Holy One, you audaciously call us the “salt of the earth,” but who can hear you above the deafening roar of retaliation and mayhem? You say that your followers are “the light of the world,” but what do you make of us, we who stumble in the darkness of despair? You insist that “our light shines before others, so that they may see our good works and given glory to God in heaven,” but what if our efforts are insignificant when compared to the degradation and injustice that confronts us?
O Lord, in the face of suffering across our planet and this land now veiled in darkness, can you even hear the cries of your people? Do you perceive the injustice committed in your name? Are you aware of the cruelty committed against all your creation, but nevertheless justified by those who pervert your Word?
Yet you have promised that we are your children and will not forsake us – even to the end of our days. You have sworn to be faithful, even when we have abandoned you. You have suffused us with grace, so that we may set our sights on your hope once more.
Could it be when even a single voice is raised in opposition to wholesale complicity, it becomes salt for those weary of fabrication and incivility? What if acts of kindness, however seemingly remote in the face of cruelty, become the illumination that lifts up the discouraged and disheartened? Imagine if even the seemingly little that we strive to do becomes yeast, expanding the possibilities of what had seemed unlikely at best?
Hear our prayer, Divine Maker. In your mercy, heed the distress of those who suffer – human and creature alike. Hear the cry of those who despair of waiting in vain. In these weary times, cover us with thy grace. Come and come quickly, we pray. Amen.
When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:11-12
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5
Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange. Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound. At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves. What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.
For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.
Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.
The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light. From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” 
Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). 
Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”
But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December , there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany. Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.
Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus. Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation. Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.
But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into. It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod. The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either. Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.
Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.
Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.
The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable. Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal. It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.
But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit? What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?
In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).
Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended . She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.
But the real story is quite different. For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board. If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness. It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action. It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.
He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).
I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world. It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect that many others struggle with this too. But this is where God’s grace comes in. To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling. But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.
Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus. But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.
The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning. Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit. Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.
For our desperate world hungers for light. Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world. It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.
Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations.  Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…
…to be a light in a dark place.
 Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19
The church on the Town Common. The Cathedral in the City Square. The chapel in the country village
The shrine sitting on a distant mountaintop. The house of prayer nestled between the pawn shop and laundromat.
Built by human hands, each structure emerges with a unique story to tell. Some are fairly recent. Others span centuries. These are our houses of worship, sanctuaries, and parish houses; monasteries, retreat centers, and mission outposts; chantries, tabernacles, and basilicas.
Fresh from changing water into wine on the third day in Cana of Galilee, Jesus strides into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world and begins turning over tables. Making a whip of cords, he drives out the sheep and the cattle and the people who had been selling them. Doves escape from overturned cages, hard currency flung onto the temple floor, and the exchange of money/goods utterly disrupted.
Angered, temple officials and marketers demand evidence. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Nonplused, Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Nicene Creed declares, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, [whom] for us and our salvation…was crucified under Pontious Pilate; … suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures…”
Years ago when memorizing the Nicene Creed – I questioned the effort expended over the recitation of this ancient confession. Laboring line after line to commit the language to memory, it wasn’t until years later that I appreciated its fuller historical context – and why its development in the first place. Faced with the heresies of its day – and those that invariably followed – the early church responded, providing a framework and orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Knowing the tendency of mortals to limit the efficacy of God-in-Christ’s Sovereignty, a confessional context was wholly necessary, then as now.
Once, an enigmatic prophet strode into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world, turning over tables and practices that undermined the Sovereignty and Holiness of God. And we, we who fear that our institutions, our houses of worship and our hope in the future – are being reduced to the moral equivalent of rubble, would do well to return to the promises of scripture and this ancient confession, that soars in God’s victorious affirmation:
[and on] “The third day our Lord rose again, according to the promises of Scripture.”
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” Genesis 17:1
It is dusk. Overhead, the dark blue canopy of the night sky envelopes him. From one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars. Even in his advanced age, it is so quiet that Abram can hear his own labored breathing.
By this time, Abram, later known as Abraham, was “…as good as dead.” (Romans 4:19). Nearing one hundred years old, he and his aged wife, Sarah, were childless. Still, under the massive canopy of the night sky, God reiterates the promise – that Abraham will be the ancestor of a “multitude of nations.” Later in this same chapter of Genesis, scripture records Abraham falling on his face and laughing, saying to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
The author and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, writes, “Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.” Concerning this account of divine promises still unfulfilled – invariably the long-awaited child remains the focus. Yet what if the language of metaphor is also at work in this exchange between Abraham and God? What then?
It is written that when the Lord appeared to Abraham, God said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” Take note that this phrase – I am – emphasizes that not only is a divine exchange underway – but that a pivotal dimension of God’s self-is unfolding in real-time. The I am becomes as much about Abraham’s new identity (and the rest of us) as it is about God.
In Hebrew, God Almighty – El Shaddai – is made up of the root name of God, El, followed by another word designating an aspect of God’s character, Shaddai. Shaddai is associated with nourishment, strength, power and supplying God’s people with all that they need.
“I am your Sustainer; walk before me and be blameless.”
When all seems lost….when the cacophony of strident voices denounce the cries of those who suffer; when the fragility of our common life is pulled asunder by those who profit from it; when futility engulfs us and we wonder how we will go on.
God says to us, we who would dare go on laboring for justice, defending the vulnerable, advocating for the least of these…
“I am your Sustainer, [Dan and Marilyn, Rhonda and Robert, Steve and Elizabeth, Walter and Katherine…]; walk before me and be blameless.”
And from one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars…
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida. Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent. A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief. As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:
“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.
Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.
We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body. As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.
Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented. One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children. Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.
“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)
Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability? Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?
So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.
Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?
God of the Whirlwind, you have gathered us to be wholly present in this moment. Acknowledging your providence, we offer our gratitude for this place of worship and community – even while we ponder what lies ahead. What if as in days of old, we too have been passed the mantle of discipleship? What if as Christ’s followers we are summoned to be the champions of mercy, the beacons of justice, and the embodiment of love?
In this season of life, give us the grace to ask for a “double portion of your spirit.” So that by faith we might step into the riverbed of life’s Jordan – aided by your mercy, claiming the charge and blessing given us at baptism. In the surety of your promises, we boldly ask this in Jesus’ name, the One who was and is and is to be. Amen.
Inspired by the work of Maren Tirabassi, author, poet, workshop leader and pastor, AND in the context of this week’s State of the Union Address, I offer two Prayers for Illumination in anticipation of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.
Prayer for Illumination – Isaiah: 40:21-31
You, the Source of All That Is and Was and Is to Be, just as you spoke through generations past, offering them words of assurance and inspiration…we too have been sustained by your Word. But now, many of your children find themselves overcome with trepidation. Long-standing divisions have resurfaced; the assaults upon the land and it’s most vulnerable continue on relentlessly. We concede that we know not from day to day, much less week-to-week what the future holds.
So allow us to hear these words afresh…as if perceiving them for the first time. For you are God. The One who is as near to us as our own breath. The One who strengthens us in our weakness. The One who calls us by name. Hear now these words of scripture, we pray…
Isaiah 40:21-3 (NRSV)
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Prayer for Illumination – First Corinthians 9:16-23
God who speaks to us through the living Word, we are a people caught between competing loyalties…. particularly now. As Christians, we discover that when we seek to make God’s love known through our actions as well as our speech, then the Gospel becomes real. But as depicted in this ancient but relevant text, Christians can also do irreparable harm when self-serving actions and/or policies undermine the costliness of the Gospel and thereby the beloved people of God. O God, as people of faith who are free in Christ – save for the utmost obligation to love – open our hearts and ears to the hearing of this passage.
First Corinthians 9:16-23 (NRSV)
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
“Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near…” Mark 1:14-15
Take note of the timing of this scripture. It wasn’t until after John the Baptist was arrested that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God.
It was after a righteous man was arrested
after John the Baptist was imprisoned and condemned,
…that Jesus heralded the good news of God.
Am I the only one who has difficulty seeing the connection here?
How could the imprisonment of an upstanding man be the basis for announcing that the time is fulfilled? How could this terrible incident be evidence that the kingdom of God is near? How could the event of an innocent man being incarcerated – be an occasion for good news?
The broader narrative does draw the parallel between Jesus being driven into the wilderness for forty days following his baptism, as preparation for public life and ministry. That all three synoptic gospels record this wilderness account offers that crucial connection between Jesus’ experience at baptism and his entrance onto the public stage. That he was in the company of wild beasts, hungered and thirsted, summoned and interpreted afresh the Word of God in the face of temptation and deprivation, provided not only necessary preparation but was evidence of Jesus’ unique identity and fidelity for ministry.
Yet what if the event of Jesus’ entrance into public ministry
AND John’s arrest was not a coincidence?
What if the association of these two seemingly incompatible events was and is a way of seeing evidence of God’s realm – but in a manner previously thought not possible? What if injustice –be it retaliation for speaking truth to power, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, deportation, the exploitation and misuse of natural resources, forfeiting healthcare for the most vulnerable, voter suppression and increasing the coffers of the wealthy at the expense of the poor – when met with faithful and persistent resistance – signifies the emergence of God’s kingdom? What if seeing and naming injustice for what it is – is not an occasion for powerlessness in the face of oppression but instead is a divine summons, heralding that the time has come to head to Galilee?