“Bushels and Lampstands” by Ken Burton

 February 9, 2014

The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

Today is the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in the liturgical calendar. Several years ago I had the opportunity to preach on Epiphany. At that time I suggested that Epiphany is about how the Holy One was made manifest in and through Jesus, and about how that same making manifest operates in our individual lives and in the life of our community. I quoted the promises of Isaiah 43: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” and “You shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.” I said that “Jesus, both in his earthly life and as the Risen Christ, is God made manifest” and that “[Epiphany] is about all the ways that we know the presence of the Holy One.”

Epiphany is about all the ways that we know the presence of the Holy One. In the weeks since that first Sunday in January, we have been exploring some of the ways that we do, indeed, know God’s presence. With the wise men, we followed the star. We were with them as they were “overwhelmed with joy” when it stopped over the place where the promised child was. We read about “the Spirit descending like a dove” at the time of Jesus baptism. We felt the surprise and amazement when we heard the first disciples’ immediate and total positive response to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”

Then came the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his challenge to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven comes near.” Finally, there was last Sunday, with the first section of the collection of Jesus’ teachings that we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” the “blesseds” or Beatitudes. Deborah reminded us that the key to understanding blessedness is right relationship with God. She concluded that what God needs from us “is to live in right relationship with everyone around us, to live in right relationship with God, and to have some humility about our ability to do so.”

Blessed, indeed! In today’s Gospel lection we find more epiphanic metaphors of light: the city build on a hill that cannot be hid, the lamp set up on a stand rather than stuck under a bushel basket, and the light that each of us carries within.

On the altar we actually do have a light on a lamp stand, our Christ Candle, which reminds us again of Christ’s post-Easter ongoing presence among us. The image of the light under a bushel , taken literally, looks something like this. [Remove candle from stand and place bucket over it.] The candle has not gone out. It is not extinguished but covered, making it possible to remove the bushel, to uncover the candle, and restore it to its rightful place on the lamp stand. [Do this] Taken literally, Jesus’ point is that it is absurd to go to the trouble of igniting the light, only to cover it up, to hide it under a bushel.

Amy Oden who teaches at the St. Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma, posting in a blog called “Working Preacher,” puts it this way:

The light is not extinguished. It is rendered ineffective. Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels. The only way for our light to be covered is if we put a bushel over it. We can hear the incredulous tone in Jesus voice, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel”. Ridiculous! Jesus is clear: we are not victims inevitably doomed to being distracted and drained by [our personal or collective bushels]. Bushels can only block out the light when we put them there.

Unfortunately, Amy continues, for some, our bushels become our very identity. Not only do we put the bushels over our light, we cling to them for dear life, unwilling to let them go. Jesus calls us out on this: no one who follows Jesus gives over energy, time, and power to the things that block the light.

For some, our bushels become our very identity. Not only do we put the bushels over our light, we cling to them for dear life, unwilling to let them go. So what is my bushel? I’m guessing that each of us could benefit by spending some time with this question, that certainly from time to time, and perhaps more often than that, all of us hide the light we have been given under some kind of a bushel.

The question again is what is my bushel? Where, or under what, have I hidden by light? Most of what I have to say is about this is about me, and the bushels under which I hide my light. I apologize if this seems to you to be too much about Ken, but my hope is that, as I speak, you will get some clues about where to look for your own “bushels.”

It has been more than four years since I have stood in this pulpit as a preacher. I have been fairly aggressive about hiding my preaching light. I belong to Celebration Circle, the mission group that is responsible for the preaching calendar, and within that group I have made recruiting preachers a personal priority. Just this week, some of you, who have preached in the past but not recently, got an email from me encouraging you to bring your preaching light out into the open and let it shine for us on a Sunday in the near future. Isn’t that a clever, if hypocritical, way for me to hide my own reluctance to preach? I knew that I wasn’t fooling the other members of Celebration Circle, but I wanted to believe that most of the rest of you were not aware of my bushel. Although today I am making a start on getting my light out in the open, it may be another four years before I try this again! But, please, on this one, do as I say, not as I do. Sign up to preach early and often!

The common confession in our liturgy for this Epiphany season has a special poignancy for me, and it points to another way in which I hide my light. Together we confess that

We discipline our words and actions to avoid violence, but inwardly we cherish our anger against others; we are a people of outward compliance and inward deception; forgive our inner violence, for we are broken and hurting.

This sounds so much like me. I carefully avoid speaking or acting in a way that is angry or hurtful to others or seems otherwise inappropriate, but within, the emotion churns. And I don’t even try to do anything about that, to work in some creative way with my feeling because, you know what, I like it there, I “cherish” it, as the confession says. There is a satisfying quality about feeling that anger, even as I pride myself on my ability to contain it. To be very clear, I am not speaking of anger about injustice or needless suffering or public corruption or about any of the other evils in our world. No, this is about a much more personal kind of pique. This is about anger over a hurtful remark, or being cut-off in traffic, or finding that the last frequent flyer seat on my flight has been taken.

This is the kind of anger that none of us are proud of, and that I, for one, would prefer not to even admit that it is within me. So I discipline my words and actions to avoid showing these feelings, while at the same time taking a kind of pleasure in holding on to them.

The confession continues “forgive our inner violence, for we are broken and hurting.” So here we come to the heart of the matter: this carefully contained anger points deeper, to some pain, some injury which probably has nothing to do with the circumstances which evoked the anger but which nevertheless control us. The challenge here is to not go through life just doing a good job of managing these difficult emotions, and thereby keeping the energy, the light, that they contain under a bushel, but to engage in the far more challenging task of exploring the broken and hurting parts of ourselves from which these feelings come. This is hard, demanding work, and I may never really get it done, but facing into it is the only way for me to lift this bushel off my light and put it back on its lamp stand.

I grew up in a home where feelings of anger or hurt found little outward expression, at least not around me. I was taught to be nice, very nice, regardless of the circumstances in which I found myself.

Now as an adult, I clearly understand that there are situations in which “nice” is appropriate, and others where a firmer, stronger response is called for. Yes, I definitely understand that, but too often my niceness prevails, when I really need to respond differently. I discipline my words and actions to avoid offending or hurting anyone’s feelings, and thus muzzle any authentic response. I put the light of my authentic feelings under that bushel of niceness.

Then there are the stories. I hesitate to start on this piece and would not do so if I did not have my text in front of me to set some limits.

You see my father was a most unusual person, and I could go on at great length with tales about him. Years after his death, I learned that he had a secret life as a gay man and that he lied throughout his adult life not only to protect his sexual orientation, but about matters totally unrelated to staying in the closet. He told so many lies that he came to sincerely believe that were, in fact, the truth.

This greatly enhanced his credibility. He misrepresented the year in which he was born, his service during World War II, his professional credentials, and some aspects of his work as a clergy person.

Saying no more in this setting about any of these is one of the limits I mentioned a moment ago, but I’m sure you can imagine that there are some intriguing stories connected with each of my father’s prevarications. These are good stories. I enjoy telling them, and my audiences like to hear them. And that is precisely the problem.

These stories are about a man who has been dead for forty-two years. Most of them took place at least half a century ago. Yes, they are about my father, but they are all very much rooted in the past, yet they continue to live on as part of my present, waiting to be told again and again ,whenever I get the chance. So which part of “bushel” is it that I don’t understand? It is not that I need to forget about my father or the unusual aspects of his life, of which there were many. What I do need to do is to get myself, my light, out from under the bushel of my father’s twisted legacy, to put it where it belongs, on the lamp stand that is my own identity.

Whether or not you personally can identify with any of the “bushels” that I have mentioned, you would be a rare Christian indeed if that light of yours were always visible on its lamp stand. We all have our bushels, and each of us is the light of the world. Let your light and mine so shine that all may see our good works and give glory to the Holy One. Amen.

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