“Let Your Light Shine”

Scripture – Matthew 5:13-20

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, February 12, 2023


Otis Moss heard a noise in the night.[1] He was already having trouble sleeping. In those days, he often had trouble sleeping. His mind was constantly racing — always alert to threats of violence.

It was 2008. Otis Moss was new to his position as Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and one of his members — then Senator Barack Obama — was running for president. Certain media outlets had gotten a hold of sermons delivered by Moss’ predecessor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Trinity was thrust into the national spotlight. Before long, the church was receiving at least a hundred threats a week: We’re going to bomb your church, they’d say. We’re going to kill you. The violent messages lingered in Moss’ consciousness. Of course he was having trouble sleeping.

So, when Otis Moss heard that noise in the night, he grabbed his baseball bat and crept downstairs. He searched the floor, room by room. Nothing. He checked the windows and doors. All secure. And, then, he heard the noise again. It was coming from the direction of his daughter’s room. Otis raced upstairs, clutching the baseball bat, and pushed open her bedroom door.

“Daddy,” Makayla cried, “I’m dancing!”

Otis’ eyes strained to see in the dim light. Sure enough, his six-year-old daughter was twirling around the room, her pigtails spinning this way and that. This was the noise he had heard: his daughter dancing in the darkness.

“Go to bed, Makayla. It’s three in the morning.”

“Daddy, I’m dancing!”

Though relieved, Otis was still terrified, angry, exhausted. He was about to snap at his daughter with an irritated, “Go to bed,” when he heard another voice speaking: Listen to her, it said. Look at your daughter. And, so, he watched. Otis watched as his six-year-old joyfully spun around the room. Her movements were jubilant; her spirit was free from worry and fear. The darkness was all around her — literally, metaphorically. But, still, Makayla danced. By dancing in the dark, by doing one of the things she most loved, she was making her own light.


Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Today’s text from the Gospel of Matthew includes two familiar sayings of Jesus: You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world. These verses immediately follow the beatitudes with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are those who mourn … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … blessed are the merciful … blessed are the peacemakers … Together, these blessings set forth the ethics of God’s realm.

Jesus follows these eight beatitudes with another blessing of sorts … This one directed to his disciples. You are salt. You are light.

As familiar as these images are to us, their meaning for discipleship is not immediately obvious. What does it mean to be salt? Are we supposed to serve as a preservative? To keep meat from spoiling? Or, is our function to improve the taste? To draw out the flavor in other foods? I don’t think Jesus particularly cares about how the salt is used. The point is that it’s most often used to enhance something else. Salt is not an element useful to itself. Its value is found in its application to other things. Salt exists to change that with which it comes into contact.

The same is true for light. The mere presence of light transforms the darkness. It can’t do anything else … Unless, of course, we interfere. Unless we, say, hide it under a bushel so that no glimmer of its radiance escapes. If we put a lamp on the stand, where it belongs, the light will naturally illumine its surroundings, giving others the gift of sight.

Yes, salt and light are change agents. They do not exist for themselves. They exist to transform their surroundings. So it is with the faithful. You are salt. You are light. ’You do not exist for yourselves,’ Jesus tells his disciples. ‘Your purpose is to live a life that makes a difference for others. Your purpose is to transform the world.’[2]

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. With this blessing comes great responsibility … At this point in Jesus’ sermon, his audience may be wondering, “How? How on earth are we supposed to transform the world?”

One answer, it seems, lies in Hebrew Scripture. Because Jesus goes on to uphold the importance of God’s commandments. “Do not think I have come to do away with the law and the prophets,” he says. “I have not come to do away with them, but to fulfill them.”

Jesus is referencing the many commandments spelled out in Torah, what Christians know as the first five books of the Old Testament. While there are many specifics in these pages, the essence of the law is simple. Jesus summarizes it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

While the essence of the law is simple, the practice of the law is not. The Hebrew Scriptures bear witness to this reality. Whenever the people failed to love God with heart, soul and mind … whenever the people failed to love their neighbors as themselves, God would raise up prophets to beckon them back to holy ways. These keepers of the covenant would call for justice and righteousness with words like the ones we heard last Sunday from the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isaiah 58:6-7a).

This, it seems, is what it means to be salt and light … It means loving God with heart, soul and mind. It means loving neighbors fully by ensuring they have what they need to flourish. It means living a life so full of love that it transforms the world.

Yes, with this blessing comes great responsibility. And the idea that we can change the world can feel daunting. Not only because love demands so much, but because the darkness can seem so pervasive. Like it’s all around us. In devastating reports from Turkey and Syria of thousands of lives lost. In news of another black man killed at the hands of police. In a death toll from gun violence that already surpasses the yearly average of other developed countries … even though it’s only February. In private losses and personal tragedies that seldom make the news.

Given all that yearns for transformation, how could we possibly do enough? How could we possibly be enough?

For me, the good news lies in those first words of blessing: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. As familiar as these images are to us, the grace of these words is not immediately obvious. That’s due, in part, to the way we talk about these sayings of Jesus. We treat them as imperatives. As commandments. As goals to strive toward. When, in fact, they are promises. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Already. Right now. Not in some distant future. But, here, in the present.

‘This is who you are,’ Jesus assures us, ‘by virtue of being my disciples — You are salt. You are light. So let your light shine.’ Don’t cover it up. Don’t hide it under a bushel, but shine before others. Like a little girl dancing in the darkness.


As Otis Moss watched his six-year-old twirl across her room in the depths of night, something shifted. With the threats facing his family and his congregation, Moss had been so consumed by fear that he’d lost sight of hope. He writes, “I myself had been infected by darkness.”[3] But, then, he witnessed his daughter doing one of the things she most loved: dancing. He saw her unbridled joy. He saw her freedom. He saw her making her own light. And, in that moment, Otis Moss was reminded that — even in the darkest night — the light still shines.

The first thing Otis Moss did upon waking the next morning was to bear witness to the light. He stepped into the pulpit of Trinity Church and told his congregation about a little girl dancing in the depths of night. How, even as the darkness surrounded her, she twirled across her bedroom. She made her own light because she led with joy, she led with love. And, through her father’s witness, her light radiated outward — illuminating all that the congregation had lost sight of in the darkness: the goodness, the joy, the hope. Her light shone like a lamp on the stand, like a city on the hill, enlightening a community that had been living under the pall of fear.

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Imagine the light that would radiate outward if we all danced like Makayla Moss. (I don’t mean literally. We don’t need to wake at three o’clock in the morning to twirl about the room. Though, if that delights your spirit — go for it.) But what would happen if we led with joy, if we led with love? If we were completely unafraid to offer the fullness of who we are — freely, whole-heartedly, without inhibition or worry? What would happen if we let our light shine, so that — even in the most persistent darkness — others might witness the goodness of God? Would our dance transform the world?

I think it’s a question worth pondering any day. But especially on a day when we set apart leaders for service in Christ’s church. In a few minutes, we will commission trustees and ordain and install elders and deacons, all of whom have been chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to serve in particular ministries of the church. It’s a day to celebrate that the Spirit has given us gifts — to some, compassion and patience; to some, wisdom and discernment; to some, foresight and determination — gifts that we may use to further Christ’s mission in the world. It’s a day to celebrate the call God has placed on each of our lives. So, whether we are accepting the responsibilities of office, or offering our gifts within the wider ministries of the church, we are called to be salt and light. We are called to lives that make a difference for others.

So — however you are called to serve, however you are called to serve — let your light shine. Be unafraid to offer the fullness of who you are. Share your gifts freely, whole-heartedly, without inhibition or worry. And — like a little girl dancing in the darkness — lead with joy; lead with love. So that, in all that you do, your light may radiate outward and others may witness the goodness of God.



[1] The following illustration includes both paraphrase and direct quotes from: Otis Moss III with Gregory Lichtenberg, Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), 91-98.

[2] This discussion of salt and light draws upon commentaries on Matthew 5:13-20 by Eric Barreto, Melanie A. Howard, Karoline Lewis, Amy G. Oden, and Emerson Powery at www.workingpreacher.org.

[3] Moss, Dancing in the Darkness, 97.