Mother Teresa once visited a poor man in the slums of India whom nobody knew existed. The tiny room in which he was living was untidy and neglected. There was no light in the room. He hadn’t had a visitor for a very long time. She started to clean and, under a pile of rubbish, she found a beautiful oil lamp covered with dirt. She cleaned and polished it and asked him why he never lit the lamp? “Why should I light it,” he answered, “No one ever comes to see me.”
“Will you promise to light the lamp if one of my sisters comes to see you?” “Yes,” he replied, “If I hear a human voice, “I’ll light the lamp.” And so two of the nuns began to visit him on a regular basis. Things improved for the man and he grew out of his depression. One day he told the sisters, “I’ll be able to manage on my own now. But please tell that first sister who came to see me that the light she lit in my life is still burning.”
In the Hebrew Scripture we hear today, the Prophet Isaiah tells us that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; that those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them the light has shined. Then in Psalm 27 we prayed that “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Matthew’s text repeats Isaiah’s promise of light for those whose lives are clouded in darkness.
And in the same Gospel we find Jesus gathering more recruits for his mission which was mostly about bringing the light into the lives of a people oppressed by the Roman occupation of the time, the common folk whose lives were made difficult by their Jewish religious leaders, and the many poor, sick, desperate ones, many whom Jesus healed. Two thousand years later, there is still darkness in our world and sadness in the lives of a lot of people hungry for healing and light.
Typically, when we hear about Jesus’ call to his followers, it gets interpreted as the call to ordained ministry for, indeed, those of us brought up in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox tradition were taught that Apostles were first priests. For centuries, the only legitimate call to ministry in the Church was that of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Thank God, the Episcopal Church derailed that erroneous theology with the emphasis on the ministry of all the baptized. I’d expand that to include that call to all of God’s people to be lights in the darkness, just like that beautiful oil lamp Mother Teresa lit for the poor man in the slums of India.
One of my favorite authors is Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. She says “God help the church if clergy are the only Christians “with credentials.” She tells of the story of how she brought communion to an elderly woman at her home. “She sat heaped in her wheelchair,’ Barbara writes, “and so I turned the television tray between us into an altar. She was 97 years old and all but blind, so I suggested that we not bother with a Prayer Book. I’ll read all the lines,” I said’ “yours and mine. You just join in on the parts you know.” She nodded and they began, each of them delivering their lines until they came to the Great Thanksgiving.
Then when Barbara raised her hands, she raised hers too. They faced each other across the table, mirror images of one another. “Holy and gracious Father,” Barbara began, “in your infinite love you made us for yourself.” “In our infinite love,” the elderly lady said slowly, tasting each word. “In your mercy, you sent Jesus Christ…” “In your mercy,” she said smiling as though someone she knew had just entered the room. Barbara says, “when I realized she meant to say the whole prayer with me, I waited for her to catch up and we prayed it together, our voices looping through one another in an unstudied duet. No one had fooled her, all those years she sat watching someone else bless the bread and the wine. She knew she was a priest.”
Our baptisms are our ordinations, the moments that which we are set apart as God’s people to share of Christ’s ministry, whether or not we ever wear clerical collars around our necks and we are welcomed into the priesthood of Christ. In Mother Brown’s words, “God reaches out to us in countless ways through the material things of our lives: there are altars everywhere with sacraments just waiting to be discovered and celebrated.”
Denise Roy has found that in her life as a wife and mother, she can still strive to do what Jesus did. In her book My Monastery is a Minivan, she writes: “For two decades, I have broken bread, poured grape juice, preached, prayed, told stories, bestowed blessings, taken care of the sick, heard confessions. I have been a parent. These have been the sacraments of my daily life and, I suspect, of yours. These are simple sacred facts. These are how we mediate love, as we minister to our own little congregations—children, spouse, family, and friends.”
There are altars everywhere. Your altar maybe your garden, where sacraments of seed and bud contain the grace of God’s life-giving power; a painter’s altar maybe her easel, where she invokes the grace of God’s creative genius. A father’s altar maybe his lap, where sacraments of children exhibit the grace of God’s love. A doctor’s altar may be her examining room. A word processor’s altar maybe his laptop. A truck driver’s altar maybe the cab of his truck. Your altar may be your kitchen counter, where the sacrament of nourishment is prepared for family and friends As Barbara Brown Taylor posits: “The search for sacraments becomes a search for our connections to God and to one another, and there is no end to them.”
Jesus’ call to follow him and to be fishers of people transcends that moment on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when he called Peter, James, and John. He continues to call us, in the here and now in our own time and place and that invitation is extended to all.
So, like Mother Teresa, you and I go into the world each day and do our best to find the buried lamps of one another’s lives in order to light the light in their darkness. By the grace of God, may we keep it burning.