The light of the World
SERMON: 2Epiphany A 1 19 20
Sixteen years ago to the day, more or less, I was a senior in seminary, giving a sermon in the church where I was engaged in what we called field placement. It was working in a church after classes and on weekends, to get a feel for the day-to-day life of a parish, outside seminary.
Like today it was the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Now as a youngster in the 1960s I came of age when Martin Luther King Jr. was becoming famous. His leadership during the country's civil rights struggles enriched my awareness of the racial realities and injustice in our country. When he was assassinated I was horrified and mourned his death sincerely. And have since.
So roughly four decades after his murder I was preaching at my field placement parish and I had written a sermon as if I had been charged with letting MLK up in heaven know how we were doing on the subjects about which he had mobilized and enlightened our nation.
For a few weeks I had saved up examples of current events and recollected incidents that made a pretty long list of failures. I considered it an indictment. And I enumerated each incident and broke them into categories of injustice and insensitivity and privilege. It might have been the longest sermon I ever preached.
You may not realize it is not easy from the pulpit to catch subtle signals from the congregation as to how a sermon is going. Especially for a novice, as I was then. Usually I find myself trying to maximize eye contact and minimize the focus on the written words. Which is to say I had no idea how the sermon was going over.
Afterward the Music Director, a recognized Episcopal Church church musician said to me, "You said...a lot."
This was a man who led the choral group at seminary in which Molly sang. His only two expressions that even came close to compliments were "not bad," and "pretty good." I think in his esteem my sermon fell beneath both of those supposedly encouraging comments.
But it has struck me that no one needs me to tell them about racism. Or about the need, still, for racial reconciliation in this country. But I think we do need to acknowledge that it hasn't gone away. I'm not going to try to enumerate the awful realities of the past three years.
But I will point out that our readings for today, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, inform us quite clearly what our response should be to our nation's dwindling love of God and neighbor. Not surprisingly, that response is--or should be-- to love God and love our neighbor. Every neighbor. The answer is to turn to Jesus and ask for help or offer help or simply reflect on his ministry among us. Then to put into action those moves that Jesus would have encouraged if he could call, email or text us from heaven.
Martin Luther King Jr. did more than anyone else and paid the ultimate price to make this plain to the people of this country. He taught nonviolence. He exemplified Christian charity. He helped us see the cruel realities of history and our present. May he rest in peace and in eternal glory.
In his name, in his memory, let us consider what our readings have for us in the way of instructions for living lives that conform to the teachings of Jesus and MLK Jr.
In our collect we prayed, "Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed."
Let's consider what that means for us.
Our collects, as I say often, are intended to collect our thoughts for the readings to come. This one is more than a focus point or a simple act of getting our attention. This is instruction.
We have asserted in faith that Jesus is the light of the world. We then went further and acknowledged that we believe have been illuminated by the Word and Sacraments of the Christian faith. This is followed by the request that, "we may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed." We thereby admit we possess the light of the world.
We are asking to shine like Moses shined coming down the holy mountain or like Jesus shined at the Transfiguration. We are asking to be made so clearly filled and inspired by our faith that people are drawn to us to see and learn and share our faith. That's a big ask! Are we really ready for that?
In addition to being a big ask, it's also a great start in our exploration of today's readings.
Our Hebrew Bible reading from Isaiah is known as the second Servant Song. There are four or five servant songs, depending on whether one considers the fifth (Isaiah 61:1-3) a servant song, since it makes no mention of a servant per se. Each involves God calling a servant to lead the nations, but always the servant goes unappreciated and abused. Ultimately, however, the servant is rewarded. Our Isaiah reading this morning makes mention of the illumination of the Suffering Servant ("I will give you as a light to the nations") and closes with the guarantee that the despised servant shall be honored by those who rejected him.
Isaiah is usually the first prophet recognized for foretelling the coming of the Messiah and his descriptions of the Messiah are often compared to the characteristics of Jesus. This particular reading is telling us to turn to Jesus even though his counsel, his guidance, his way of life, has been rejected by much of contemporary society, has been ignored by many and is unknown to as many again. We are to take to heart his illumination and proceed with the confidence that we possess the light of the Word ourselves.
Our psalm is a psalm of thanksgiving as well as a prayer for God's help. This points out to us that even when we are thriving, when we are at the top of our game, we must acknowledge God and God's part in our success. At the end of the psalm we ask God to continue to support us, to continue to offer compassion and love forever.
These are not throwaway lines. If we are not considering God's involvement in our lives as we are satisfied, it will be even harder to ask for God's help when we recognize our need of it. So we continually pray to God, in part, to remind ourselves of the perpetual nature of our help from and need for God's aid.
This kind of awareness helps us be available to those we might dismiss or ignore, people who need our help but perhaps don't know how to ask for it. It also can help us recognize the gifts of others when they are sometimes difficult to discern.
In our epistle this morning St. Paul is writing to the Christian Corinthians, this time reminding them of their possession of godly gifts and capabilities. This, of course, is his second letter. In the first he excoriated them for their lack of Christian behaviors, especially toward those they considered lacking in influence or resources.
But now Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians have attained a degree of spirituality including knowledge and the ability to present it to others. This would be part of the illumination by Word and Sacraments we prayed about in our Collect. In other words, when we set aside our selfish and self-serving attitudes and dispositions we are far better able to use our spiritual gifts for their intended purpose: to love God and love our neighbor.
Finally we come to our Gospel reading, with John the Baptist heralding Jesus among the people. Heralding Jesus may not be exactly a reasonable expectation for contemporary Christians, but we can note and proclaim Christian acts and intentions, both our own and those of others.
John also proclaimed how the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as he was being baptized. He is drawing a very clear distinction between himself and the Messiah.
Then John again drew the attention of the disciples to Jesus, declaring, "Here is the Lamb of God." They follow Jesus only to have him ask them "What are you looking for?" They ask where he is staying.
Jesus responds, "Come and see," and thus the first disciples were officially attached to Jesus. As they came to know him they began telling people they met that they had found the Messiah and drew others to him.
That is our job description as well. Jesus' invitation to "come and see" is delivered to us, as well. We have had Jesus pointed out to us in innumerable ways and an infinite number of times. We see him in new ways, often, when we think there could not be anything new to experience or learn about Jesus.
We are called to follow him, to live as he lived, simply, peacefully, lovingly. We are called to stay where he stays, which for us might be right here in the church, or in our hearts where we realize Jesus also resides, when we are thoughtful and peaceful about all this.
We are called to help those who are hurting. And if anything defines Martin Luther King, Jr., and his ministry this is it. He was helping hurting people, both those stung by America's blatant (then) and less so (now) racism. He was also helping those racists who were unable to see past the color of the skin of people unlike themselves.
What he showed us is that our pigment is a tiny aspect of our selves. Who and what we are as people is so much more than skin deep. People who realize this, who have a variety of cultures represented in their friendships, realize and celebrate that diversity. And that is what MLK dreamt of and that is how God wants it.
Let us praise and remember this man, this servant of God and of the American people. Yes, he was knocked down again and again, yes he suffered on our behalf as did Jesus. But even so, again like Jesus, and like us, he is now part of the light of the world. Together we are a light to enlighten the nations. That light needs to be seen by the people you and I know who are hurting and who may need some earthly evidence of the love of God. Amen
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 19, 2020, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector