From Darkness to Light . . . and Beyond
A Sermon in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
I am grateful to all of you, the good people of Grace United Church of Christ, for welcoming me so hospitably today. Pastor Doug was right: Grace is a gracious, grace-filled faith community. Thank you for allowing a birthright Episcopalian into your pulpit! You may know that, on Sundays, our worship in the Episcopal Church almost always includes Holy Communion. This means that sermons tend to be on the shorter side, compared to other churches. My birthright Baptist wife might remind me that, in Protestant churches, the sermon IS the Eucharist. She does often remind me that it was John the BAPTIST, for goodness sake, not John the Episcopalian.
You will forgive me, then, if I offer you a wee bit more to chew on this morning that I might normally give our friends on Church Street. At All Saints', as with most Episcopal churches, we usually hear all the Sunday lessons. Today, that would include four verses from Isaiah, also appointed for Christmas Eve. It appears that, if you didn't get enough of that passage then, they'll just serve it up again! And this is one of those relatively rare Sundays when a verse from the Old Testament lesson is quoted in the Gospel reading. Since I plan to preach on that repeated verse, one we would have heard twice at All Saints' had we been there today, one we've heard once today, I'll read it again now. From Isaiah's prophecy: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (9:2).
As I recall, the winter of 1990-1991 was not the hardest in my life. But it was my first of seven winters in western Pennsylvania. Most of those winters were in Erie, where a local joke is, "There are only two seasons in Erie: winter and road-repair." I could talk about white-outs and blizzards. But here's a story about my first Pennsylvania winter, in Pittsburgh. On a December day, I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic in the Liberty Tunnel, trying to get downtown.
Pittsburgh, a city with three rivers and a popular football team, was, for me, an unexpectedly beautiful place. In her memoir entitled An American Childhood, Annie Dillard wrote of her beloved hometown as be-jeweled houses tucked into the hills and mountains, all lit up at night. But in morning rush hour, the December scenery, as it is here in Catoctin Mountain territory, was awash that day in winter shades of gray. That morning, as the snow began to fall yet again, I was in my car, late to an appointment, inching my way through that long, dark tunnel, not sure if I would ever see the proverbial light at the end.
And so, I did what I often do to lift my spirits. I decided to play some music and got ready to hear one of the world's favorites: Handel's "Messiah." In the parish I served, we were getting ready to perform our own Messiah. Ah, yes, I thought, this will help me make an attitude adjustment. Great music has a way of doing that for me. It helps me put things in perspective. So I smiled, settled in to a long wait and began to hear these words, in this kind of rhythm:
"The / pe-eo-ple that / wa-al-ked, in / da-ah-ah-ah-ah-ark-ness, that / wa-al-ked in / da-ah-ah-ah-arkkkkk-ness; // the / pe-eo-ple that / wal-ked, that / wal-ked in / dark-ness . . . " You get the idea. Especially if you've heard this aria, sung ever-so-slowly by a basso profundo. I don't know about you, but when I hear a piece of evocative music, I often associate that music, whenever I hear it again, with an experience, something that happened in a moment or a season of my life. "Messiah" evokes other images for me. In that moment that excruciatingly, elongated time that felt like a mini-season, that creeping, crawling, dreary December tunnel traffic a musical cars image was created. It still floods my mind, especially when I hear the words "the people who walked in darkness . . . "
What does it mean to be "in the dark"? What is darkness like? And what is it like to be a people who, together, are walking (or driving) in darkness? Walking in darkness. Is that what life is like for you, for me, for us, today?
This week, after watching an excerpt from a PBS special called "Are We Safe?", the notion of being "in the dark" makes me think of what has happened since September 11, that terrible moment in time that launched what Colin Powell first dubbed the "terror-industrial complex." Does anyone know what "homeland security" really is? Or "safety"? Perhaps for you, "walking in darkness" makes you think of the end of the Eisenhower days, when the Civil Rights struggle began. For many Americans in the 60s, the phrase "I AM a man," emblazoned on placards, carried by hundreds of non-violent African-American men, walking shoulder to shoulder it just did not make sense. Of course they were men! Back then, we did not "get it" about race in America, because we were "in the dark" about our own racism. In 1966 I chose to attend a college in New England, so that I could get away from all those racists in Tennessee! Only the divine choreographer could arrange for my dance card to include moving back to Memphis, thirty-five years later, and help me fall in love with a Southern woman, so I could begin to see my own racist darkness. By the grace of God, we still, we always have a chance to see how dark it was and how dark it still can be, for people of color in this country and for people from other countries, despite our President looking more like "them" than like most of "us."
Twenty-seven centuries ago, "walking in darkness" for the children of Israel foreshadowed our own civil rights struggle. Back then a civil war created a relatively rapid succession of assassinations of kings, which greatly weakened the kingdom of Israel, as well as Judah and Assyria. Oppressive military occupation led to division, displacement and death. We can be certain it was as deep a state of darkness as some people and countries face in our own day. The verse that follows today's lectionary passage from Isaiah, a verse included on Christmas Eve but omitted in the appointed lesson, says, "For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire" (9:5). That's uncomfortably familiar . . . and definitely about darkness.
But what's the next part of that familiar phrase from the prophecy of Isaiah? "The people who walked in darkness . . . have / se-en a great / light (key change!). Hallelujah! There is light at the end of the tunnel! I can still close my eyes, and see in my mind's eye, the light that emerged for me, that day and each and every day I drove through the Pittsburgh Liberty Tunnel. What's it like for you to "see the light"? Is there light at the end of your tunnel? What would it look like for us, a people of God, a body of Christ, a community of Christians that seeks and prays for unity, what would it be like for us to walk, no longer in darkness, but in the gracious Light of Christ, all the days of our lives?
Two years ago Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated the first African- American President of the United States. Was that a moment of light? Twenty-seven centuries ago Isaiah was not afraid to sing a song of liberation. Was that a moment of light? What about the moments of light in the time of Jesus?
Just before our gospel account today, Jesus experienced his own inauguration and initiation. Baptism in the river Jordan with the heavens opening, followed by forty days and forty nights of deep, desert darkness. Matthew records the next part of the Gospel story: the launching of Jesus' public ministry, just as John the Baptist's ministry comes to a sad, sorry end. Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum, fulfilling, Matthew tells us, the prophecy of Isaiah. He repeats the words that, by now, we may not be able to get out of our heads: "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light . . . "
But wait a minute. "The people who SAT in darkness . . . ???" Weren't they walking? Why did Matthew change this? Maybe that darkness sat them down. Or maybe people were afraid of the light. Or maybe, in Matthew's mind, maybe the disciples, having seen the light, preferred their old friend named darkness.
Lutheran pastor and church consultant Peter Steinke tells us of people who had the very first successful cataract surgeries. For some, it was a miracle. For others, the effort to see in a new way proved overwhelming. Steinke says, "The father of a young adult who had hoped for so much from this operation expressed perplexity, noting that his daughter would shut her (healed) eyes to go about the house, especially when she approached a staircase. He wrote that she is never happier or at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness' . . . ." Steinke concludes, "Imprisoned by darkness, liberated by light, surrounded by the wonder of color and depth . . . many newly sighted people wanted to return to what was known and familiar" (A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope, p. 51).
Even when we no longer walk or sit in darkness, even when we see a great light, we may prefer the devil we know to the angels of our better nature. It's called resistance, and it's familiar to any human being who has ever lived. To move from darkness to light is not a one-time event. It is a journey, a journey we share with the people of Israel, the people of Jesus' time, the people of all times. We will, sooner or later, relapse into blindness. We will discover, if we pay attention, that we have regressed. We will see that, sometimes, we prefer our old, familiar "tunnel vision" to Christ's light. We would, in that subtle change of word, prefer to sit in our darkness, rather than to get up and walk through our darkness, into the light. We love to be spectators, sitting on the sidelines, rather than players and participants, actually getting up and walking with Jesus. We fear being Peter, Andrew, James or John, when all we need to be is ourselves.
I do not mean to say that we never walk in the light. Our prayer is, "I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus . . . ." Sometimes, we answer our own prayer. Sometimes we actually get up and walk in the light of Christ. Sometimes an Episcopalian actually walks down the street to Grace United Church of Christ! Sometimes Religious Coalitions or downtown senior pastors get it right. Sometimes, as St. Paul puts it, there are "no divisions" and we are actually "in agreement" and "united in the same purpose" (I Corinthians 1:10). Sometimes the world really does know that we are Christians by our love. Sometimes we stop talking about walking and actually get up and "just do it."
But to go the extra mile, to move from darkness to light and beyond means this: we must see how we still don't see. We must "get it" about how we still don't "get it." We must be enlightened enough to see how dark it still is. And yet, we must never, in our darkness, give up hope. Each and every day, hope, for Christians, is about "deciding to follow Jesus . . . no turning back . . . ."
Here's my final point. We move from darkness to light and beyond, when we admit we can't do it alone, that we need each other. In their groundbreaking new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell admit the obvious: America is a religiously polarized country. But they also observe that the United States remains a remarkably successful experiment in religious pluralism. "Religion's role in America thus poses a puzzle," they say. "How can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization?" That question is raised, as one review of this book describes it, on page four and answered over the next 546 pages (from the Collegeville Institute newsletter, www.CollegevilleInstitute.org<).
For those who are not ready to get up and walk into the light of their local bookstore or pick up their backlit e-book device, here's one answer from the authors. American religious pluralism, including Christian pluralism, continues to remain vital because of "social bridging." Social bridging, they say, happens when life brings together people of significantly different cultural backgrounds and faith traditions. Social bridging happens when we learn about one another, when we come to see the humanity and compassion in one another, when we learn to trust one another, even though our differences will always remain. As the authors put it, "When birds of different feathers flock together, they come to trust one another." People, like birds, need each other, need to trust each other.
Like when downtown pastors decide it's time to exchange pulpits. Like when we decide to learn about a country or language that is foreign to us. Like when we get up, get off our high horse and decide to walk with maybe even marry! someone who did not grow up in our own, beloved church. It's when we see the light, decide to follow Jesus and get up and seek that light of Christ with others. We will not, of course, do this perfectly. Things will get dark. We will get stuck in tunnels. We will get terribly lost. We will sometimes prefer our darkness to the light. We will often need help in finding our way again.
But we will find that help, we will learn how to do this, with the grace of God and the companionship of others. We will learn, if we keep at it, how to love, as Jesus loves. We will learn to walk, again and again, in the love and the light of Christ, from darkness to light and beyond. Now THAT'S Good News! Let us pray. Give us grace, O God, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of God's saving, healing love. In the name of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit we pray. AMEN.