparently the Super Bowl this weekend will be a big moment for bringing women to Dallas either from across the border or elsewhere. Women as weapons of war, rape victims who then are outcast by society are common occurrences. The recent execution of a woman in Afghanistan for blasphemy, the rape of women in the Congo and the violence that is escalating against women in the tents in Haiti are but a few examples of how far we are from being able to live out the vision of the shining light.
One hopeful sign is the statement of the Anglican Primates, written from their recent meeting in Dublin. ( I am sure it is on a link for the Anglican Communion site) They have asked the Provinces to identify theological and practical resources for responding to gender based violence. And more important, they have committed their Provinces to raise the profile of Millennium Development Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
Such a word from the primates has been a long time coming and there has been much work in the background to bring it about. Nevertheless, these are steps in living out Matthew’s Gospel word and that of Bernice Johnson Reagen: This light of mine. Let it shine! Give thanks for small steps that will make it possible for light to overcome the darkness.