Christianity is not a spectator sport: Called to be salt and light

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Mt 5-13-16)
Homily by Deacon Matt Dulka, Our Lady of Grace, Castro Valley, 2/6/2011

I was born in Wisconsin, so I’m a cheesehead by birth. So as you might guess, this Superbowl Sunday is a big day for me and my family. The Superbowl is one of the largest spectator sports events around. I don’t know how many people will be gathered around TV sets watching the the game today.

By contrast, in the Gospel today, Jesus couldn't make it much clearer. Being a Christian is not a spectator’s sport. You can’t be a Christian and sit by on the sidelines and watch life go by. Jesus expects his followers to do what he did. Wherever life has lost its flavor or meaning, we are called to get in there and be salt. Wherever there is darkness, we are called to be light.

But how can we be salt? How are we to be light? And what happens when we do?

The first reading from Isaiah is helpful.  He speaks very concretely about what it means to be light and what happens when we do.  Let’s take a look again at what he said.

First he tells us how to be a light:
  • share your bread with the hungry,
  • shelter the oppressed and the homeless,
  • clothe the naked when you see them,
  • do not turn your back on your own,
  • remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech,
  • and again, bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted.
 Very specific, real life ways to be light. And, when we do that, what happens? Isaiah tells us that: 
  • our light shall break forth like the dawn, 
  • our wounds shall quickly be healed, 
  • we will be vindicated, meaning that our life’s will be justified, have meaning, 
  • that we will be able to call on God, and he will be present, and 
  • all the darkness and gloom in our lives will be gone, replaced by light
So there you have it. Do you want joy in your life? Do you want your life to have meaning and purpose? Do you want to be healed from past hurts?
All you have to do is be light or salt in the lives of others, especially the poor, the hungry, the afflicted and those who are lost in darkness or have given up hope. The way to experience God’s love is to give it away.
It almost sounds too easy to be true. But we know it happens. We’ve seen it on our lives.  These readings invite us to ponder how we are light and salt to others and how they are to us.   I’d like to share a personal story with you of how I experienced this.
After college in the Midwest, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to do a year of service. I wish I could say that my motivation was purely altruistic. Although I think I did have some desire to try to make the world a better place, to be honest, the winters in Minnesota are cold. It was a good way to get to California.
I was assigned to live in a community with other volunteers in West Oakland and was assigned to do detention ministry at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall, which is just over the hill from us. Coming from rural, northern Minnesota, it was an amazing, eye opening experience from me of living and working with some of the poorest people in our community.
My work at the Juvenile Hall was basically to visit the kids who were locked up there. There wasn’t much I could other than to listen to their stories, their fears and hopes and occasionally prayer with them. Although it was a great education for me and really enjoyed it, I wondered whether what I was doing was really having any impact. Being young and impatient, I left that ministry after a few years . Eventually I ended up getting married and then thinking that I needed to get what parents called “a real job.” So I went to law school and got a job with a law firm in the City.
Over time, I mostly forgot about my experiences at the Juvenile Hall. Then one day, several years later, I was with a client. We had been at his deposition at another law firm in the financial district and were walking back to my office. I’m not sure how it works now, but then, documents and legal papers that had to be hand delivered where done by bike messengers. They were mostly guys with lots of tattoos and piercing who were fearless in maneuvering their bikes in and out of traffic.
As we were walking back, a bike messenger jumped his bike up on the side walk and started heading straight towards up. Both the client and I stopped mid-sentence, wondering if we’re about to be hit or mugged. He skidded to a stop just in from of us.
He said to me, “I thought I recognized you down the street and had to come back. It’s me David. I used to be in the Juvenile Hall. Remember, you used to come and hang out with me when I was there.” It took me a moment but I started to recognize him. He said he just wanted to come over and let me know that he was doing great. That he had a job and an apartment and even a girl friend. That life was good. And then he was gone.
Later that evening, when I was in my office alone and thinking about the strange encounter on the street, it dawned on me. A light went off. I was flooded with memories of my time doing detention ministry. Although I was doing quite well as a lawyer, I had been wondering if that was what I should be doing with my life. And as I continued to think about my encounter with David, I realized how much more joy I felt doing that work than what I was practicing law. That led to a period of discernment that would eventually lead me away from the law firm to work for Maryknoll and to become a deacon.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, in some way I had been a light to David when he was in the Juvenile Hall. Many years later, by his taking the time to stop and talk, he became a light to me. He helped me realize what’s important and helped me find figure out how to better become the person God intended me to be.
I think that’s what Jesus and Isaiah are talking about. Going out there and being a light to others and in turn they become lights to us. We give what little we have and in return we are blessed with more than we realized possible.
I wanted to share my story with you because each of us has our own stories of how we have been light to others and how they have been light to us. I encourage you to spend time this week remembering your stories. And in remembering your stories to think about the stories that have yet to be written, the places and situations where we are needed to bring light and how in doing that others will bring light to us. And how when that happens, we illuminate the world and move closer into the ultimate light that is the Kingdom of God.