Turn Toward the Light
Rector’s Address: St. Matthew’s, St. Paul Annual Meeting January 26, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23; Psalm 27:1, 5-13
I’m one of those light sensitive souls, so it’s a good thing that even when it’s freezing cold in Minnesota, the sun is usually shining. I don’t want to rub it in too much, especially after the frigid temperatures lately, but when I was in San Diego the week after Christmas, it was 70 degrees, the sun was shining, and I felt like a million bucks. I felt happier, healthier, and more energetic – and it didn’t hurt that I went walking on the beach most days. In fact, I felt lighter physically – the sunlight made me feel more hopeful. When the scriptures use a “light” metaphor to describe God, or what God does, it really speaks to me.
Today’s readings are full of light. Our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The Psalmist declares, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” and the Gospel reading from Matthew quotes the same Isaiah reading, making it clear that for Matthew’s audience, the long hoped-for light is Jesus.
In our Gospel Jesus withdraws to Galilee after he hears that his cousin John the Baptist has been arrested. This withdrawal isn’t a retreat, an effort to hide from ruthless King Herod Antipas, who will soon have John beheaded. Instead, Jesus goes out in public and says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – a kingdom that calls all earthly rulers to account. After inviting two sets of brothers to “follow me,” Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the in-breaking of God’s reign, and curing the people around him from every disease and sickness. Clearly Jesus was not trying to keep a low profile.
It’s hard to hear Jesus’ call to repentance in our Gospel in positive ways. Many of us think of street preachers we have encountered, often bearded and self-righteous figures not playing with a full deck. They are confident that they are right and we are wrong. But here Jesus’ call to repent is an invitation to live fully, rather just stumbling through life, or numbing or caffeinating ourselves enough to get through it. It comes from a place of love rather than condemnation, from a God-inspired vision of life in which we live in caring and committed relationships with God and our neighbors.
The word “repent” has different emphases in Hebrew and Greek. In Hebrew, shul means a change in behavior. The Greek metanoia, however, while calling for a change in behavior, also means a change of mind – a change in the way we see and perceive the world. When Jesus says “repent” he is thus asking for a change of mind and behavior, a turning toward God in every way possible.
Jesus calls us to turn toward the light, toward an identity rooted in God rather than one we construct ourselves, or that others try to give us. The identity God offers us is the one we were born with, confirmed by baptism. It is not something we earn, but a gift we can embrace. The eight practices comprising the Way of Jesus at St. Matthews – story, prayer, simplicity, discernment, reconciliation, hospitality, generosity, and gratitude –can help us claim and deepen our God-given identity daily.
Jesus’ light shines brightly on and through us when we embrace an identity rooted in Christ. It can free us from the “darkness” that not only affected the audiences to whom today’s passages from Isaiah and Matthew were originally written, but also those of us who find ourselves seduced or compromised by consumerism, narcissism, endless sensory distraction, and whatever we think will fill that nagging sense of emptiness – alcohol, relationships, Facebook, overwork. It absorbs us when we make ourselves the ultimate authority on every topic including faith, and leave God to answer others’ prayers.
What does walking in the light of Christ look like in daily life?
I think it looks like Joan Hershbell who, when asked by an optometry tech “are you close to God?” said “yes.”
I think it looks like Valerie Matthews who goes into homeless shelters each week to support parents who are trying to do the best they can under trying circumstances.
I think it looks like Jim Woodcock, who on top of an impossible teaching and administrative load at St. Paul Community and Technical College, made time to help students with basic study skills, and, with his wife Vickie, to find glasses for a student who could not see.
I think walking in the light of Christ looks like Kirsten Whitson and Benjamin Johnson, who for more than a year invited their neighbors over for a monthly dinner.
I think it looks like Heather Halker, who prays for her patients between appointments.
I think it looks like all the parents here – Robyn Johnson, Maclore Christensen, Heidi Gordon -- who have reached out to other parents and created community during what can be a lonely and isolating stage of life.
I think it looks like Dan Glienke, who applies biblical principles to his work with farmers as Land O’ Lakes CEO for finance.
How much time do you have? I could keep going all day long!
My hunches about what it means to walk in the light of Christ include: making time to listen to God and others, and to share our stories when the time is right. Seeing our stories as connecting to the larger biblical story. Saying we are sorry to those we’ve hurt, and accepting their genuine apologies. Taking risks to give others second chances, and making an effort to get to know those whose lives are different from our own. Seeing our neighbors differently, as people God will use to change us in important ways. Learning to be both host and guest, knowing that God is the ultimate host of the universe. Learning to live more simply so others can simply live. Learning to say “yes” and “no”: being able to say “no” in order to give a more energetic and committed “yes” to the couple of things we think God is calling us to do.
The light most of us live by these days is the light of our computer screens, tablets, and smart phones. It is wonderful to be connected with others and the latest news, but living by this kind of light can be a lonely journey.
The light Christ invites us to share in gives us a sense of lightness, because addressing our problems or the world’s problems is not up to us alone. In Christ, we have been freed from whatever defeats us, holds us back, and keeps us from living as God intended. We have been freed from our obsessions, addictions, self-centeredness, and hopelessness in order to be free for God and others.
Jesus’ words, relationships with those around him, and care for those who suffer spiritually and physically, make the reign of God visible. It is a way of life, a new reality flooded with light. Lives are changed, people are healed, the future is hopeful, and barriers that have long separated us from each other are removed. There is a focus on the common good, and especially the good of those not often seen or listened to.
Jesus calls his followers and all who want to “come and see” to a new way of life in the reign of God. This way of life involves becoming apprentices or learners, taking risks, trying new things without fear of failure, and over the course of our lives, becoming witnesses to the promise and hope Jesus embodies.
So this day of our Annual Meeting 2014 let us continue to respond to God’s invitation to turn toward the light. Let us recommit ourselves to going deeper spiritually with God and our neighbors, as we seek to learn what it means to be Jesus’ students in a new day and age. The faith we seek is a treasure rooted in tradition, the pearl of great price. Let us continue to live in God’s light and share that light with others.