Friday, January 24, 2014

Walk as Children of Light

RCL Epiphany 3A
26 January 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

       In the autumn of 1997 I travelled to the Solomon Islands to spend six weeks as a visiting lecturer in liturgy.  The then Archbishop of Melanesia, Ellison Pogo, had met me two years earlier while he was taking a sabbatical and studying liturgy at Vancouver School of Theology.  So, towards the end of September of 1997, I flew from Vancouver to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, via Honolulu, Sydney and Brisbane, a journey that lasted thirty-six hours and took me back at least one century.

       I arrived in the early morning hours at the airport in Honiara.  From the airport I was whisked away in almost total darkness to Kohimara, some thirty-five kilometres from Honiara, where the theological college is located.  We sped through villages and bounced on gravel roads with only the headlights of the truck to guide us.  By the time we arrived at the college, I was totally disoriented, exhausted and not a little bit frightened.

       This was my introduction to the Solomon Islands.  The sun rises at six in the morning and sets at six in the evening.  Dawn and twilight last but a half an hour or less.  Most electrical power is provided by diesel generators, so most communities ration fuel and provide only two, maybe three, hours of electrical power after sunset.

       If you have lived most if not all of your life in the western world where electricity flows like air and where there is rarely ever anything like true darkness, even at night, then it might be hard to imagine nights in the Solomon Islands.  The stars of the southern skies are brilliant without the competition of what some scientists call the ‘light pollution’ of modern cities.  Moonlight is bright enough to read by and to cast shadows that rival those cast by sunlight.

       Not only is the night dark, but it is quiet.  Small sounds are magnified in the darkness and I remember feeling very small, quite vulnerable surrounded by the jungle that stood only a few metres from the boundaries of the theological college.

       Human beings have a ‘love-hate’ with darkness.  On the one hand, darkness can be a time of rest and renewal.  When we watch films, the theatre is darkened, not only to help us see the film more clearly, but to create an atmosphere where it is easier for our imaginations to participate in the story unfolding before us on the screen.

       But on the other hand, darkness has always seemed to be a place of danger.  Many of us leave lights on in our homes even as we sleep, whether inside to guide us if we awake or outside to deter those who might disturb the security of hour homes.  Those of us who live in cities know that night-time safety means walking on well-lit streets and driving on roads that are clearly illuminated.  Most of us have had the experience of calming a child fearful of the dark or, perhaps, have always had such a fear ourselves.  When I am at home, for example, our bedroom is kept quite dark, but when I travel alone, I prefer a bit more light at night than Paula does.

       For the people to whom Isaiah speaks in today’s familiar passage, darkness was more than a condition of light.  The darkness in which they lived was the threat of hostile neighbouring powers who coveted the access to the Mediterranean Sea and trade routes to Egypt and beyond that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah enjoyed.  By the time of Isaiah the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian Empire and the southern kingdom of Judah was being threatened with annexation.

       We can almost hear the people asking the priests in the Temple:  ‘Where is God?  Are we not the chosen people?  Do we not have a covenant with the Holy One?’  When the priests provide no answer, it falls to the prophets such as Isaiah to discern what God is doing in the affairs of their times.  What Isaiah offers is the assurance of a future despite the darkness of the present.  Scholars debate whether Isaiah’s word indicate that God has already acted on behalf of the people or whether these words are a promise for a future intervention, but what is clear is that God will act to bring light into the darkness.  God promises that a leader will arise who will bring justice and righteousness to secure God’s reign for ever and ever.

       While the people of Judah heard these words as a promise of a new king who would drive away the Assyrians, Christians have heard these words as a promise of the coming of the Messiah whom we believe Jesus of Nazareth to be.  For this reason this passage is one of those read at Christmas as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the darkness of our night.  It is no accident that we celebrate the nativity on the 25th of December which, in the ancient world, was the day of the winter solstice.  The growing darkness of winter gives way to the growing light of spring and the promise of new life in our fields and flocks.

       All of us long for light in our darkness.  In our times and in our society darkness takes many forms: 

  • the darkness of growing old without the resources to live with dignity;
  • the darkness of having no secure place to call ‘home’;
  • the darkness of living under various forms of oppression, some economic, some racist, some violent;
  • the darkness of suffering from chronic illnesses of the body, the mind and the soul.

       Into those darknesses God promises to bring light, the light of the compassionate and passionate love made known to us in Jesus Christ.  It is a compassion that embraces us and a passion that ‘will not let us go.’  It is a compassion and a passion that is self-giving.  It is a compassion and a passion, however, that is not limited to the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the promise of eternal life in the future.

       In our baptismal liturgy we give a light to the newly-baptized with the words:  ‘Receive the light of Christ, to show that you have passed from darkness to light.’ [1]  As that light is given, you and I join in saying, ‘Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.’ [2]  The light that entered into the world at the birth of Christ shines into the darknesses of our world each time the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and those who are imprisoned either in body, mind or spirit are liberated by the actions of those in whom the light of Christ dwells.

       In the autumn of 1986 Paula and I found ourselves beset by pressures that we could not have foreseen.  David, our oldest, was born at the end of September with a cleft lip and palate, a condition which made it difficult for him to feed and which meant at least two surgeries in the first year of his life.  I had begun the preparations for my doctoral examinations, four months of research to prepare for my written and oral examinations in February of 1987.  Unexpectedly I received a call from Vancouver asking me if I would consider applying for a teaching appointment in liturgy.  In the four months from September to December we experienced the birth of our oldest child, Paula’s recovery from childbirth, the struggle to carve out time to study, two trips to Vancouver and one trip to Denver for David’s first surgery.  We were exhausted and fragile.

       One late night, probably in November or early December, David would not sleep.  Paula was exhausted and so I paced the floors of our small house trying to comfort David and lull him into sleep.  More than an hour passed as I wandered the halls, but David would not settle.  The physical darkness of the night became a mental darkness.  I remember thinking that, if I were to drop David on the floor and perhaps silence him, it might be thought of as an accident.  The memory of that night is etched on my mind; since then I have never been surprised by the darkness that can seize the minds and hearts of human beings.  I have been to the brink of that chasm.

       Into the darkness of that night came a bright beam of light:  I knew that I needed only call David’s godparents, Paul and Sarah Tracy.  They lived no more than ten minutes away and they would come immediately and without question if I called them.  Within minutes I would know the brightness of their wisdom, their compassion and two more pairs of parental arms to care for David.  That knowledge, that light, cast the darkness away.  I went to the rocking chair and, slowly, rhythmically, David and I entered into God’s peace, surrounded by the light cast by the community of faith to which we both belonged.  I was not alone; David was not alone; Paula was not alone; we were not alone.

       I do not know what darknesses you may have experienced or may even experience in the present time.  Those darknesses seem so deep, so impenetrable, that we lose hope.  But we are not alone.  We are not left in the darkness without the compassionate and passionate love of God made known to us in the person of Christ embodied in our families, our friends and our neighbours.  Those who have received the light of Christ in baptism are God’s agents, lamps in the ‘dark night of the soul’.

       When I was in seminary, I fell in love with a particular prayer which was said several times during the week at evening prayer:  ‘Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.’ [3] 

       My sisters and brothers, we share with the angels this ministry of presence in the darknesses of our world.  May God’s grace enable to fulfill this ministry with the confidence that darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ.  May God’s grace give us courage to reach out for this light when we ourselves are besieged by the powers of the dark.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a light no darkness can extinguish, because it is borne in the hearts, minds, souls and strength of countless disciples who are unafraid of the dark.  Amen.

[1] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 160.

[2] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 160.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 124.

No comments: