Sermon, Jan. 26, 2020 Thirds Sunday after Epiphany
Ps 27: 1, 5-13, Is 9: 1-4, I Cor 1: 10-18, Matt 4: 12-23
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.
Powerful words–words of hope and faith and truth. These words, spoken by the prophet Isaiah and proclaimed again by Jesus, were issued in the midst of societies riddled with corruption and violence, immoral politics and oppression of all but the richest. Isaiah’s words come to us when the Assyrians and warring nations were oppressing, conquering and forcing the Hebrews into long, bitter exile. Isaiah stood before them, “We have seen a great light. We have walked in darkness, but we have seen a great light.”
Jesus, born into a time of similar but perhaps more insidious Roman oppression, BEGINS HIS MINISTRY with the same words–hearkening back to Isaiah, again proclaiming the presence of a GREAT LIGHT. “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.” Then and only then he began his ministry, gather his apostles and begin preaching and teaching.
We, too have seen a great light. Sometimes, many days, we feel we are in great darkness now–we are experiencing great political upheaval and terrific violence. The climate and environmental issues feel disastrous. Many of our fellow beings feel the weight of oppression. The possibility of severe global crises in health, economics, and freedom teeter on the brink of realty.
We feel the darkness.
We cannot read Isaiah without noting the relevance to our own times. Perhaps as we experience our own great darkness, whether related to national and global politics, or a sense of impending climate disaster, or large scale epidemics, we sense the weight of oppression. Jesus comes and uses Isaiah to tell us that the oppressed are indeed his focus. Whether speaking of the Assyrian oppression for Isaiah, the Roman oppression in the time of Jesus, or the oppression of immoral and illegal tyrants in our time, we can see and hear hidden and explicit purposes of God at work, down through history to this very moment.
In the darkness of exile and exploitation, Isaiah shows us God’s light, a light that illumines God’s character. We know a God who calls to accountability not only God’s own people but all nations. God’s judgment exposes the machinations and intentions of empires. It is aimed at salvation in the here and now, breaking the yokes of burden and oppression. Oppression, as Isaiah proclaims, does not have the last word. Those who live in the land of the deep darkness of political social, or religious oppression in any age are not living outside the sight of God. They will see God’s light, and upon them it will shine.
It will beckon to them to follow–out into the light, away from the sadness. Jesus’ purpose, echoing from Isaiah, is to turn the humiliation of the vulnerable into liberation and exultation–and that purpose will not be thwarted, even by God’s own people. Jesus calls us to follow him, to come and see, as he said last week, to become fishers of men, to bring others into the huge irresistible light.
We certainly know our own personal darkness. I am grieving this morning. My sweet friend Corey, only 36 years old, has battled leukemia for several years. This strong, healthy, athletically inclined young woman lives in Utah with her husband TJ. The leukemia that was diagnosed a few years ago was brought into remission by some of the best doctors there are. She and TJ went about their young lives–and brought forth a son. In November. But in October, the doctors told her that the cancerous cells were back, with a vengeance. As soon as Sam was born, she was subjected to as many treatments as her body could take, trying to prepare her for a bone marrow transplant. The news isn’t good. The cancer is spreading. There are a few more treatments to try, some of which will require isolation, travel, time away from her baby. And no one is very hopeful. Corey’s darkness, her family’s darkness, all who know her feel this invading darkness. And yet. And yet, Corey is not living outside the light of God; she and Sam and TJ are being held in God’s sight, in God’s love. Sam smiles at his mama, brings joy in the way that only a baby can, provides focus on something besides illness. The light shines brightly, as Sam begins his own life. The Great Light is present and shines to destroy the darkness.
I sat at my window Friday afternoon, kind of lost in an unusual funk, thinking of Corey and feeling the grey skies hover around. I had been messing with this sermon like a dog messes with a bone, writing, ripping, fussing, feeling inadequate. Just in case you are wondering, those are universal symptoms of sermon writing. For me, and for others that I know, the inadequacies always happen just before we give up and let the Spirit write what she will. Anyway, I was sitting at my west-facing window about 4:30. Suddenly the sun shone through the clouds–not just a peek, but with the full force of a sun too long hidden. I was taken by such surprise that I sat up really straight, which caused the sun to temporarily blind me! I couldn’t see a thing because of this great white light! Mike noticed it too, and we both got right up and went outside. There we spent a happy hour digging around in the mud, planting bulbs and seeds for the promise of Spring and Summer. What a happy, fun time. The dog, sensing our renewed energy, raced around the back yard in a puppy power run, joyously flying his big flag of a tail at our presence in his favorite place. That light, that marvelous burst of sun was energizing and called us to get out and move. That little space in time felt like a beginning for us, a time to plant and plan and prepare for the seasons to come.
“In our Christian life we are always beginning something, and such beginnings may be comforting because they come with regularity and bring a sense of familiarity.” [Advent then Christmas, Christmas then Epiphany, this brief season after Epiphany, then Lent and Easter] However, outside the familiar rhythms of the liturgical calendar, beginnings often bring as much challenge as they bring hope. Jesus began his ministry with hope and with challenge–and a call to ministry in the here and now. He is calling the new disciples and us to follow him. But not in an empty context. He begins first by referencing Isaiah and the great light.
In this church, we know a bit about darkness and light. We know, too, about hope, about challenge, about call to ministry. We know about endings and beginnings. As we step out into this new beginning, this time of identifying who we are, and listening to God’s call about who might join us on our next beginning, let us not forget that we have seen a GREAT LIGHT. Our presiding bishop reminds us again and again. We are already identified. We are Jesus people We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. Jesus has shown us the Great Light, has been and is that Great Light for us, and has given us the Great Light to share with others. We are the light out of the darkness for so many. We are the ones to break the bonds of oppression, to save the world, to create a safe space for all people. We are as powerful as the words we speak and as the light we bring. We must not muddle around too much in our wishful thinking or in our own sense of darkness. The light is always there for us, with us, in us.
In my column this week, (In the tune up–it’s called the Deacon’s Dialogue, in case you haven’t read it), in my column, I used the words Christian discipline. Have you noticed how close the word discipline is to disciple? Contrary to popular thought, discipline doesn’t mean punishment–or at least it shouldn’t. According to Webster, one meaning is orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior. It also means a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity. I’m not telling you anything new. In my mind, there is a way we do our Christian life. There is a discipline to it, parameters and guides that lead us into being a disciple. Of course we know about prayer and worship, study and piety and morality. Beyond that, though, we are lead by Jesus (remember, he said “follow me.”) to bring light into the world. It is our discipline. With that in mind, I have two “deacony” kinds of challenges for you in this time of transition.
The first is this, a wise, wise mentor of mine encouraged each one of his parish to have one ministry inside the church and one outside. As I look around, I think most of you are absolutely already there, but I don’t know for sure. So I’m going to encourage you to do even one more. Find one more place to shine the light. The darkness feels too real for some among us–shine your light there–be present, make a difference, give of your time and hope and light. If you need ideas, talk to me.
The second is this. You know by now, and will hear more, that this sweet church of ours is experiencing, ahem, budget difficulties. It happens in all families–well most, and in all churches–well most. But this is an awkward time for us to struggle financially. We will be on display this next year to priests discerning their call to us. A financially strapped church is about as attractive as a house with a leaky roof and a cracked foundation. I’m pretty new among you to be talking about such a touchy issue, but I really do believe that we can do better. I promise that I will increase my pledge. I honestly think we all better let that light shine into the great darkness of our wallets and see how we can pull together to ensure sound finances both now and in the future. If we think about it, we function better, do more things for our community, invest more in the future of our children and our planet, if our church is stable. We come here, to this most beautiful place of worship to be renewed and strengthened, to praise our God, to be in fellowship and love with each other. That is harder when the church is overly limited by financial woes. I encourage you to dig deeper to support your church.
Let us remember as we go forth this week–as if we needed to be reminded–there is darkness aplenty out there. But we have seen a great light. We know this light and we carry this light. Listen to the words Fr Dorsch will say before the Eucharist begins and carry them in your heart, as you leave this place and go out into the world. AMEN.