by The Rev. Christopher D. Girata, Rector
In the past few months, I have been as proud of Calvary Church as I have ever been. Although there are so many reasons to be proud of what we are doing, such as our beautiful worship, our excellent formation offerings, and our community events, what has risen to the top for me has been our civic presence. We continue to take steps toward a public witness of faith, and that is critical to our calling as disciples of Jesus.
In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers perhaps the greatest of all teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. As I reflected on the public work that Calvary has been doing in the city, this passage, a portion of that sermon, jumped to my mind:
You are the light of the world... No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
I am sure most of us recall that passage in no small part because of the childhood song we all sang, “This little light of mine.” As children, we learned that we have a light inside us, the light of Christ, and we are called by God to let that light shine all around us so that others might see the love of God through us. It is a beautiful message, a true message, but unfortunately, we don’t see that light shine in our world often enough.
Perhaps put another way, we often shine a bit of light in the world in small acts. We talk about random acts of kindness, small moments when, because we know God loves us, we might surprise others with a little extra love. Those random acts can be beautiful moments, made holy because we intend them to be signs of God’s presence in the world. However, if we only do small acts, only share little flashes of the light inside us, can we really claim to be shining?
When Jesus said those words, he was holding two ideas in tension: the fulfillment of everything Israel was promised and a new way of living. That is a difficult path to walk. At once, Jesus was speaking to the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people, deeply rooted in their own tradition, while encouraging them to see God with fresh eyes and to live in the world in new ways that may not look like what they had been taught.
That challenge is as fresh today as it was 2,000 years ago. We are part of a church that is well established, a church that has a deep and profound tradition, and we love that tradition. Yet we are called every day to see with fresh eyes, to hope with renewed energy, to shine a new light into the world so that God may be known more and more. That tension is hard to hold in our modern world of constant stimulation. That tension is even more difficult to hold when we sense fear that we may not be doing the right thing or that the risks of holding the tension are too great. However, at Calvary, we have a renewed sense of courage and vision, and that has been on display in these past few months.
As the season of Lent drew to a close at the end of March, our signature gift to the city, the Lenten Preaching Series and Waffle Shop, closed another phenomenal season. Attendance was up across the board, especially at Waffle Shop where the year-over-year increase was just shy of 30% — talk about shining our light! Moreover, in the middle of all that, we hosted the first-ever Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast to celebrate and pray for our newly elected mayor, Jim Strickland. Joined by faith leaders from around the Memphis metropolitan area, the lunch was a poignant display of unity among faith leaders at a time when our city government was transitioning into new leadership. But the energy did not stop there.
On Palm Sunday, we held the first full Sunday morning ecumenical service in downtown Memphis, joined by many of our neighbor churches in the amphitheater of City Hall. This service, attended by more people than ever, was designed to take the bright lights that are typically contained in our sanctuaries out into the streets of the city, and shine we did. Joined by choirs of voices, handbells, and brass, along with the Wolf River Bagpipe and Drum Corps, passersby couldn’t help but see and hear us shining all over downtown. The witness we made to the hopefulness of a united Body of Christ in the world was palpable and inspirational.
We have made great strides in partnerships with groups from around the city. We are beginning to see the manifestation of a jobs program for our homeless neighbors, one that we are now calling Willing to Work. This program will be housed at the Hospitality HUB in partnership with Calvary and many other community agencies, including the city and county governments. Our relationship with the legal community continues to grow, as we hosted the Memphis Area Legal Services annual lunch and the Memphis Bar Association’s annual memorial service, as well as continuing to host Lives Worth Saving in partnership with the District Attorney’s office. And Grizzlies Prep, the charter school on our block, has had more events here in the past few months than they have since their founding.
Our leadership footprint in the city also has grown. It has been an honor to represent Calvary Episcopal Church in quite a few capacities over the past few weeks. Some of these include a leadership role in the April 4th Commemoration Service held at the National Civil Rights Museum where I joined the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Alvin O’Neal Jackson to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I served as the chaplain of the day for the Memphis City Council, as well as being elected one of the new board members of the United Way of the Mid-South. In each of these capacities, Calvary is seen and recognized as a leader in the city and as a witness to the hopefulness of Christ in a hurting world.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. We are Calvary, and when we bear witness to our Christian identity in the world, when we shine the light of Christ so that everyone can see, we are playing a vital role in the great story of God’s kingdom. God is at work, the Spirit moves around us every day, but God’s kingdom relies on each one of us. God’s love and grace are freely given to everyone, but it is up to us to return that love.
As we move into the season of Pentecost, I hope we can all find new inspiration in the story of the first disciples. They lived in a dangerous, unpredictable world that they could not control. They knew heartbreak and stress; they knew pain and fear. Yet they found hope in Jesus, just as we have. Moreover, when all seemed lost and fear might get the best of them, God’s Spirit ignited a fire in their souls that could not be extinguished! That fire compelled them out into the world to let their lights shine brighter than ever so that everyone knew that they were loved beyond anything they could ever hope or imagine.
We are as vital to God’s work as any disciples in history, and what a gift it is to be doing that work together at Calvary Church. The future is filled with hope, and the fire is being ignited here; now is the time to let our light shine!