As a teenager – growing up in the 1970s – I was on the tail-end of the generation that social scientists call the baby boomers. Less kindly, we sometimes get called the ‘me’ generation. Apparently the whole course of our lives has been dominated by the search for self. We don’t want to be part of the herd. We see ourselves as the rebellious generation, the generation that invented sex, loud music and left-wing politics. In an individualistic society, it’s we baby boomers who lead the way in the obsession to define ourselves as individuals. Certainly, I remember as a teenager being terribly concerned about ‘being me’ – and not being too sure how to go about it – but clear on the fact that the alternative was to be defined by who parents or authority figures told me I was, what institutions like school or church thought was best – to go along with the herd – in a world where authorities and institutions seemed to have been exposed as pretty hollow. I did teenage angst pretty well, as I recall.
Over the last four Sundays in the readings from the gospel, we have been hearing the story of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He first comes on the scene when he’s baptised by John the Baptist. Then when John is killed Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum where he chooses his disciples. Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s version of the beatitudes – Jesus’ opening statement that defines what the rest of his ministry is going to be about. This Sunday he begins to teach – to instruct us in the business of being disciples.
And what he says is music to a baby boomer’s ears - be what you are. Be true to who you are and what you are. If you’re salt, then don’t lose the flavour of salt. If you’re a lamp then don’t put a lid over the top of yourself so no one can see your light. Don’t be bland. Don’t be invisible. Add taste. Give light. Be who you are. If you want to be a disciple, you have to be yourself, you have to be authentic – that’s the crux of it.
But how? For the ‘me’ generation, being yourself mostly meant being self-centred – the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I did it my way’ pretty well sums up the attraction of living in a way where we chart our own course, refusing to get sucked into other people’s priorities and seeing through every attempt to make us conform. When it comes down to it, it’s a pretty lonely sort of vision of what life is about. But what does it mean for a would-be disciple – what’s the connection between living faithfully and living in a way that’s authentic to who you are? What does it mean for the church – does putting our light on a bushel stand just mean drawing attention to ourselves, or is there something more basic in it than that? How might we lose our flavour? Is that just a warning against being insipid, or is there something more basic in it?
The First Reading gives us a hint. The prophet tells God’s people that God has a complaint against them – God knows they’re not totally insincere – God knows their prayers and their fasting are real. Things aren’t going so well for God’s people, international politics and deals between the great powers are making life hard for the people of Israel. But God doesn’t seem to be listening. And the prophet says, God has a complaint against you. Your prayers and your fasting don’t mean anything because they are inconsistent with what’s on the inside. There’s a credibility gap between what you’re saying and what you’re doing. First, clear that up – if you’re God’s people you have to live like you mean it – live faithfully with one another, share your bread with the hungry. Give shelter to the homeless and protection to people who are being exploited. That’s how to be authentic, when what you’re doing agrees with what you’re saying and what you’re asking God for. Before we ever get to petition there has to be confession, and before we ever get to confession, there has to be honesty, and a basic acknowledgment of the realities and the contradictions of our situation. If as God’s people we think we have some complaints, if we think we’re drifting or we long for the good old days when the church was full and we were seen to be relevant, then, Isaiah says, the first thing to do is to look around to see where we ourselves can be agents of transformation and bringers of light to others. Are there people around us whose lives and whose circumstances stand as evidence that not everyone is welcome, that not everyone has the same opportunity, that not everyone gets a fair deal in our community? Isaiah says that whether or not we’re people of light depends on what we do out there, not on what we do in here.
Isaiah connects ‘being me’ with ‘being connected’ to the world we live in. That’s what Jesus does too. Look at the metaphors he uses – the saltiness of salt is only of value because it brings out the flavour of the food you put it on – you don’t eat salt by itself but you put it on food and it transforms the blandness of the food into an interesting flavour – so Jesus is not just telling us to be salty, but to be salt for the world – in other words to be a catalyst for transformation, about living in such a way that those around us are enabled to live transformed lives. Jesus doesn’t tell us to be people of light just because a light shining in the darkness is beautiful – Jesus doesn’t tell us to make sure our light is visible so that it can be seen, but so that other things can be seen for what they are – the whole idea of light is not that it can be seen but that it illuminates the world around it. Being who we are – being true to our own God-given identity, means being connected to the world we live in and it means living in a way that brings transformation and a way that brings light to those around us. Who we are and what we say about God has to match how we live. Sometimes we are not very good at that.
This is very different from the idea of individuality that we get from the culture we live in. Jesus says being me means being integrated with others – but too often in our world being me means refusing to acknowledge the deep connection between our own lives and the lives of others, assuming that we are free to chart our course any way we want – deep down I think this sort of individualism is based on fear that the world might turn out to be meaningless, on the need to convince ourselves that no matter what happens around us we at least are going to be OK because we are in control. There’s a spiritual version of this as well, and it results in us saying well, we can be faithful as Christians and we know where God is in our lives even though in the world around us things are going to pot and people are living lives that are empty and directionless – and our life together as a parish community can become a sort of safe haven – but Jesus is saying that’s not what being a disciple is about. If you want to be a disciple you can’t keep the light private and safe under a jar because the light is meant to light the way for other people – if you put the light in a jar it doesn’t show the way for anyone else, and it won’t shine for you either because it gets starved of air. The light of the spirit is only going to shine if we expose it to the fresh air and the new ideas of the world around us.
The fallacy of individualism is in the assumption that we create ourselves in any way we choose. But the scriptures assume the opposite. The scriptures assume that every human being is created with a unrepeatable, deep, interior shape. Being me means being who God created me to be. Becoming me means learning that the basic shape of human existence is the image of God, and learning to live in such a way that who I am matches what I do. Sometimes we have to relearn it.
Being the church means being a community of disciples, learning to live as a community of salt and of light. Learning that who we are is connected with what we are called to be and how we are called to live – as changed people we are called to be agents of change in the world we live in – as people whose lives have been illuminated we are called to illuminate the dark places of our world. And as we learn to bring who we are into focus with how we live - we may find ourselves become finally the people God always intended us to be.