For our February 3rd St. Phoebe Prayer Service, Felicia Johnson O’Brien preached on Matthew 5:13-16. During this celebration we were led joyfully and reverently by the South Bend Discerning Deacons circle – who issued a simple invitation to all of us, to turn to our own neighbors and the diaconal women we know, and come together in times of shared prayer & fellowship. One of my favorite moments was hearing the young voice of one participant’s daughter as she joined in while we prayed a decade of the rosary, sitting attentively on her mother’s lap as we together contemplated Jesus’ presentation in the temple. We offer you Felicia’s preaching below. And continue to scroll down to watch clips from the prayer service, including Felicia’s preaching and Karen Schneider-Kirner’s introduction to “God of the Women” -Casey
Matthew’s gospel for this Sunday is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew tells the story of Jesus on the hill instructing his disciples on the beatitudes, a radical message that contradicts all of society’s norms about who we consider blessed. And then comes this short, inspiring and daunting message about salt and light. As disciples of Jesus, these two passages together seem seminal to our understanding of who we are as those followers.
Jesus turns to the disciples, us, and says – You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world! These words are spoken with great love and also with a warning.
Love and warning.
I hear Jesus speaking to us as God who is parent to us all, reminding us not to forget who we are at our core as God’s children.
I think of an interaction I had with my daughter this week. She’s 16 and raced out the front door to drive to school without a jacket. It’s 10 degrees outside. I found myself yelling, “Lucy! It’s freezing outside! What if you hit a patch of ice and slide off into a ditch and no one sees you? You’ll freeze and die from the cold!” I don’t know if you ever resort to drama or exaggeration, but I resort to this tactic when I’m worried about my kids.
Jesus does a similar thing when he threatens the disciples saying, “If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot!” He’s telling us – don’t forget who you are! You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? Be careful not to dilute who you are. No one can take your place. In fact, salt cannot be destroyed unless chemically altered, so there is hope for us even when we do lose ourselves, we cannot be destroyed. How do we keep our “chispa,” como dicen en español, alive?
Only we can preserve our saltiness, our flavor, our vim, our chispa. But we also need each other.
Jesus tells us: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. If I made you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you?
Such hopeful words but they also feel like a lot of pressure and a sense of vulnerability implying that we’re exposed, naked, for all the world to see. I’ll be honest, there are many days when I don’t feel so bright and hiding under a bushel feels just fine.
But let’s consider light in the context of darkness as the foundation of all of creation. God creates light from the darkness. Salt of the earth. Nature, life, emerges from the dark dirt of the ground. We are born from the darkness of the womb. The birth of all life comes from this darkness. Light is part of the darkness, intimately connected to the nature of our being, our very existence. One without the other is not possible. We are called forth into life, called into light. God is the source of our light and life. Jesus is not asking us to be shiny or fancy, but rather to live into the fullness of our being, to serve as a sign of God’s loving presence in the world.
Like stars waiting to be illuminated by the dark night sky, the light is always there. This is where I see its emergence:
- Discerning Deacons is a city on a hill for me. Learning about this movement, my heart filled with joy. The Holy Spirit is alive in this community of women in South Bend and around the world, and I am humbled to be a part of this group. Its work and advocacy reveals the light of women in our church, removing the bushel basket, and speaking the truth about women’s call to ministry.
- And Pope Francis recently calling for a commitment to decriminalize all of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters – he is revealing their light and a need for systemic change!
- During COVID, I was privileged to be part of a zoom church where lay and religious people reflected on the gospel each week. The gifts of our community were in full display, and it was an energizing and unifying experience for us. The reflections of lay people profoundly moved us as a community. Similarly, I never fully appreciated the wisdom and humor of our Holy Cross sisters who we prayed with at Mass for years until they started preaching during our zoom liturgies. What a gift to share in the light of our community together!
- There are endless areas where our calling to be light to the world is needed – bringing to light police violence in our communities, being present to the people of Pakistan, Ukraine, Peru, and along our border — the list is endless where our collective light can work together to bring God’s peace, love, and justice into this world. Jesus’ message is urgent.
I’d like to share an image with you that I created in art therapy after our baby daughter died. In that process of grieving, light was born out of a deep darkness. It was personal. But it was also communal. Our daughter became a light to others as well — letting them know that deep in darkness there is light and hope. God our Creator holds all of us together.
And God said: If I made you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light-stand — SHINE and Be generous with your lives!
Felicia Johnson O’Brien works at the University of Notre Dame facilitating justice education programs. She graduated from Notre Dame in 1995, spent a few years volunteering in rural Honduras, and then received her MSW from Catholic University.