This is a very special day for me. In November 1999, I began to feel ill in the middle of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In four days, I had heart bypass surgery. For the first time in my life, I faced the reality of my own death. After two months recovery I returned to work on the Third Sunday in Epiphany and was given the text, “The people who lived in great darkness and sat in the shadow of death have seen a great light as on the day of Midian.”
I knew what this meant in the first century. Matthew, and only Matthew, used the passage to describe Jesus’ ministry. After victory at the battle of Midiain, the great judge Gideon refused the offer to be Israel’s first king. He believed only God should rule, because human kings always end up oppressing their people.
Matthew was trying to say when Jesus began to teach, heal, and proclaim the good news; God had come to rule his people. It began with John the Baptist ruthlessly attacking the politicians, the businessmen, and the religious leaders of his time. He baptized those who were willing to commit to his radical way of life. Jesus came forward. When Herod tried to silence the message by arresting and executing the Baptizer, Jesus took up the mission. He put aside what he had been doing and began a counter culture ministry. We sometimes forget Jesus left his job and family just as his apostles did. The Bible makes clear his family strongly objected to his giving up the carpentry business he had practiced for 20 years. But Jesus taught for three years until the authorities arrested and executed him. But once again they failed. Jesus’ followers continue to speak.
My challenge back in 2000 was to define the message for our time. I decided to ask some of my parishioners what they thought it was to walk in God’s great light in our time of great darkness. During my recuperation I would wake up at 3 am. Rather than toss and turn in bed, I would get up and receive guests. That meant opening up my e-mail on the castoff computer Frances and Dave had given me. I conversed with over 70 people. Twenty-four of them, including 6 college students, sent their thoughts for the sermon.
Not one was judgmental. None spoke of other peoples’ sin. They described their own experiences stumbling through life with closed hearts and minds. One spoke of dark emotions that lead to sinful behavior. Most spoke of darkness as walking alone. One described her darkest hour as feeling others were far away in the shadows and the whole world was on her shoulders. Some reported living in homes rife with fighting or abuse; some of the pain losing loved ones. One spoke of having no help to come down from the cross.
Almost all described Christ’s bringing light as living in love with God and other people. This is what led to being fully alive, truly happy, and spiritually healthy. Love gives the courage to stop trying to control everything. It allows us to accept our vulnerability and failures. Many related the freedom forgiveness offered. Almost all described the great light as the hope that comes from being able to trust God.
I could agree. As I prepared for my operation, I realized as never before the greatest threat of death is losing those you love. Then near the end of my hospital stay the very matter-of-fact woman doctor on my surgical team stood at the foot of my bed, indicating she wanted to say something very important. She looked into my eyes and spoke very quietly, “You are a very lucky person. Many people love you deeply.”
Henri Nouwen also agreed. He claimed the most basic religious gift addresses the greatest human need. It proclaims we are loved by the God of the universe. He believes the words, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” are the key to understanding Jesus’ entire ministry. Jesus realized he was truly “beloved.” True life is not being successful or popular or powerful but showing others they are loved as well. That is the good news that heals the world.
I had seen none of that message on the television I had watched while recuperating. It was the twilight of the darkness in which we find ourselves today. Politicians, businessmen, and religious leaders extolled competition as if it meant all- out war on our opponents. As we all know, that has resulted in the present demonization of anyone who does not completely agree with us. It has brought us to the place where the governor of Alabama can say in the church where Martin Luther King was pastor, “If you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, then it makes you and me brothers and sisters. Now I will have to say if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister” I am not sure the governor realized what he was saying. Perhaps he was just using the language of darkness we find all around us. But he in no way was speaking Jesus’ message.
On the other hand, Public Broadcasting’s “Religion and Ethics” reported a wonderful example of the message. Robert Graetz, a Lutheran pastor who grew up in West Virginia, was the only white person on the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that oversaw the bus boycott that started the Civil Rights Movement. The ELCA had placed him in an all black congregation asking him not to start trouble. However, when his neighbor, Rosa Parks was arrested for not going to the back of the bus, he and his wife decided they had to stand with their congregation. It meant having their house bombed twice and receiving phone calls from the Klu Klux Klan warning they knew where they children were. But as Pastor Graetz and his wife prayed together, they felt a circle of love around them. They became a critical part of Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience. Like King they always sought the beloved community. They knew even their enemies were children of God whom they were to befriend by practicing love and forgiveness at every step along the way to freedom.
These are days of great darkness. However, God’s great light still shines. We who know we are God’s beloved daughters and sons must speak the message now. We must have the courage to make enemies friends until war is no more, to make sure all have enough until poverty is long gone, to do our part in bringing the day when justice prevails, and love determines all.