I had the privilege of delivering the sermon this morning at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa. If you are reading this introduction via an RSS feed and are interested in the rest of the post, click through to read on.
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
(Full lectionary passages are included below the sermon text along with today’s Collect, which is also referred to in the sermon.)
Today’s lectionary includes passages that deal with light. Even the Epistle, though it doesn’t mention the word, includes an idea closely related to light. At least it did as I read it in a new light this week.
I started the week pondering light itself. What is light? I don’t mean the scientific definition, although that is also interesting. I mean beyond that. What does light mean to us? For us?
For me, it starts with something visceral. Light means safety. I’ve walked down dark streets that feel very different than they do on a clear, sunny afternoon. In the light, I can see what surrounds me. I don’t fear what may be lurking nearby, the potential for harm or accident. In the light, objects take their true shape and are clearly discerned. We don’t guess about shadowy figures and nightmarish hidden motives.
Light means warmth. Historically, light is produced by something burning. Our sun, a giant ball of flaming gas. A fire. A torch. A candle. We can escape the cold by drawing ourselves near to this sort of light—especially apt after a week like this one.
From the safety and warmth of light, we get the sense of comfort. Light comforts us in our fears, in our times of unknowing, in those times when we feel the coldness of being alone.
Light symbolizes knowledge. Truth. Light symbolizes acceptance. A refuge from the cold, dark realities that often confront us. A safe harbor from the storms of doubt, fear, pain, and ignorance.
It is in these cold, dark moments of our lives that light has its greatest impact, where it can perform its most transformative work, for it is in these moments when we see most clearly its stark and beautiful contrast against the backdrop of our plight.
I’ve had several of these moments in my life. I’m sure you have, too. These are the moments where, when we feel like we are standing in the deepest valley of our fears, stuck in a bog of despondency or terror, someone comes in and brings us hope. Sometimes it is in the form of an answer. Sometimes it is in the form of a rescue. Still other times it is just standing alongside us so we know we are not alone. I’ve even had a few moments where I felt something I can only call supernatural convincing me that an absurd hope exists where none may be seen, where no evidence gives reason to believe, where in the flash of a moment everything in my perspective and understanding changes.
These, all of these, are the moments that Isaiah talks about so poetically as he describes those who walked in darkness who have seen a great light and he then uses words like these to describe their response: joy, rejoice, exult. These are the moments that the Psalmist is singing about as the words of the song proclaim salvation, strength, beauty, and shelter.
Jesus, in the Gospel, is named as Isaiah’s light. As evidence, Matthew tells about Jesus giving the good news that the Kingdom of God is near and describes Jesus healing sickness and disease. Jesus’ message is “repent,” but that seems an easy thing to do when one who lives in what today’s service started out calling “the shrouded world” and “the borderlands” suddenly experiences this light. Who wouldn’t want to drop everything to follow that?
Maybe that is part of what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle. When you go through this kind of life-changing experience, so many things become less important to you. I wonder if he is making his appeal for unity based on the realization that Christ’s ability to transform us from our darkness is a process. A life-long process. One that is more analogous to a journey than to a doorway. We each begin our journey differently. Maybe some learned through one teacher. Others from someone else. But, ultimately we are all traveling toward the same destination. We are all in the process of experiencing the great light in different ways, each of us having ourselves and our world revealed to us in uniquely appropriate ways and at opportune moments.
For some, seeing the great light is the result of feeling loved and accepted, not just by a mysterious spirit somewhere “out there,” but by a loving community of people who are connected to one another by faith. For most of us, that sort of love, acceptance, and yes, forgiveness is a deep-seated need. A longing. Our hearts cry out, “Is there anyone who knows what I am going through? If they know, does anyone care? Will I still be accepted if people know? If they know who I really am?”
I am absolutely convinced God is capable of answering that supernaturally. But, I’m even more convinced that God usually chooses instead to answer that through people. Voices in our head tend to make us question our sanity. Someone coming up and giving us a warm, honest welcome does something more beautiful. Over time, God may choose to add a supernatural voice to confirm what human voices have first said, but that may not even be necessary if we have clear evidence in the unusual, wonderful lives and examples of the people around us.
I wonder if Paul’s point is that the power of the cross of Christ has nothing to do with specific people, with words, with decisions about what color carpet should be installed in the sanctuary. Maybe he is saying that the true power is in the way it enables us to set aside the undue importance we place on those things to work for a common good as a community. These types of communities still disagree, but they are not divided by those disagreements. These types of communities still honor leaders, but do not idolize anyone. These types of communities understand that every person is important and should be welcomed, loved, and valued.
These types of communities are not normal. In my opinion, they only exist where there is light.
These types of communities do not exist for the purpose of fighting against darkness. They exist for the purpose of spreading light.
I’ve really come to think that repentance has nothing to do with highlighting the evil in the world and warning people away from it. It isn’t even about self-training, self-discipline, or self-flagellation to remove impurities we find in ourselves.
Repentance is embracing light when we see it. It is running toward that light. It is being honest when the light exposes dark places in ourselves and being willing to face reality and ask for help.
Repentance is what happens when the beauty of the goodness of God outshines the grim reality of our worlds, both personal and corporate, outshines to the extent that our hearts long for the beauty and discover we no longer feel attached to anything else.
New Song is a beautiful community. It is a unique place in the world. We aren’t perfect, but we know that. However, this is a community that has seen and experienced light. In each of our lives, something has happened to make us want to embrace one another. For me, it started with the act of being embraced by you when I first walked in. Maybe your story is similar. I shouldn’t be surprised if we all agree that being welcomed was integral to our experience here.
I’ve attended a lot of churches. I’ve visited a lot more. The typical, but not universal experience is a warm greeting at the door, maybe a smile or two. As time goes by, though, I always find myself wondering if the people around me would still like me if they knew “who I really am.” Listening to what has been proclaimed in many of those pulpits has sometimes made my fears more pronounced.
If you knew my hopes, my fears, my dreams, and my struggles, what would that mean to our relationship? We all ask questions like that. We all have reasons to do so. All of us have experienced pain; we have been hurt by past relationships, hurt by family or friends, maybe even hurt by other communities of faith. The evidence of our experiences prepares us to expect disappointment.
We may even start to wonder in despair whether we will ever find anyone who will accept us as we are—and who will also be honest with us and themselves about who they are. We wonder if we will ever find anyone who is real.
What do you do when a group of people makes you feel wanted and welcome, even when they learn your secrets? Even the secrets that others have used as a reason for rejecting you? What do you do when you see these people’s warts and flaws, but realize that beneath them lie hearts that are filled with pure motives and kind intentions and a willingness to own up to imperfections with a desire to improve? What do you do when you see loving acceptance in action?
What would anyone do? It is so very rare.
Me? Like the sons of Zebedee, I drop everything and run to embrace it.
We exist to bring light into dark places. To be light in a world of shadows. It is not our job to subdue the darkness ourselves, but rather to carry the light. Light is more powerful than darkness.
Light brings freedom and joy where there is oppression.
Light brings safety where there is trouble.
Light brings unity where there is division.
Light brings purpose where there is tedium and toil.
Light brings healing where there is sickness and disease.
Light draws the attention of everyone who sees it.
May the dawning light of Christ give hope to the broken, the persecuted, the alien and the excluded, that we might feel the kingdom drawing near and turn to follow him. And, as we do, may we be the means by which others experience that same light.
God of all people you sent your Son into the shrouded world into the borderlands; may his dawning light give hope to the broken, the persecuted, the alien and the excluded, that we might feel the kingdom drawing near and turn to follow him; through Jesus Christ, the morning star. Amen.
(Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare)
(All scripture passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, copyright © National Council of Churches of Christ in America.)
The OT: Isaiah 9:1-4
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
The Psalm: Psalm 27:1, 5-13
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
One thing have I asked of the LORD;
one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days
of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
Even now he lifts up my head
above my enemies round about me.
Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation
with sounds of great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
Hearken to my voice, O LORD, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” *
Your face, LORD, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.
You have been my helper;
cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.